A Long March

Higher Education and the Activist Left’s Road to Antisemitism

By Rafael Hoffman

The U.S. Capitol’s seen as protesters rally at a pro-Palestinian demonstration asking for a cease fire in Gaza, in Washington, Friday, Nov. 17, 2023. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

The outburst of anti-Israel and antisemitic activity since Hamas’ attack has pushed threats and bias against Jews squarely into the public eye. Most prominent perpetrators and enablers of this surge overwhelmingly emanate from the activist left.

Even Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) acknowledged in a recent floor speech on antisemitism that “many of the people who have expressed these sentiments in America aren’t neo-Nazis, or card-carrying Klan members, or Islamist extremists. They are in many cases people that most liberal Jewish Americans felt previously were their ideological fellow travelers.”

While anti-Israel marches and threats to Jews occurred in most major cities, college campuses emerged as their epicenter. On the green commons between once-hallowed halls of higher education, chants of “Globalize the intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” have become a regular presence. A Republican Senator recently wrote of his shock upon entering one of Harvard’s reading rooms to find all those inside wearing kaffiyehs. Incidents of vandalism against Jewish institutions and harassment of Jewish students are too numerous to record.

Muslims of Middle Eastern descent often organize and serve as the core of anti-Israel activity. However, they are joined by a coalition of supporters from a wide range of progressive causes who view the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as occupying a vital place in their “intersectionality” worldview, which links the causes of all “oppressed” groups. Their actions are abetted, or at least winked at, by activist college administrators.

The recent scene of presidents of Harvard, University of Pennsylvania and MIT unable to articulate when or if calls for genocide against Jews violate their schools’ policies elicited widespread outrage. Some were left angry, but not surprised, having realized that while colleges zealously police the mildest of comments which run afoul of progressive social ideologies, harsh words about Jews and Israel rarely merit a response.

The university presidents’ response that their hands were tied by policies protecting free speech fell especially flat as over the last few years, the list of “canceled” speakers and faculty whose views did not conform perfectly with “woke” mores belied any such claims. Many reports on the hearing were quick to point out that Harvard University ranked last in a recent evaluation of protection for free expression. Only one spot ahead of it, on a list of 248 colleges, was the University of Pennsylvania.

Some conservatives and disaffected liberals have long warned of the dangers posed by the radicalization of American academia, as well as the heightened peril it posed to Jews and pro-Israel students. Yet, over the past months, a broader spectrum of Americans started asking, how have universities, and the progressive left that dominates them, reached this nefarious stage?

Be ‘Inclusive,’ or Else…

A demonstration at Union Station in Washington, Nov. 17. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

A reoccurring theme in searches into the roots of campus antisemitism is a bureaucratic construct that has become omnipresent in colleges known as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) offices. Ostensibly, these offices are tasked with building a campus environment in keeping with the words from which they derive their name. Unsurprisingly to many, they have largely become a bizarrely Orwellian cog in the university machine.

“DEI is essentially the bureaucratic embodiment of critical race theory, priming students to see the world through the lens of oppressors and oppressed,” said Jason Bedrick, Research Fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Center for Education Policy. “They act as ideological enforcers, teaching kids to be on the lookout for ‘microaggressions,’ which most of us would view as normal ways of expressing yourself but which they see as violating their orthodoxy. These students are actively encouraged to rat out their fellow students to the DEI bureaucracy.”

Critical race theory (CRT) and other, similar ideas tagging racial and ethnic groups as representing competing sets of interests — and utopian thinking to undo the roles they occupy in society — developed and found a home in some academic corners as far back as the 1970s. Some of those radical scholars also developed theories of “intersectionality.” Yet these found little mainstream foothold for decades.

Samuel Abrams, professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said pressure from the federal government under the Obama administration opened the door for DEI bureaucrats’ rise to power.

“The Obama administration’s Department of Education became very activist and sent letters to colleges essentially saying, ‘We’re watching you, and you will need to be extra cautious about how you treat minority groups,’” he said. “Schools said, ‘We don’t need the federal government sending investigators here.’ So, what a lot of them did was to create offices based on a set of marginal principles. Like most administrative apparatuses, it grew out of control — in this case because they scared everyone into submission by saying things like, ‘If you say or do XYZ, you’re a racist.’”

