Antisemitism Is a Problem in Academia. Quitting Is Not the Solution.
Professors are in the position to help students mitigate what can be a cruel campus environment.
In 2021, a Jewish professor at Linfield University complained that the school’s president had made antisemitic comments—allegedly joking about gas chambers and the size of Jewish noses—and yet he was the who one who got fired. Another Jewish professor is waiting for the City University of New York to respond to an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission ruling that substantiated his claims of antisemitism at the school’s Kingsborough campus. In March, Duke University’s student government voted to fund a speech by Palestinian author Mohammed El-Kurd, who went on to mock Jewish students and said “We want our land back from the river to the sea.” There are numerous other examples.
Antisemitism on campus is not new or rare. I know this firsthand, as it is alive and well at Sarah Lawrence, despite a large Jewish population in the college community near New York City. As an outwardly observant Jew who celebrates Jewish festivals and traditions and also publicly supports Israel even when I deeply disagree with its government, I find faculty colleagues feel comfortable attacking Israel and me without worry.
My professorial peers habitually make deeply insensitive and inappropriate remarks to me and regularly assert that Israel is an illegitimate, genocidal, and apartheid state. I have found Nazi imagery on my office door over the years and have been told to make no real issue of it. Jewish students have felt such pressure from peers, administrators, and faculty on campus that they have met with officials from the Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to ask about their options and seek help to mitigate and improve the cruel campus environment. Numerous incidents remain known to students but go unreported and unanswered. One documented example occurred in the fall of 2015 when a Jewish student leader was afraid to come to the physical campus, “after inviting an Israeli soldier to speak … she’d become the subject of virulent Facebook posts, angry email chains, and threatening stares and whispers.” So many Jewish students live in fear and silence and regularly censor themselves because of this hatred and vitrol.
Thus I was not shocked when I read former UCLA anthropology professor Joseph Manson’s recent account of his experiences dealing with antisemitism and woke politics and his general observation that “also typical of elite U.S. universities, UCLA is awash in Jew-hatred thinly disguised as anti-Zionism.”
Regrettably, as a direct result of this oppressive environment, Manson opted to retire, stating, “I can’t bear to spend one more moment in a place that’s morally and intellectually bankrupt.” I have never had any interactions with Manson, and I cannot fully understand his frustrations and worries with UCLA and its future. However, I wish that he had not resigned as, by his admission, he had more years in which he could have served as a professor. Academia needs tenured faculty who not only believe that higher education will regain some sanity by resisting the DEI machine but who can also continue to serve as role models for the thousands of undergraduate students who form the heart and soul of our institutions of higher education. Manson walked away.
Notably, any discussion of undergraduates was missing in Manson’s piece. UCLA not only has a huge undergraduate population of close to 32,000 students but is also a flagship global university where norms and ideas have a significant impact. While Manson may have been uncomfortable, he could have at least remained a force to resist antisemitism and promoted his own and appropriate academic and personal goals of being a “believer in rational inquiry (not Scientism) and freedom of speech.”
In my situation, the highest level of administrators and the college president made clear to me that I may want to find employment elsewhere and that many would rather I no longer be on campus. But I have tenure and academic freedom; it is a sacred privilege to be a professor; and I love teaching, my students, and the innovative liberal arts curriculum that we have at Sarah Lawrence College. I promote viewpoint diversity and discourse and being able to be openly Jewish has backstopped scores of students who now feel far more comfortable pushing back on the antisemitic zeitgeist. While I will never have a complete picture, I know that I have made many feel safer and more willing to question and express themselves. This is hopefully making a difference and I know that many other faculty nationwide could do the same for their students and in their communities; so exiting strikes me as a suboptimal option.
Moreover, I firmly disagree with Manson’s statement that he strongly suspects “that mainstream U.S. higher education is beyond the point of self-repair, and therefore no longer a worthwhile setting for the intellectually curious.” Not only have scores of groups mobilized to protect intellectual freedom and open inquiry at faculty and student levels, but in my teaching and lecturing around the country, I have found that Gen Z students today are far more open and curious than their older millennial counterparts. Many reject cancel culture and want to hear a diversity of views; they want to make up their own minds and are searching for voices that are meaningful to them. Recent Harvard survey data looking at the collegiate student landscape today, students on campus today are not all left-of-center, despite the presence of progressives who agitate and make far too much noise. The Harvard data is in line with many other surveys and reveals that nearly a third (32 percent) of college students identify as liberal while another 21 percent claim to be conservative. Add to the story that a plurality of students are actually in the middle, with 46 percent stating that they are moderate, college students are hardly overwhelmingly liberal and thus not lost to the progressive impulses dominant among many faculty and administrators.
Beyond ideology, Manson is wrong about undergraduate student’s curiosity and openness. His own institution’s Higher Education Research Institute (HERI) has documented that students have shown an increasing amount of openness to the marketplace of ideas. For instance, when queried about their “openness to having one’s own views challenged,” 67 percent of a national sample of college students responded that being open to having their views challenged was an asset of theirs. This is up from 63 percent in 2013 when this question was first asked and while not a huge increase, the 2019 data shows that two-thirds of first-year students are open to being probed about their ideas and beliefs.
Similarly, when asked about being tolerant of others with different beliefs, 81 percent saw this as a virtue and these values have not shifted over time. As such, it should be no surprise that 87 percent maintain that they have the ability to cooperate and work well with a diverse group of people. This has grown from 85 percent in 2013. Finally, 69 percent assert that they have the ability to discuss and negotiate controversial issues on campuses and this is almost identical to the 2013 figure. In each case, large majorities of students are open to viewpoint diversity, which suggests that despite the polarization of the political system and so much attention paid to educational life on campus today, our nation’s students are not nearly as extreme and anti-intellectual as widely believed. Professors should be thrilled.
At the same time, antisemitism is rampant on campuses nationwide. This toxicity flows from a small number of very vocal, well-organized, media savvy students propped up by a legion of outside activist organizations, often ignorant social justice influenced campus administrators and so called “scholar-activist” professors and graduate students and many undergraduates are struggling. Professors should be focused on helping and defending the besieged students. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression recently found that 64 percent of Jewish students report that it is difficult for them to have an open and honest conversation about Israel on campus today; this is more than twice the national figure of just 29 percent. While my presence as both a mentor and writer pushing back on these dangerous currents may have limited impact, I know that many students have benefited from my efforts and that gives me real comfort. I may not be able to fully stop anti-Jewish thought and hatred, but I can certainly blunt it on occasion and perhaps change minds. While walking away from this battle in higher education is a path that some may choose and I wish them no ill, I do hope that most run into the fight; Jewish continuity, free expression, and open inquiry all depend on those of us who can stand up to do just that at this critical juncture.
Samuel J. Abrams is a professor of politics at Sarah Lawrence College and a nonresident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.