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Handling Rising Antisemitism on Campuses

(October 31, 2023) – A wave of antisemitic rhetoric, harassment, threats, vandalism and violence has rocked campuses across the U.S. as the Israel-Hamas war escalates. At Cornell University, law enforcement was called in to investigate what the university president called “a series of horrendous, antisemitic messages threatening violence” against the campus’s Jewish community that forced students into lockdown. Drexel University, a women’s restroom was reportedly defaced with antisemitic graffiti and a Jewish student’s dormitory door was set on fire. At Bates College, a swastika was drawn in a public restroom and at American University a swastika and Nazi slogan were graffitied in a student dorm. 

At Columbia an Israeli student was beaten with a stick after confronting an individual who was ripping down posters of hostages held by Hamas. Jewish students have reported feeling fear, alienation and intimidation following anti-Israel protests, social media posts, and letters from student groups. Others have expressed their dismay at college leaders’ equivocal responses that seem to contrast with more robust reactions to other forms of bigoted speech. After violence erupted at Tulane University and someone attempted to light an Israeli flag on fire, one student criticized the university’s response as “slow,” adding, “This is not okay. I expect more, we expect more. Protect your Jewish students is all I can say.”

As an organization dedicated to the protection of free speech, PEN America is well aware of how the spread of hatred can impair open discourse and poison a healthy learning environment.  Amid an increasingly menacing climate, campus leaders have an obligation to be responsive to threats, intimidation, and students’ encounters with overt antisemitism and discrimination, and to ensure that they address students’ concerns through approaches that adhere to laws and campus policies protecting academic freedom and free speech. Assertive campus leadership is imperative to nurturing a learning environment where all feel welcomed and fully free to participate in the exchange of ideas and opinions, without fear. In a time of increased incidents of hateful speech and hate crimes both nationally and around the world, the potency of individual instances of hateful speech on campus can be heightened, increasing the psychological harm that such speech can cause and underscoring the imperative of effective institutional responses.

We encourage campus leaders to consult PEN America’s Advice on Responding to Hateful Speech on Campus. Essential steps include:

  • Speak Out. Campus leaders should work to dispel hatred, including by unequivocally condemning antisemitism on campus when it arises. Effective responses can include counter-messaging, condemnations, and offering direct support and empathy to targeted individuals and groups. In messages sent out to the campus community or shared on public platforms, leaders can propound core values as essential pillars of campus life, such as inclusion, tolerance, and mutual respect.  Speaking out includes actively exposing and debunking or rebutting antisemitic stereotypes—for example, the notion that Jews are “all powerful,” or that all Jews or Israelis are responsible for the actions of Israel’s government

  • Educate. Universities are natural settings for fostering education, both about the definition and history of antisemitism, contemporary antisemitic tropes, boundary lines between protected political speech and antisemitic vitriol, and the limits of freedom of speech including incitement to imminent violence, threats and vandalism. Campus leaders can circulate information and offer programs and resources to inform students, faculty, and administrators alike. They can explain that hateful speech that is intended to menace, intimidate or discriminate against an individual based upon a personal characteristic or membership in a group can impair the university’s obligation to provide equal access to the full benefits of a college education and the ability of all students to participate in campus discourse.

  • Defend. Just because speech is offensive does not mean it is impermissible, much less unlawful. Universities must hold open the space for heated debate, disagreement and the expression of distasteful views. The Israel-Hamas conflict is a matter of public concern, and an appropriate topic for debate on campus.  Where speech falls within the bounds of campus policies and First Amendment protection, campuses must resist demands to ban or punish it, doubling down on alternative measures that help affected students feel protected, supported and heard.  

  • Secure. Campuses have an obligation to ensure the physical security of students, faculty and staff.  Visible enhanced security measures can both deter unlawful and inappropriate behaviors and help foster a sense of security for the vulnerable.

  • Support. Campus leaders should prioritize providing solidarity and resources to affected students including visible gestures of institutional support and increased access to mental health practitioners as needed. They should redouble efforts to ensure students can readily access these resources and services on campus.

  • Guide. Campus discourse should be predicated on the presumption of respect for differences, including differences of view that cause disagreement. Campus leaders can review how they are facilitating a climate for open and respectful exchange, through trainings for faculty, staff and students. They can establish or reiterate  policies on protest rights that welcome the airing of strong views, but do not condone the intimidation or silencing of others. In order to live together on a diverse campus, university constituents need to be aware of what may cause offense and why, and to carefully consider ways to avoid such words and actions, even if no offense is intended.

  • Investigate and Hold Accountable. When speech crosses the line into hate crimes, true threats, harassment, and any other conduct that violates the law, prompt investigation and accountability measures are essential, including the engagement of law enforcement and criminal referrals where appropriate. That said, campuses must avoid appearing to suggest that protected speech and expression might cross the line into criminality.

PEN America recognizes that Islamophobia and anti-Muslim hate are also rising on campus, and will issue further guidance in coming days.

Additional Resources for Understanding Antisemitism

Examples of strong statements after antisemitic incidents on campus from PEN America’s Campus Free Speech Guide: