Facing Rising Anti-Semitism, Can Virginia Universities Learn from History and California?

Facing Rising Anti-Semitism, Can Virginia Universities Learn from History and California?
Ken Marcus makes the case for doing more to fight anti-Semitism on college campuses.

Last fall, five Loudoun County, Virginia teenagers vandalized the historic African-American schoolhouse in Ashburn with an array of graffiti that included white supremacist slogans and Nazi swastikas. The fact that they desecrated a monument to black history with the symbol most closely associated with Jewish oppression was not lost on those monitoring anti-Semitism.

Most of that discussion and corresponding media coverage of incidents like this one and others around the nation have centered on African-Americans and Muslims. Many Jewish leaders say this conversation should be extended to their community as well, which has experienced both a long history of bias and persecution and a more recent rise in documented cases of anti-Semitism.

Since the start of 2017, the Jewish Community Center Association reports that there have been 69 bomb threats at 54 of their facilities spread across 27 states — all hoaxes. Jewish leaders are also concerned about a rise in hate speech on colleges and universities, a potential breeding ground for anti-Semitic thought and action.

Researchers at Trinity College and Brandeis University found that more than half of Jewish students reported experiencing or witnessing anti-Semitism on their campus in 2014 and 2015.  Anti-Semitic incidents at universities increased by 45 percent from 2015 to 2016, according to a study by the AMCHA Initiative, a group committed to fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses. AMCHA also publishes the Swastika Tracker, a compendium of swastikas and what it characterizes as other anti-Jewish genocidal expressions on campuses and updated daily.

Virginia has been no exception. In the past year there have been high-profile incidents of anti-Semitism across the Commonwealth, including at William and Mary, the University of Virginia and Old Dominion University.

“What we’re seeing in Virginia is part of a broader trend,” said Kenneth Marcus, a lawyer and national expert on anti-Semitism. “Five years ago, we could predict which campuses would be troublesome in the next semester based on which campuses had been troublesome the prior semester.”

Marcus is the founder and president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center. The Washington D.C.-based center aims to advance the civil and human rights of Jewish people generally, but the organization’s primary focus is fighting anti-Semitism on college campuses through law and public policy. The center has chapters at 18 U.S. law schools, including the University of Virginia, monitors universities around the nation to offer best practices for compliance, and engages in advocacy.

Anti-Semitism has become a renewed and growing problem since around 2001, Marcus said.  Still, the recent spike on college campuses is notable, and more people are taking notice.

“There were a relatively small number of campuses that were problematic year after year after year, and they tended to be concentrated on the west coast, in the northeast, with maybe a few exceptions in the middle of the country. But what we’re seeing now is that it’s spreading a great deal more,” Marcus said.

“We’re finding that far more campuses that had been peaceful and harmonious are suddenly flaring up. There are universities where the administrators and staff have no idea how to deal with it because they haven’t had to deal with it before,” he said. “It’s no longer the case that the only places where there are significant problems are where there’s been training and education because they have the same issue year in and year out.”

The Problem On Campus and Off

Marcus said that to understand what’s happening today it’s imperative to reflect on history.

From the end of World War II to the early 2000’s, anti-Semitism was becoming a lesser problem worldwide. But even as Jews gained greater acceptance in Western society, the climate on American university campuses was not as amenable.

Marcus said since the 1967 Arab–Israeli War, Israel has been perceived as the Goliath and Palestinians Arabs as the David. For that reason, people who sympathize or identify with underdogs have tended to not only view themselves as pro-Palestine, but also as anti-Israel. This has been hard on Jewish college students who view themselves as progressive and are often excluded from engaging in the kind of advocacy they believe in, he said.

“Oftentimes, liberal social groups at American universities will exclude Jewish students who are pro-Israel. In fact, even progressive Jewish students who have no particular opinion on Israel, for or against, will often be pressured to make some sort of statement that is against Israel, otherwise they will not be included in the progressive social group that they identify with,” Marcus said.

This presents a problem because university administrators will often rely on social justice and multicultural groups to work with them to communicate on issues, Marcus said.  Often these groups are not sensitive to anti-Semitic issues and may even be hostile.

“So it’s harder for Jewish college students to get respect and a fair hearing from administration than other groups because of that political dynamic,” Marcus said.

These problems began to grow at the beginning of the century. Jewish resentment became more mainstream around the time of the second intifada in Israel and the United Nations Durban Anti-Racism Conference, he said.

“Since roughly the end of 2001 and early 2002, there have been better years and there have been worse years, but generally, things have been getting worse more than they’ve been getting better,” Marcus said. “During those years when the Middle East conflict is in the news, we see more flare ups on U.S. campuses. But now we’re seeing problems on U.S. campuses whether the Middle East is flaring up or not.”

There has been a significant uptick in prominence from right wing extremist groups often called the alt-right or Neo Nazis. This is accompanied by anti-Semitism coming out of Muslim and Arab communities that is rooted in geopolitical or ethnic conflict and xenophobia. That’s combined with the still lingering history of European and Christian anti-Semitism, which is based on medieval stereotypes and defamations.

In today’s heated political climate Marcus said anti-Semitism is rampant in both pro-Trump supporters and anti-Trump groups, among others, and should not be attributed to one source.

Others more inclined to spout anti-Semitic rhetoric are young and less educated, Marcus said.

“They are often flailing out in different directions and for different reasons, and when they want to rebel, they might use a swastika or other symbols and sayings tied to anti-Semitism as a form of rebellion,” he said. In these cases, it is difficult to get to the root of the hatred, as it may be more generalized in nature.

“When people are happy, well-adjusted, prosperous and employed, they’re less likely to express anger at other people, including Jews. When they are angry, unemployed or otherwise unhappy and disrespected, they will often look for scapegoats. Jews have traditionally been the paradigmatic scapegoat in Western society,” Marcus said.

“I don’t think we can predict which way things could go, but I do think we could influence the result. That’s why I do what I do. I think it is up to us to make sure the recent pattern of ugliness becomes an exception and not the rule,” he said.

Understanding the Words

Most of the difficult problems universities face involve determining what makes an incident anti-Semitic, and that inspired Marcus to write The Definition of Anti-Semitism. It proved more difficult than he anticipated, but he also found a greater degree consensus than expected among scholars, governmental institutions and other groups that have examined the issue.

Marcus offers this definition in his book:

“Anti-Semitism is a set of negative attitudes, ideologies, and practices directed at Jews as Jews, individually or collectively, based upon and sustained by a repetitive and potentially self-fulfilling latent structure of hostile erroneous beliefs and assumptions that flow from the application of double standards toward Jews as a collectivity, manifested culturally in myth, ideology, folklore, and imagery, and urging various forms of restriction, exclusion, and suppression.”

Marcus was largely influenced by the working definition of anti-Semitism established by the old European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia. That definition also became basis for the State Department’s approach, but had not been widely adopted elsewhere throughout the United States, he said.

“The insight on which the European Union working definition was based is that for practical purposes, it often does more harm than good to simply ask the question, who is and isn’t an anti-Semite? If you’re just asking whether individuals are anti-Semites or not, you may never get an answer, you’ll get people defensive and it’ll lead to a coarsening of the discourse,” Marcus said.

“Moreover, the problems that we face are often from unconscious expression of racist themes and ideas as opposed to the expression of a core belief of a small group of people. So instead of focusing on the question is this person an anti-Semite or not, we need to ask what forms of speech, what kinds of activity are anti-Semitic so that we can identify it,” he said. “Then we can teach people to identify those practices that have a certain baggage to them, whether they understand them or not.”

Marcus believes universities should include anti-Semitism in their curriculum together with disciplines such as Women and Gender Studies and African American Studies. Of the universities that have Jewish studies programs, those programs tend to focus on Jewish texts or on the Holocaust, not on explaining or studying contemporary anti-Semitism.

This is increasingly important now, Marcus said. He noted that on many campuses the level of anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism has gotten to the point where almost anything exacerbates it. Virtually any kind of social disturbance will have elements of anti-Semitism.

“For example, a couple of years ago it was the Occupy Movement. It didn’t seem to have anything to do with Jews or Israel and yet in some of the Occupy incidents, notably in Davis, California, anti-Israel animists became the centerpiece,” Marcus said.

“Similarly, last year with Black Lives Matter, that was a movement that was not about Jews or Israel and yet the Black Lives Matter movement adopted an anti-Israel and pro-boycott plank and developed Anti-Israelism as part of a minor but significant part of their program,” he said.

“We can’t predict what the next major social movement on college campuses will be but we can be assured, whatever it is, it will have some connection with anti-Semitism and anti-Israelism.”

