Opinion | Putting Pressure on Palestinian Activists Isn’t Making Jewish Students Any Safer

Last week, the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law sent a letter to nearly 200 college presidents urging them to investigate campus chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine for potential violations of federal and state laws against providing material support to terrorism. As evidence for these very serious accusations, the ADL and the Brandeis center offered only the student group’s own strident rhetoric, including a sentence in its online tool kit, which praised Hamas’s attacks on Israel and said: “We must act as part of this movement. All of our efforts continue the work and resistance of the Palestinians on the ground.”

Under the direction of Gov. Ron DeSantis, Florida has also ordered state universities to shut chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine. Citing the same tool kit, DeSantis said, “That is material support to terrorism, and that is not going to be tolerated in the state of Florida, and it should not be tolerated in these United States of America.” Virginia’s Republican attorney general has opened an investigation into American Muslims for Palestine, a national group that, according to the ADL, helps coordinate the activities of Students for Justice in Palestine, “for potentially violating Virginia’s charitable solicitation laws, including benefiting or providing support to terrorist organizations.” Several Republicans, including Donald Trump, have called for revoking the visas of pro-Palestinian student activists.

Ever since Hamas’s slaughter and mass kidnapping of Israelis on Oct. 7, there has been mounting fear and fury over the mistreatment of Jews at American colleges and universities. The Homeland Security, Justice and Education Departments are all taking steps to combat campus antisemitism. Congressional resolutions have condemned it. But while plenty of pro-Palestinian students have behaved in appalling ways, many also feel besieged, and for good reason.

For Palestinian and Muslim students, the invocation of terrorism law is especially frightening. Attempts to curtail anti-Zionist activism are not new; about 35 states have laws targeting the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement against Israel. But now advocates for Palestinian rights describe a new level of repression. “The ADL is calling for the mass violation of students’ rights in a manner that’s reminiscent of the post 9/11 environment, but with a more intensely Palestinian twist,” said Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at the civil rights organization Palestine Legal. She predicts that if federal and state governments follow through on the ADL’s demands, Palestinian activists will be subjected to an increase in surveillance, infiltration and investigation, even though their groups “pose zero threat and have done nothing but engage in speech 100 percent protected by the First Amendment.”

Columbia University’s Rashid Khalidi, a pre-eminent historian of Palestinian history, readily acknowledged a rash of recent antisemitic incidents on college campuses. But he drew a distinction between interpersonal harassment and an institutional crackdown. “Both sides have feelings of being victimized,” he told me, but the forces arrayed against them are not the same. “The Patriot Act may be mobilized to shut down speech” deemed supportive of Palestinian terrorism. “That’s the difference.”

No one should underestimate how awful the campus climate is for many Jewish students, who’ve experienced a surge in violence and abuse. At Cornell, an engineering student was arrested after threatening to shoot up a kosher dining hall and calling for Jews to be raped and murdered. Demonstrators at a rally in support of Palestinians assaulted Jewish counterprotesters at Tulane; one student had his nose broken. In October, Erwin Chemerinsky, the law school dean of at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote an opinion essay headlined, “Nothing Has Prepared Me for the Antisemitism I See on College Campuses Now.” In it, he told of a student who insisted that she would feel safe on campus only if the school got “rid of the Zionists.”

This hostile environment stems, at least in part, from the nearly vaunted role played by the Palestinian cause in the left’s understanding of global dispossession. Because America helps underwrite Israel’s military occupation, Palestinians are often viewed as singular symbols of imperialist oppression. For decades, radical Black activists in America have seen, in Israel’s occupation of Palestine, a mirror of their own subjugation, and that identification was supercharged during America’s 2020 racial justice protests, when a mural of George Floyd appeared in Gaza City. In some social justice circles, then, support for Israel is viewed as something akin to support for the K.K.K.

This contempt for Zionism has only accelerated with the pulverizing bombing of Gaza and its thousands of civilian casualties. And too often, on hothouse campuses full of young people with half-formed ideas and poor impulse control, anti-Zionism segues into hatred directed at Jews.

For some Jews on campus, the vituperation against Zionism has been particularly disorienting because, for years now, they’ve been trained in exquisite sensitivity to identity-based slights.