In an environment that has for decades been dominated by the left, universities proved fertile ground for the DEI complex’s growth. As Donald Trump’s election heralded an era of “resistance” on the left and a move to “cancel” people, ideas, and expressions that conflicted with the progressive zeitgeist picked up steam, these offices sent increasing warnings to professors whose views were not to their liking. Stories of conservative or classical liberal speakers being disinvited became more common as administrators claimed their views were offensive to certain groups. DEI offices produced lists of words like “master” and phrases like “the human race” which they deemed offensive and off limits to students and faculty alike. Failing to use a student’s preferred pronouns ranks high on their list of offenses.

“There was a feeling on the left that Barack Obama’s election would transform society. When he failed to be that political messiah and the backlash against Trump turned the fulcrum in a radical way, a lot of things that would have been crazy became mainstream on the left,” said David Berstein, professor at the George Mason School of Law.

During the rioting that occurred in the wake of George Floyd’s death in the summer of 2020, and the activist left’s loud demand to banish what it tagged as vestiges of historic racism, DEI officials found themselves further empowered.

“The wokeism is newer,” said Professor Abrams. “It was there before in disparate pieces of an academic exercise, but in the last decade it became a practical ideology that embedded itself in all facets.”

Narrow Diversity

Students fly an antisemitic aerial banner over the campus at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, December 7. (Reuters/Faith Ninivaggi)

The frequency with which students run across DEI’s tentacles varies greatly among colleges. Yet at many, students meet them very quickly, as its bureaucrats have largely co-opted orientation. The process that in the past took a few days and mostly consisted of ways to help freshmen acclimate to their new environment has, on many campuses, stretched for two weeks, with heavy-handed lectures and meetings led by DEI officials warning students against “microaggressions,” words or actions that could be seen as offensive to “marginalized” groups.

In many schools, DEI maintains offices in dormitories and open channels for them to report offensive behaviors by instructors or fellow students.

Professor Abrams has written extensively on the corrosive effects of DEI, not only on intellectual inquiry and freedom of speech but also on interpersonal relationships.

“What do you expect when black and white are told they have different interests? How do they expect positive relationships to form?” he said.

Professor Abrams added that while many students laugh off DEI’s big-brothering, its omnipresence becomes difficult to avoid.

“They’re everywhere. These activists are not passive, they’re regularly fishing to get students to report offenses,” he said.

DEI has its hand deep inside faculty and their curricula as well. On many campuses, they take an active role in pushing for new hires that check off boxes of race and identity, as well as who support activist research interests. It has become increasingly common for applicants to have to fill out “diversity” statements, explaining how their research and teaching advances the goals of DEI.

“It’s a sort of modern-day religious test,” said Mr. Bedrick. “Faculty are essentially expected to pledge fealty to this radical ideology and make sure their work furthers its goals.”

Against this backdrop, claims by university presidents that their inability to stop calls for genocide would violate their institution’s commitment to the free exchange of ideas found few sympathetic ears.

“The ideology underlying DEI is a postmodern critical theory that views all issues through the lens of intersectionality and power dynamics, divorced from liberal ideas of freedom of speech or the norms of civilized society,” said Ilya Shapiro, Director of Constitutional Studies at the Manhattan Institute.

Mr. Shapiro’s name is closely associated with the annals of cancel culture, as he was forced to leave a position at Georgetown University’s law school largely because of a negative report by its DEI office regarding a social media post it viewed as racially tinged.

While college racial quotas were recently rebuked by a Supreme Court ruling, aggressive affirmative action policies in admissions at many schools dramatically altered the demographic make-up of student bodies. The winning lawsuit was brought by east Asian students, a group that formed a sizable portion of the student body at top universities until admissions officials began to limit the spots available to them.

At the recent Congressional hearings, one House member noted that Harvard’s student body had dropped from being 25% Jewish in the 1960s to less than 5% presently. Up to only 15 years ago, UPenn had a robust Orthodox Jewish student community, with two daily Shacharis minyanim. Last year, it was struggling to maintain one.

