Anti-Semitism in Modern America's Colleges and Universities

Anti-Semitism in Modern America's Colleges and Universities

© David Burton 2023

Anti-Semitismon American Campuses

     My alma mater, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) was – early on – accepting of Jews. I applied to and was accepted into MIT in 1954. As a Jew, anti-Semitism was never a consideration in my choice of MIT.

     Paul Samuelson, one of the most influential economists of the 20th century, was finishing his Harvard PhD thesis in 1940 when he was offered a job in the Harvard economics department. It was only an instructorship, but Samuelson, who was already gaining an international reputation, accepted.
     A month into the semester, MIT offered Samuelson a tenure-track position. As Harvard made no effort to keep him, he left. Thirty years later he won the Nobel Prize in economics, the third awarded to an MIT faculty member.
     Why didn’t Harvard fight for Samuelson? Possibly because he was Jewish. In 1940, Harvard was more than a decade into its program of intentionally suppressing the number of Jewish students and faculty on its campus.
     “You could be disqualified for a job if you were either smart or Jewish or Keynesian,” Institute Professor emeritus Robert M. Solow once said of Harvard’s economics department. “So what chance did this smart, Jewish Keynesian have?” (Solow, who is also Jewish, joined the MIT economics department in 1949 and was awarded his own Nobel in 1987.)
     MIT’s economics department and the Institute in general “were remarkably open to the hiring of Jewish faculty at a time when such hiring was just beginning to be possible at Ivy League universities,” wrote Duke University economics professor E. Roy Weintraub in a 2013 paper.
     MIT historian Philip N. Alexander noted in his book A Widening Sphere that the spirit of openness can be traced to MIT’s founder, William Barton Rogers, who was deeply troubled by the religious intolerance he saw as a faculty member at the University of Virginia after a Jew and a Catholic joined the faculty in 1841. Still, the Institute didn’t have its first recorded Jewish student until Gerard Swope, Class of 1895, enrolled during the tenure of MIT’s third president, Francis Amasa Walker. Though Walker himself held negative views of Jews, Blacks, and non-Nordic Europeans in general, Alexander explained, he “was less concerned about individuals or local academic policy than about the grander scheme of things - population shifts, birth rates, immigration patterns - that he had observed and analyzed.”
     Few Jewish students attended MIT in the first two decades of the 20th century, likely because Jews were more attracted to finance and medicine than science and engineering, according to “Professional Tendencies Among Jewish Students in Colleges, Universities, and Professional Schools,” a 1920 study (which did not include MIT). The study found that while 31% (20,850) of non-Jewish students were pursuing engineering degrees in the 1918-’19 school year, only 16% (1,325) of Jews were. The study, conducted by the Bureau of Jewish Social Research, found that Tufts College had the highest percentage of Jews (18.9%) in the Boston area, followed by Harvard (10%) and Boston University (9.9%).
     It was at these other schools, especially Harvard, that the Jewish community flourished and rose to national prominence - at least at first.
     On October 25, 1906, 16 Jews at Harvard gathered to create the Harvard Menorah Society - an organization “devoted to the study of Jewish history, literature, religion, philosophy, jurisprudence, art, manners, in a word, Jewish culture, and to the academic discussion of Jewish problems.”
     MIT’s own Menorah Society started in 1914 with about 10 members. A meeting in October 1917, led by its president Hyman P. Selya ’19, drew over 50 men. That fall, chapters at Harvard, MIT, Tufts, Boston University, Emerson College, Radcliffe, and Simmons formed the Intervarsity Menorah Council, creating the first Jewish intercollegiate movement. It sponsored lectures and concerts; the proceeds from two events held in 1920 went to Eastern Europe, where a wave of pogroms would ultimately kill more than 100,000 impoverished Jews.
     Jews had been moving from Europe to New York City and other East Coast centers in large numbers since the 1880s; by the mid-1920s they made up more than 25% of New York City’s population. Many of their children took top spots in their high school classes and applied to prestigious colleges, which author and historian Mark Oppenheimer attributed to the strong work ethic often found in immigrant families. Rising Jewish enrollment soon engendered a reaction.
     Columbia University was among the first to explicitly limit Jewish enrollment, going so far as to establish a separate campus in Brooklyn for Jews and Italians, called Seth Low Junior College. Columbia also instituted admissions interviews, geographic diversity goals, and requirements that students be “well rounded,” all in an effort keep Jews out of its Morningside Heights campus.[1]