From Richmond to California

Del. Dave LaRock (R-33) tried to tackle the issue by introducing a bill against anti-Semitism on college campuses in the Virginia House of Delegates last month.  It would have included anti-Semitism under “because of religion” and “on the basis of religion,” and terms of similar import when used in the Code of Virginia and acts of the General Assembly in reference to discrimination.

HB 2261 would have required the board of visitors of Virginia’s public institutions of higher education to establish policies or institutional regulations prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, sex, pregnancy, childbirth or related medical conditions, age, marital status, or disability in compliance with state and federal law.

Del. Dave LaRock (R-33) of Loudoun County, sponsored an anti-Semitism bill this year, but it did not advance.

The bill defined anti-Semitism as “a perception of Jews that may be expressed as hatred toward Jews and includes rhetorical and physical manifestations of hostility or hatred that may be directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals or their property, the Jewish community, or Jewish institutions and religious facilities.”

It would also have provided for the investigating authority to consider the definition when investigating alleged violations of unlawful discriminatory practice on the basis of a person’s real or perceived Jewish identity.

Del. Jennifer Boysko (D-86) and Del. Mark Cole (R-88) were co-patrons of the bill, but it died in the General Laws Committee, ostensibly because the committee ran out of time to consider it during Virginia’s “short” legislative session.

LaRock said he is dedicated to reintroducing the bill during the 2018 legislative session. Marcus supports that effort and said schools shouldn’t wait.

“Every Virginia university can do this on their own. They don’t need to wait for legislation, they can start now. They can do it at the administrative level, faculty can get engaged and the trustees and visitors can take action,” he said.

Marcus said there hasn’t been a school to tackle anti-Semitism in completely the right way, but that the University of California regents did exemplary work in 2016 when they formed a high-level task force on intolerance. The primary focus of the task force was anti-Semitic incidents that had become widespread throughout the California public university system. Marcus was one of California’s expert advisors.

The regents issued a formal statement of principles against intolerance that was notable because it explained the specific forms anti-Semitism has taken in recent years. The statement said that anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of bigotry have no place at the University of California.

“The key here is that they were identifying anti-Zionism as potentially a form of bigotry, quite similar to other forms of bias that they’d seen. They acknowledged criticism of Israel is not bigotry, but some are and one needs to attend to what is and what isn’t,” Marcus said. “It would certain have been better if they had gone the next step if they had provided a definition with clarity, but I think what they did was important because they made a very clear and strong statement at a high level.”

Marcus said the next step in California is for each campus to develop implementation plans. The University of California at Irvine already has that process underway, and others need to develop policies, programs, education and training that is built on these principles opposing intolerance, Marcus said.

As far as progress in Virginia goes, Marcus met with George Mason University administrators a couple of years ago and said he felt good about the meeting. He has not had similar meetings with other Virginia campuses, and is not aware of any movement at the trustees or visitors level.

“It certainly would be commendable if the regents, the visitors of the respective Virginia public campuses followed the example of the University of California and looked at this issue on their own. It would be especially timely of them to do it in advance of the next legislative session,” Marcus said.

Trump and Anti-Semitism

The Trump Administration could be another factor in the battle against anti-Semitism.

At his news conference on Feb. 16, President Donald Trump was twice asked about the increased number of anti-Semitic acts being reported across the nation. He spoke about his own views and rejection of anti-Semitism, but did not address the substance of the question.

Marcus credited the Trump campaign for issuing a statement expressing concern about campus anti-Semitism, and for comments indicating that the Department of Justice would address university suppression of Jewish pro-Israel speech. Marcus doesn’t know if any of this will translate into policy, but he’s hopeful.

However, Marcus also said the Trump Administration’s immigration ban directed toward seven predominately Muslim countries could ultimately lead to backlash against Jews.

“We know that when bigotry begins with Jews, it doesn’t end with Jews. Those societies that allow one kind of bias to flourish will find others as well. And everybody’s going to suffer in the end,” he said.

Even without support from Richmond or Washington there have been efforts locally to combat anti-Semitism. At an interfaith community service event following the Ashburn school house desecration, Holocaust survivor Susan Warsinger was asked to share her story.  And last month the Sterling-based All Dulles Area Muslim Society hosted a Holocaust Remembrance event.

Marcus said community-based awareness is an important part of fighting the scourge of anti-Semitism.

“This is a form of bigotry that we thought we’d wiped out but it’s actually getting worse and not better. We know how horrific it can get. We also know that we can stomp it out because we’ve done it before,” Marcus said.

Executive editor Tom Julia and reporter Ryan Butler contributed to this story.