“At the so-called elite schools, there’s a disproportionate number of racial minorities, except Asians,” said Dr. Shapiro. “That breeds resentment. When people are admitted on merit, and they can’t say anyone is there because of preferences, it opens people up to dealing with each other as equals.”

DEI’s ideological march left many schools with an ever-narrowing range of viewpoints presented. A recent study showed that less than 1% of Harvard’s present faculty considers itself “conservative.” Between that phenomenon and non-progressive students intimidated out of sharing their opinions, radical ideas won the day in higher education.

It is an ironic chapter, some 50 years after the 1960s era when left-wing student protesters rallied for broader protections for freedom of expression.

“There’s an extraordinary lack of diversity in universities,” said Mr. Bedrick. “This sort of ideological uniformity leads to groupthink, and liberals have been unable to adequately articulate their opposition to it, so the far-left radicals accumulate more and more power, with little resistance.”

Equal and Inclusive Antisemitism

Demonstrators gather for a protest at Columbia University, Oct. 12, in New York. (AP Photo/Yuki Iwamura)

The DEI complex’s protected groups are a predictable list the woke caste system views as systemically oppressed: blacks, women, Muslims, those who identify with a set of lifestyles promoted by social progressives, and so on.

Despite a long and extensive history of persecution, conspicuously absent are Jews.

“In their construct, Jews are part of the oppressor class,” said Professor David Bernstein, professor at the George Mason School of Law and expert on the role of racial classification in law. “Jews are part of the dominant, white, European peoples, not only by skin color but because of how they do socioeconomically. Jews are, so to speak, the uber-whites, since they’re more successful than other white peoples … If someone committed a microaggression against someone black, the whole campus shuts down, but antisemitism gets shifted away.”

In many people’s views, DEI not only turns a blind eye to antisemitism, it plays a significant role in breeding it.

“Critical race theory ideas essentially prime people to have antisemitic beliefs,” said Mr. Bedrick. “If you accept the false premise that anyone who succeeds is benefiting from white privilege off the oppression of others, and there is one minority group that is disproportionately successful, they conclude that group must be disproportionately benefiting from racism.”

DEI thinking seems to have taken root among college-age Americans. A recent Harvard/Harris poll showed that 64% of 18- to 24-year-olds agreed that “Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as such.” By contrast, 73% of voters of all ages polled said that idea was a “false ideology.”

Some feel that a sophisticated application of CRT would not necessarily breed antisemitism. Yet popularized versions like that presented in Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist automatically place Jews on the “wrong” side of the intersectionality map.

“Critical race theory at a high level would be more sensitive to nuances, but the way it’s expressed by people like Kendi tells us that everything in society is about racial power relationships, and that dictates everything a group does,” said Mr. Bernstein. “No one seems to notice that he denounces Martin Luther King and Frederick Douglass, and that somehow all of his heroes are antisemites.”

If American Jews find themselves on the “wrong side” of DEI’s binary rubric, Israel is even higher on its chart of oppressors. As a prosperous, Western-style nation surrounded by less successful Arab peoples, Israel is tagged a “colonial power.”

Applying that moniker, woke educators and activists depict Israel as a Western attempt to subjugate non-European peoples. In this viewpoint, Jews’ connections to the land, diverse ethnic make-up, and the history of Jewish immigration matter little.

“Israelis are white, since these people tend to know Ashkenazim, and Palestinians are part of the intersectional ‘coalition of color’; that’s all they need to know to figure out who is the good guy and who is the bad guy in a conflict,” said Mr. Bedrick. “They take the preexisting lens of race relations in the United States, inappropriately apply it to a conflict on the other side of the world, and fit it into their simplistic worldview.”

A recent study by Heritage Fellows Jay Greene and James Paul of social media accounts from 741 DEI staff members showed that 96% contained comments critical of Israel.

‘Canary in the Coal Mine’

On Israel, DEI czars are aided by instructors in Middle East study departments who teach about the regional conflict through a colonialist lens. Their efforts to do so are aided by decades-old Soviet propaganda and scholarship depicting Zionism as Jewish-driven bourgeois imperialism.