     In 2019, Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF) released a report that referred to Columbia University and its sister school, Barnard College, in New York City as “a hotbed for hate,” documenting “systemic anti-Semitism and an ingrained delegitimization of Israel” at the schools.
     The ACF survey found that 95% of those who participated said antisemitism was an issue. The report cited more than 100 incidents “that have contributed to a hostile climate” at the colleges since the 2016-17 academic year and included “anti-Semitic expressions, incidents targeting Jewish students and staff, and BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) activity.” The report recorded how the work of Columbia faculty members had allegedly targeted Jewish and Zionist students. It stated: “These campuses are arguably the most prominent settings for university-based anti-Semitism in the United States.” One incident mentioned in the report was from November 2018 when a Columbia University Jewish professor’s office was vandalized with swastikas and an anti-Semitic slur was found spray-painted in red in the entryway to the Holocaust scholar’s office. The report also documented an April 2018 Barnard’s Student Government Association letter reportedly urging administrators to divest from eight companies with ties to Israel.[2]

     Some 100 years ago, anti-Semitism at most American universities was not a prominent issue. For instance, in 1922, anyone with a high school degree who passed an entrance exam could attend Harvard. But when Jewish enrollment reached 20% that year, President A. Lawrence Lowell tried to limit the percentage of Jewish enrollments to 15%, lest the traditional recruitment pool of upper-class Anglo-Saxon Protestants start to turn away. His private letters advocating a quota - which he claimed would decrease antisemitism and thus benefit Jews - were printed in the New York Times. But a faculty committee advised against it, and Harvard’s Board of Overseers voted down an explicit limit. The percentage of Jews at Harvard reached a high of 27% in 1925, when Lowell adopted the Columbia model of requiring interviews, recommendation letters, and assessments of “character.” This had the intended result: Jews made up just 10% of Harvard’s population when Lowell left office in 1933. Yale and other prominent universities on the East Coast adopted similar approaches.
     The goal was to ensure that the classes of the 1930s looked, sounded, and had last names like those of the 1900s and 1910s, in order to appeal to alumni who were in the process of choosing schools for their children and increasingly making big donations.
     Schools, such as Harvard, also saw themselves as a key mechanism for “passing on the dominant culture of American elites to the students they trained,” wrote Weintraub. And that culture focused on a narrow canon of literature, philosophy, and the arts that was decidedly western and Christian. “At MIT, where the science and engineering faculty defined the institution . . . the issue of Jewish faculty and their lack of ‘culture’ could not arise,” he wrote.
     For Jewish students, MIT was more open than its competitors. But Jews weren’t unconditionally welcomed on campus. According to Alexander, President Karl Taylor Compton thought it reasonable to set hiring limits for faculty of “Jewish origin.” He noted that Compton worked to get a faculty appointment for Albert Einstein’s assistant (Nathan Rosen, ’29, SM ’30, ScD ’32), “somewhere other than MIT.” In April 1935, a group calling itself the Tech Militarist and Anti-Semitic Society distributed leaflets with swastikas ahead of a conference on the growing civil liberties crisis in Germany and Italy; two of the conference’s student organizers were assaulted.
     When future Nobel laureate Richard Feynman ’39 wanted to join a fraternity on his arrival at MIT later that year - having been rejected by Columbia, which had already admitted its Jewish quota - his options were limited to just a handful of the 20 fraternities on campus. “In those days, if you were Jewish or brought up in a Jewish family, you didn’t have a chance in any other fraternity,” he recalled in his memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Feynman wound up in Phi Beta Delta.
     In 1945, MIT’s Menorah Society became affiliated with the fast-growing national Hillel Foundation, which now works to end antisemitism and enrich the lives of Jewish students worldwide. Today, Jewish students at the Institute find community through MIT Hillel and other student-run organizations.[1]

