Campuses fear a resurgence in anti-Semitism

Emily DeRuy
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Getty Images/Kevork Djansezian

Several acts of hostility toward Jewish students at campuses throughout the University of California system prompted the student government this week to pass a resolution condemning anti-Semitism.

"There is a big problem with anti-Semitism on campus," Ori Herschmann, the U.C. Berkeley student senate member who proposed the resolution, told Fusion. "We wanted to send a wake-up call to the administration and the higher-ups."

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The bill will create a committee to actively fight against what students say appears to be growing discrimination against Jewish students.

Last month, the UCLA student council initially declined to confirm the nomination to a judicial board of a sophomore who belonged to a Jewish sorority and the Jewish student group Hillel for fear that she might be biased. Only after a faculty member pointed out that her involvement was not a conflict of interest did the board approve the student.

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The move drew the immediate ire of the school's chancellor, Gene Block, who said in a statement, "No student should feel threatened that they would be unable to participate in a university activity because of their religion."

But Jewish students are concerned that what happened is not an isolated incident.

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At UC Davis, swastikas were recently spraypainted on the side of the Alpha Epsilon Pi house, a Jewish fraternity.

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"I think it has always been there," Herschmann said. "But I think it has really come out recently."

Dr. Barry Kosmin, co-author of a recent study on college anti-Semitism, thinks some of the hostility is tied to what he says is a broader trend toward micro-aggression among young people.

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"It is people in their 20s, and particularly on campuses" who have been both susceptible to and perpetrators of anti-Semitism, he said, adding that their parents were "socialized into being polite" in a way that's difficult for young people living in a world where they're asked to find their voices in 140 characters or less.

He blames social media for what he calls a cultural "coarsening" among college students.

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"If there was going to be a resurgence, it was going to be among young people," he said.

Studies back him up. According to a 2013 study by the Pew Research Center, 22 percent of Jewish people between the ages of 18 and 29 reported being called offensive names, compared to just six percent of those ages 50 to 64, making college campuses, despite their reputation for tolerance, an obvious breeding ground.

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Kosmin, who directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society & Culture at Trinity College writes in his own study that this has distressing implications.

"The college experience happens at a formative point in the life of young people in which they separate from their parents and family and develop their own identities," he says. "They are exposed to peers from diverse backgrounds while being removed from the roots that have provided them with stability. This environment amplifies their vulnerability."

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Herschmann blames some of the hostility toward Jews on a lack of education.

"Education involving anti-Semitism is very minimal," he said. "We're in a time, where, you know, people aren't remembering that the Jewish community is a minority, not a majority."

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Kosmin found in his own work that more than half of the Jewish students his team sampled reported anti-Semitism on their campus.

While his survey was performed during spring 2014, before " the summer conflict in Gaza that led to a worldwide flare-up in anti-Semitism," the report reads, Kosmin also points out that anti-Semitism is just as likely to be reported by Jewish students who aren't open about being Jewish, so ethnic stereotyping may be just as much at play as politics.

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Jewish people have been subjected to stereotyping and discrimination related to class, politics and religion, he said, so they've "been catching all of the traffic."

Herschmann agrees that a mix of forces are at play, but said some of the political dialogue has been particularly damning.

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While he's careful not to call the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (B.D.S.) movement, which aims to put pressure on Israel to comply with pro-Palestinian demands and has seen popularity on college campuses, anti-Semitic, he's no fan of the rhetoric that surrounds the movement.

"In Davis, it's no coincidence the B.D.S. resolution passes and a day later the Jewish fraternity is tagged with huge swastikas all over," he said, "so there is a definite correlation."

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Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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