Condoning or even celebrating Hamas’ brutality in the ivory tower has its roots in this view as well. Many academics remain devotees of Frantz Fanon, whose 1961 leftist classic Wretched of the Earth taught that “decolonization is always a violent phenomenon.” The book’s introduction by philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre romanticized murderous “resistance,” writing that “to shoot down a European is to kill two birds with one stone, to destroy an oppressor and the man he oppresses at the same time: There remain a dead man and a free man.”

Striking out against condemnation of Hamas’ brutal rampage, one Harvard student wrote on social media, “I read Frantz Fanon in no less than four classes here … and yet you all side with the colonizer?”

At a protest at UPenn, a law student said, “It was here where I read texts about the history of colonial regimes and the importance of decolonization … I just want the university to try to do part of what it tries to teach us in the classrooms.”

“If you follow their view ad absurdum, Israelis have no right to self-defense, since they’re oppressors, and we can’t judge Palestinians because they’re in the historical process of the oppressed rising up against an oppressor,” said Professor Bernstein. “If you mesh that all together, Jews supporting Israel can’t be oppressed, since they’re on the oppressor side.”

Professor Abrams said that at Sarah Lawrence’s campus in Bronxville, New York, following Hamas’ attack, DEI “gave Jews no protection or support, but [Students for Justice in Palestine] was given space and encouraged to hold a vigil.”

More familiar historic strains of antisemitism were rooted in inciting hatred based on the image of Jews as outside threats to the traditional culture and homogeneity of their host nation. A growing amount of commentary about the present wave of antisemitism points to the irony of its anti-Jewish feelings rooted in a narrative casting the Jew as the penultimate champion of American and Western values, both of which they revile.

“Jews are the canary in the coal mine, but all the ideology behind it is not only antisemitic, its anti-American and anti-Western,” said Mr. Shapiro.

Yet, as has marked much of the history of modern antisemitism, canards and epithets used by many of the present anti-Israel voices draw from an age-old lexicon of Jew-hatred.

“They can only make their claims because they’re building on preexisting tropes about Jews,” said Professor Bernstein.

Expand or Explode?

A Black Lives Matter protest outside of the Warren E. Burger Federal Building after former Minneapolis police officers J. Alexander Kueng, Tou Thao, and Thomas Lane were found guilty of depriving George Floyd of his right to medical care on Feb. 24, 2022, in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Christian Monterrosa)

The bad press DEI got in recent months moved many on the left to suggest that this bureaucracy should undergo a focused expansion to ensure Jews are given the place they deserve on its list of marginalized peoples, replete with more Holocaust education and a banned list of terms and concepts that make Jewish students feel “unsafe.” This idea gained footing with the three university presidents scrutinized by Congress.

Recently, pro-Israel progressive New York Congressman Ritchie Torres (D) introduced a bill which would require publicly traded companies to disclose whether they have a DEI program to combat antisemitism.

Institutions of the secular Jewish establishment seem largely on board for this approach. A recent article by Jewish Insider detailed efforts by the American Jewish Committee (AJC) and Anti-Defamation League (ADL) for DEI to extend its inclusion efforts to Jews.

Even among some Jewish DEI critics, there is backing for this approach, largely born of recognition that few schools or other institutions will easily part ways with this complex and its approach.

Yet many feel DEI is unreformable, especially given the way its rubric naturally places Jews, by dint of their social success, in the “oppressor column.”

“Stricter speech codes or adjusting Jews’ place in the hierarchy is no way to protect freedoms or promote safety,” said Mr. Shapiro. “The way to reform higher education is the same prescription to counteract antisemitism, which is to have broad and equal protections for free speech, disempower DEI structures, and remove ideological biases in hiring and admissions.”

Tellingly, the ADL and AJC’s former heads, Abe Foxman and David Harris, released statements calling for DEI to be eliminated.

“Efforts by communal Jewish organizations to include the Jewish community or soften its impact on antisemitism have failed,” said Mr. Foxman in a statement. “It cannot be fixed. It needs to be scrapped and replaced by a vigorous implementation of our civil rights laws that are colorblind and apply equally to all.”