     As part of its efforts to combat anti-Semitism on college campuses, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) turned to college fraternity students to help in combatting the growing evil. ADL announced that it was partnering with Alpha Epsilon Pi (AEPi), the historically Jewish fraternity. The two groups revealed the new initiative - which would include the creation of something called the Antisemitism Response Center — during AEPi’s international convention in New Orleans in August of 2023.
     The partnership reflects the ADL’s recent strategy of expanding its reach by collaborating with other groups. In 2021, a campus partnership with Hillel International yielded a survey finding that a third of college students reported experiencing antisemitism on campus.
     ADL and AEPi have a shared history with both organizations marking 110 years in existence in 2023. Both were formed in response to antisemitic incidents. For the ADL, the catalyst was the Leo Frank case in Georgia that resulted in the United States’ only antisemitic lynching. AEPi launched at New York University after a founding member was told that his Jewish friends were not welcome in an existing fraternity.[3]

     March madness is no longer limited to the basketball court. In March 2016, American campuses were being invaded by a form of college hazing: Israeli Apartheid Week. Jewish students were made to walk past displays that distorted their history, defamed their national homeland and shamed their religious heritage, while those on campus who were not complicit in the ritual tried to ignore their humiliation.
     The annual anti-Israel campaign boasted a remarkable world-wide growth over the previous dozen years. In 2016, it claimed participation by 150 universities and cities. In the first week of March, Israeli Apartheid Week (IAW) came to Columbia University, with the Students for Justice in Palestine erecting an “apartheid” wall on campus The Israeli Apartheid Week website listed colleges across the country where events were to be held. The month closed out with an observance at Rutgers University.[4]

     In March 2022, at least 90 IAW events were held, mostly on university campuses. As in past years, the major driver of these events was Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), a vociferously anti-Israel campus group with approximately 200 chapters across the U.S. A notable segment of the events engendered intense controversy and accusations of antisemitism. The displays at the events were part of a much larger anti-Jewish front whose academic spearhead was the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.[5]

     Americans have witnessed the growing anti-Semitism and anti-Israel actions on college campuses for the past several decades. After years of enduring this abuse, some American Jews lately have organized to try to stop its spread. The Academic Council for Israel and the Academic Engagement Network have joined existing faculty groups like the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law to challenge the most egregious cases of harassment against supporters of Israel.
     The agents of anti-Semitism on our college campuses are anti-Semites, and unless they become the object of scrutiny, they will achieve their goal. Blaming Israel for the suffering of Palestinian Arabs is first and foremost a strategy of deflection, intended to divert attention from the dysfunction in Arab and Muslim societies. Where are the campus rallies for women’s rights in Islam, for relief efforts for Syrian refugees, for vigils for Christian victims of ISIS? Where is the outrage of historians, archaeologists and anthropologists at the destruction by radical Muslims of ancient monuments and of indigenous societies?
     University administrations and faculties have been complicit in allowing anti-Jewish politics to subsume other forms of racism and to flourish in their place. Administrators hypocritically invoke free speech in defense of faculty members who provide an ostensibly “academic” rationale for opposition to Israel. By now, entire disciplines use their academic conferences to attack the Jewish state. Campus anti-Israel coalitions exploit freedom of speech and assembly to assail the only Middle Eastern country that guarantees those freedoms.
     Israel is in every exemplary sense a “startup nation,” but touting its positive qualities cannot win against the tactics of Israeli Apartheid Week and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. We continue to witness the power of negative campaigning over even the best-articulated positive ideas. Anti-Semitism on college campuses in America is the ultimate negative campaign.[4]

     In academia, a space once reserved for critical thinking and open dialogue, a disconcerting trend has emerged: The rise of antisemitism disguised as scholarly discourse. In this third decade of the 21st century, academic institutions meant to encourage diversity and a free exchange of ideas are witnessing a troubling surge in hostility towards Jewish and Zionist students, faculty, speakers and ideas.
     Examples of this unchecked behavior abound, such as calls for an intifada at the University of Michigan, an antisemitic commencement speech at CUNY School of Law and even exclusionary practices like denying Zionist speakers a platform at UC Berkeley-sponsored student clubs.
     These incidents have all faced a similar reaction: An uproar in the Jewish community and nothing much beyond that.[6] The time has long since passed for a much stronger response.