Not all Jews identify with the state of Israel, of course, and activists from Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace and IfNotNow have led protests against Israel’s war on Gaza. But many Jews see their relationship with Israel as an essential part of their Jewishness, and even some fierce critics of Israel’s government were shaken by the widespread demonization of the country so soon after Hamas’s atrocities. When they say that the campus climate makes them feel unsafe — a rhetorical trump card in other contexts — they expect official action.

On Wednesday, the presidents of several Israeli universities wrote a letter to their international colleagues calling on them to accord Jewish and Israeli students and faculty members “the same respect and protections as any other minority.” Citing principles of safety and inclusivity, the letter said, “Just as it would be unthinkable for an academic institution to extend free speech protections to groups targeting other protected classes, so too should demonstrations that call for our destruction and glorify violence against Jews be explicitly prohibited and condemned.”

But this demand for protection can collide with the First Amendment rights of Zionism’s critics, and with academic freedom more broadly. “I wouldn’t compare this with the internment of the Japanese Americans in World War II, but the point I’m making is that there are times when people get really upset about what’s happening in the world and do things that are unwise at best and really harmful to people and democracy at worst,” said Kenneth Stern, director of Bard College’s Center for the Study of Hate and author of “The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate.”

Stern occupies a unique position in this profoundly polarizing debate. He’s a liberal Zionist and an expert on antisemitism, as well as a committed civil libertarian who critiques the way mainstream Jewish groups wield institutional power to try to silence pro-Palestinian voices.

As he describes in his book, in 1982, he resigned from the left-wing National Lawyers Guild rather than face what felt like a purge for refusing to sign onto a strictly pro-Palestinian line. Years later, he became the in-house antisemitism expert at the American Jewish Committee, but eventually left in part over concern that, in its ardent defense of Israel on college campuses, the group was forsaking a commitment to academic freedom. He helped draft an internationally adopted definition of antisemitism that includes some forms of anti-Zionism. He’s also inveighed, in opinion essays, congressional testimony and in his 2020 book, against the use of that definition, put out by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance in 2016, to traduce the free speech of Israel’s critics.

“The complexity of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict should make it an ideal subject to teach critical thinking and how to have difficult discussions,” writes Stern. “Instead, it is being used as a toxin that threatens the entire academic enterprise.”

As with the conflict between Israel and Palestine more broadly, there’s plenty of blame to go around. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, a libertarian-leaning free speech organization, shared data with me showing that, since 2002, there have been more attempts made to de-platform pro-Palestinian campus speakers than pro-Israel ones. But attempts to shut down pro-Israel speakers, by disinviting or disrupting them, are more likely to be successful.

Both sides, then, have credible stories to tell about being censored and intimidated. The difference is where that intimidation is coming from. For supporters of Israel, it largely comes from peers and, in some cases, professors. For supporters of Palestine, it comes from powerful outside institutions, including the state.

There is little reason to think that the pressure brought to bear by these outside institutions is making Jewish students any safer. One result of the denunciatory mood that overtook many progressive spaces toward the tail end of the Trump years was to give reactionary ideas a rebellious frisson. You could see this in the little subculture of New York scenesters who adopted the trappings of conservative Catholicism as a rebuke to liberalism, but also in more significant cultural phenomena, like the popularity of the “Joe Rogan Experience” podcast and the right-wing radicalization of Elon Musk. Among young people, the appeal of right-wing heterodoxy was limited by the fact that relatively few want to give up either a commitment to human equality or premarital sex. Anti-Zionist activism, by contrast, offers something that’s been missing from left-wing politics for years: the chance to stand up for the downtrodden and scandalize elites.

“By trying to censor anti-Israel remarks, it becomes more, not less, difficult to tackle both antisemitism and anti-Israel dogma,” Stern writes in his book. “The campus debate is changed from one of exposing bigotry to one of protecting free speech, and the last thing pro-Israel advocates need is a reputation for censoring, rather than refuting, their opponents.”

Of course, Israel’s partisans already have that reputation. “What can you say about what settlers are doing in the West Bank?” asked Khalidi. “What can you say about ethnic cleansing in 1948,” the year of Israel’s founding? “How can you defend any of those things? They don’t have an argument. They have to shut down debate.” Those who disagree with him might try to prove him wrong.