Professor Abrams felt that even if achievable, attempts to expand DEI to cover Jews would have a negative impact.

“I don’t want to play to oppression Olympics and say, ‘We deserve to be victims,’” he said. “Stigmatizing ourselves as an oppressed minority doesn’t benefit Jews. We have nothing to gain from DEI. It has to be eliminated.”

Several Republican-controlled states have done just that, banning or restricting DEI offices in public universities. Most of these laws were enacted before the present wave of antisemitism, but one that joined recently was Oklahoma, adding it to a list that includes Florida, Texas and Ohio.

Still, no blue states and few private universities took such steps. Even in states where DEI is legally restricted, success is limited. This past September, City Journal ran an article titled “How Red State Universities Evade DEI Restrictions.”

“It’s a matter of legislation enforcement,” said Mr. Shapiro. “Governments have to make sure schools aren’t just changing an office’s title from ‘DEI’ to ‘Civil Rights.’”

‘We’re All on Campus Now’

While campuses remain the headquarters of DEI and the ideologies it represents, those ideas spread far and wide, as have its side effects. They have long existed in activist left-wing groups. Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March, staged to oppose former President Trump’s inauguration, both included figures virulently hostile to Jews and Israel.

As more young college graduates enter the workforce, many imported their wokeism to non-profits, companies and media. Recent far-left social positions staked out by corporate giants like Disney and Budweiser illustrate how far the dial shifted in what once were viewed as bastions of Americanism. In recent years, a growing number of businesses and institutions set up their own DEI offices.

“We’re all on campus now,” said Professor Abrams. “The damage has been significant. People in their 20s and 30s took this toxic worldview with them into the real world, and now it’s everywhere.”

A question that will take time to answer is whether millennial radicalism will stand the test of time. Though the past has shown young people generall y moderate as they age, Mr. Bedrick said that a constellation of modern societal breakdowns could preserve their radicalism.

“Students used to graduate, go to the workplace, get married and build a home. They were put in positions of responsibility which moderated their political views. Now, many graduates delay marriage, don’t have children, and workplaces started to bend toward their ideas,” he said. “It goes all the way up. A group of White House interns sent a letter to the President demanding he call for a ceasefire in Gaza. In previous generations, no White House intern would have that chutzpah.”

A Reckoning?

The anger sparked by many colleges’ tepid response to antisemitism forced some into a moment of reckoning.

Since October, a growing list of high-level donors demanded schools take a harder line on protecting Jewish students and deplatforming fellow travelers of terrorism. Jewish advocacy groups and some national politicians pushed the Department of Education, which doles out millions to colleges in taxpayer funds, to take more action. They and the Department of Justice have opened several investigations.

A growing list of colleges banned Students for Justice in Palestine, a leading anti-Israel agitator. After UPenn’s president smirkingly insisted that whether calls for genocide violated school policy depended on “context,” powerful board members demanded her resignation. Harvard’s and MIT’s presidents faced some displeasure after their performances as well, but both remain in their positions.

Mr. Shapiro said that if pressure from influential groups keep up, significant change could occur.

“University leaders, generally, are not really progressive firebrands. They’re cowards who climbed a greasy pole by playing faculty politics and placated loud radicals as the path of least resistance,” he said. “That worked as long as stakeholders were silent. Now, external shocks could change things.”

Some have tried to salvage corners of higher education by creating new institutions or bolstering existing ones that held out against the woke hordes. Millions were raised for the University of Austin recently opened on the principle of dedication to liberal education and open inquiry. Admission numbers and donations are up at established schools like Emory University in Georgia and Tulane University in Louisiana.

Still, despite some changes on the ground, it is likely schools with entrenched name brands like Harvard and Yale will emerge relatively unscathed, if for no other reason than the value they add to graduate’s resumés.

“On the one hand, there is important progress being made rolling back DEI and eliminating these bureaucracies, but we should not delude ourselves that the job is done once we do that,” said Mr. Bedrick. “The radical left’s long march through the institutions took decades. Walking it back will take a long time. That doesn’t mean we’re seeking to make universities or other institutions bastions of conservatism, but to return them to their missions.”

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