     As the 2023 school year commenced, Jewish and pro-Israel college students deserved a safer and more welcoming campus environment than most universities would provide them. As colleges and universities across the country began their fall semesters, pro-Israel students faced challenges very day. Most noticeably - and most offensively - pro-Palestinian provocateurs had set up shop on our college campuses in order to deliberately bait incoming students into confrontations.
     Pushing back against the lies and hatred directed at the Jewish student community provides the hate-mongers with a perception of Jewish power and influence, as the presence of well-meaning political and community leaders opposing the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel propaganda elicits predictable bleating from the conspiracy-minded about the influence of the “Jewish lobby.”
     The alternative, though, may be even worse, as failing to push back allows the worst of the anti-Zionists and anti-Semites a free pass to peddle slurs and slanders to a young and impressionable audience.
     Jewish university students quickly learn that a Star of David around their neck or Hebrew words on a T-shirt will often label them as unwelcome outsiders Some of these young people stand up for their religion and their homeland, but must then sacrifice other types of campus involvement.
     This menace is getting worse. The ADL reports that antisemitic incidents increased on college campuses by more than 40% in 2022, meaning that such acts of bigotry occur roughly every day that classes are in session. Jewish and pro-Israel college students deserve a safer and more welcoming campus environment than most universities are providing them.[7]

     Jewish students on American college campuses are frequently experiencing violent harassment. They speak of slurs endured in class, expulsions from campus clubs and eggs thrown at Jewish fraternities. Of swastikas carved into their dorm walls, Holocaust-denying flyers and a growing feeling that they needed to conceal their Jewish identities to be accepted.
     The federal Department of Education (DOE) has opened several investigations into whether U.S. colleges have violated Jewish students' civil rights by allowing a poisonous environment to fester. The agency has opened reviews at 10 or more schools, including the City University of New York and its law school, UCLA, UC Berkeley, George Washington University, the University of Vermont, the State University of New York at New Paltz and the University of Illinois.
     These days, anti-Semitic acts include denials of Israel's right to exist. "Targeting Jews on the basis of their connection to the state of Israel is just as antisemitic as targeting them on the basis of their Sabbath observance. Both are components of their Jewish identity.”
     While antisemitism has come from both right- and left-wing sources, the conflict between Israel and the "Palestinians" is at the heart of much of the rancor. Students say they are often blamed collectively for missteps by Israel's government, although they themselves may disagree with those policies.
     At Rutgers University in New Jersey, a Jewish fraternity reported being targeted four times in the past two years. The Alpha Epsilon Pi house in New Brunswick was vandalized during a 2021 observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day in which the house was egged by unidentified perpetrators. A year later, in April 2022, eggs were thrown at the building during another memorial event. Days later, four carloads of people waving "Palestinian" flags stopped in front of the frat and yelled antisemitic slurs. In September of 2022, another egging at the fraternity was reported on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year.
     In a 2022 October report, the ADL tallied 359 anti-Israel incidents on American campuses overall during the 2021-22 school year. The group said the tally included one physical assault, 11 instances of vandalism, 19 instances of harassment, 143 events, 165 protests/actions and 20 resolutions and referenda on proposals to boycott or divest from Israel.
     Antisemitic vandalism has also increased on campus. In 2022, there were 90 incidents of anti-Jewish vandalism at colleges nationwide, 60% involving the use of a Nazi swastika. The symbol of the regime that killed 6 million Jews in the Holocaust was spotted across the country, from William Paterson University in North Jersey to Ithaca College in upstate New York, Stanford University in California, the University of Delaware and Georgetown University, in the nation's capital.
     In 2022, swastikas were found drawn in a dorm bathroom at the University of California-San Diego using human feces, and at the University of California, Santa Cruz, a group of students allegedly gathered to celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday.
     FBI statistics from 2023 show that hate crimes against many groups are rising. But Jews, who make up less than 2% of the U.S. population, were the most targeted minority group in America on a per-capita basis. In 2021, 51% of all crimes motivated by religious hatred were anti-Jewish. The numbers likely undercount the problem, because many incidents go unreported.
     At the University of Arizona in the fall of 2022, the hatred allegedly turned deadly. On October 5th of that year — Yom Kippur, the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar — Professor Thomas Meixner was shot to death on the university's Tucson campus by a former student, police said. The student, Murad Dervish, had expressed antisemitic beliefs online and allegedly targeted Meixner because he wrongly believed the professor was Jewish. The alleged killer penned numerous texts indicating antisemitic as well as anti-Asian sentiment. He was described as "white nationalist."[8]

     Last year, according to a recently published ADL report, there was a 41-percent increase in anti-Semitic incidents at U.S. universities from the previous year. Such incidents are often directed at Jewish students who express any sympathy for, or connection with, the state of Israel, or at identifiable Jews in the name of Israel’s imagined crimes.
     Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires universities that receive federal funds to protect students from harassment and discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. Title VI does not mention religion, but according to sub-regulatory guidance, members of religious groups, including Jews, Sikhs, and Muslims, are protected by Title VI if they are harassed or discriminated against on the basis of their actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnicity. In addition, Executive Order 13899 on Combating Anti-Semitism, enacted in 2019, directs agencies, including the Department of Education (DOE), to refer to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Anti-Semitism when investigating Title VI complaints of anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination.
     The DOE recently demonstrated its understanding of the law when it announced its first campus anti-Semitism resolution in a case involving anti-Zionist harassment and discrimination at the University of Vermont (UVM). The complaint in that case described how Jewish Zionists were being excluded from two UVM student groups, and how a university teaching assistant repeatedly harassed Jewish Zionists online.
     The DOE Office for Civil Rights (OCR) treated the harassment as a form of national-origin discrimination on the basis of shared ancestry and required UVM, among other things, to revise its policies, procedures, and training to ensure they addressed it. Jewish students at UVM reported that they quickly saw a marked improvement in the way the university responded to their concerns.[9] We need to see more of this type of action being aggressively pursued at other institutions of higher learning in America.

     Anti-Semitism is a rotten term for the “longest hatred” that targets the Jewish people. For a start, there is no such thing as “Semitism” to be “anti.” The word “anti-Semitism” was invented by a 19th-century Jew-hater, who wanted to invest this prejudice with the spurious characteristic of race in order to appeal to a society that increasingly defined itself in scientific terms.
     Today, with Jew-hatred having reached unprecedented global levels, the inadequacies of “anti-Semitism” are becoming ever more manifest. Many wrongly believe that it’s just another form of racism. Few understand that it’s a uniquely paranoid, deranged and murderous mindset.
     Used for the sake of convenience, “anti-Semitism” fosters misunderstanding over the issue of Israel. Most people don’t realize that Jewish religious identity is rooted in the Land of Israel, where the Jews were historically the only people for whom it was ever their national kingdom. They fail to grasp that Israel is at the very heart of Judaism. Denouncing the right of the Jews to the land is to attack Judaism itself.
     In other words, demonizing Jews and wishing they would disappear from the world may be beyond the pale, but demonizing Israel and wishing it would disappear from the world is just fine to these people. It is not! Being anti-Israel is the same as being anti-Semitic! Being anti-Israel at a college or university is just one more way of being another campus anti-Semite![10]

  1. Long before Hillel, Jews found a home at MIT, Simson Garfinkel, MIT Technology Review, 22 August 2023.
  2. Anti-Semitism on college campuses on the rise, report finds, Talia Kaplan, New York Post, 9 September 2021.
  3. ADL teams up with Jewish frat AEPi on initiative to tackle antisemitism on college campuses, Philissa Cramer,
    Jewish Telegraphic Agency, 14 August 2023.
  4. March Madness, the Anti-Semite Bracket , Ruth R. Wisse, The Wall Street Journal, 23 march 2016.
  5. 2022 Israeli Apartheid Week: Overview,, 4 April 2022.
  6. Jews cannot fight antisemitism in academia alone, Asher Stern, Jewish News Syndicate, 22 August 2023.
  7. Students on the front lines, Dan Schnur, Jewish News Syndicate, 24 August 2023.
  8. Tired of hiding: Jews at U.S. colleges face rising antisemitism from left and right, Deena Yellin,,
    31 May 2023.
  9. Use the Law to Combat Campus Anti-Semitism, Mosaic, 17 August 2023.
  10. Is there really a distinction between hating Jews and hating Israel?, Melanie Phillips, United With Israel,
    6 September 2023.


  28 September 2023 {ARTICLE 594; ISRAEL_81}    
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