Antisemitic hate crimes on American college campuses are nothing new. But things have gotten much worse since the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks in which Hamas raped, murdered, and kidnapped civilians in Israel—overwhelmingly Jews, but those of other backgrounds as well. Israel’s military response—the stated purpose of which is to defeat Hamas—has resulted in a horrific and still rising death toll among Palestinian civilians. The death of any civilian, on any side in any conflict, is a tragedy.
This is not a story about the events in Israel and Palestine; however, the impact the conflict has had is multifaceted and undeniable. One impact has been a widespread ramp-up of antisemitic hate, including violent hate crimes, on college campuses that have left Jewish students and their families wondering where and when the next one will take place. Please be warned: This story includes threats of mass violence.
The image below refers to a location on campus which houses a kosher and multicultural cafeteria, which is part of the campus Center for Jewish Living.
The student who allegedly posted these texts, Patrick Dai, 21, was arrested on Oct. 31 after admitting to making the posts to the FBI, after having been read his Miranda rights. As of this writing, Dai faces federal charges for “posting threats to kill or injure another using interstate communications.” The maximum sentence for this charge is five years in prison.
New York Gov. Kathy Hochul noted that state charges are also under consideration. She added, “Whether it’s a Jewish student or a Palestinian, Muslim—people are under enormous distress right now and the emotional toll that these hate crimes are taking is cruel and it has to stop.”
Only adding to the climate of fear, on Nov. 1 someone made a report to Cornell police describing a man “displaying a pistol” while walking on campus. Thankfully, after a search, authorities announced that this report appears to have been “unfounded.” On Nov. 3, due the “extraordinary stress” the community has been experiencing, Cornell canceled all classes, and gave all employees the day off, except for those “who provide essential services.”
a prime catalyst
The atmosphere for Jews at Cornell grew particularly poisonous almost immediately after Oct. 7. A prime catalyst was a statement from professor Russell Rickford, who specializes in “African-American political culture after World War II, the Black Radical Tradition, and transnational social movements.” On Oct. 15, Rickford offered the following at a pro-Palestinian campus rally, as described by The Jerusalem Post:
“Hamas has challenged the monopoly of violence” and “shifted the balance of power,” in reference to the terror group’s Oct. 7 attacks that killed 1,400 Israelis, most of them civilians, wounded thousands and took some 200 hostages. “It was exhilarating. It was energizing.”
Claiming that even “Palestinians of conscience” were “able to breathe for the first time in years,” Rickford continued, “And if they weren’t exhilarated by this challenge to the monopoly of violence, by this shifting of the balance of power, then they would not be human. I was exhilarated.”
Rickford has since apologized and has been placed, at his request, on leave for the rest of the semester. As Cornell student Gabriel Levin told CNN, his remarks were met with some applause from those in attendance. Regarding Rickford, Levin also pointed out that “only after intense pressure did he apologize”; additionally, Levin emphasized that “Jews need to feel safe” on college campuses.
The comments from Rickford are certainly extreme, even compared to just about anyone else criticizing Israeli policy toward the Palestinians (and there’s plenty to criticize; one can criticize Israel without being antisemitic, as I’ve written here on multiple occasions). Nonetheless, Rickford reflects the far end of a broader ideology that goes well beyond criticizing the actions of the state of Israel, and either justifies or refuses to condemn the murder of Israeli civilians.
Rickford is far from the only one. In another example out of many, climate science professor Mika Tosca at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago wrote on Instagram as part of a condemnation of the Israeli military response to the Hamas attacks: “Israelis are pigs. Savages. Very very bad people. Irredeemable excrement,” and concluded: “May they all rot in hell.” The school denounced Tosca’s comment and she later apologized.
How widely endorsed is this ideology? Well, a Harvard-Harris poll conducted Oct. 18-19 found that half of all respondents between the ages of 18 and 34 (and one-quarter overall) agreed that “the Hamas killing of 1200 Israeli civilians … can be justified by the grievances of Palestinians.” As many young people agreed as disagreed.
There is a perception that many Jews have – including many Jews on the left who are themselves outspoken critics of Israel – that some of the responses, particularly on social media and on some college campuses, to what’s been taking place in Israel and Gaza have been callous and one-sided at best, and in some instances shockingly amoral. Some responses have celebrated Hamas’ attack, and others have solely blamed Israel for it. Still others have been silent about that attack and have only denounced Israel’s military response.
There’s a widespread feeling among Jews that these kinds of reactions to the horrific atrocities perpetrated against Israeli civilians don’t reflect a commitment to universal values or human rights. Rather, they exonerate Hamas and treat the mass murder of Israeli civilians as somehow acceptable or legitimate. Some suspect that there’s a double-standard at play when people furiously condemn the killing of Palestinian civilians, but say nothing, or even excuse it, when Israeli civilians are killed.
Cornell is far from the only campus to experience antisemitic hate crimes since Oct. 7 (nor are college campuses the only places in the U.S. where antisemites have committed such crimes). Jewish students were targeted and assaulted at Tulane, UMass-Amherst, and Columbia, and there have been significant numbers of other antisemitic incidents at colleges across the country. “It’s very frightening to be a Jewish college student right now,” said Liora Rez, founder and executive director of StopAntisemitism. “We think the floodgates have opened up. … It’s a nightmare.”
response from the white house
In response, on Oct. 30 the Biden administration gathered American Jewish leaders at the White House for a meeting that also included first gentleman Doug Emhoff, Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona, and Deborah Lipstadt, U.S. special envoy to monitor and combat antisemitism. One participant, Jacob Blumenthal, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism, related that “we shared our concerns, not just for Jewish students, but that all students on a campus would feel safe from discrimination and hate.”
The White House subsequently highlighted a series of steps it is taking to combat antisemitism on campuses and more broadly, including “clarifying the ways in which Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act of 1964] covers discrimination on the basis of shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics, including certain forms of antisemitism, Islamophobia, and related forms of bias and discrimination.”
President Biden made sure that the victims of hate know that he cares about them. “Today, Jewish families [are] worried about being targeted in school, wearing symbols of their faith walking down the street, or going out about their daily lives,” he said. He also said the name of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian boy in Illinois who, in an unspeakable act of evil, was murdered by his landlord—who also stabbed the boy’s mother a dozen times—because the killer hated Muslims. This was not a random act of violence; the landlord, Joseph M. Czuba, had a relationship with this family for two years with no notable issues prior to the killings. Czuba stabbed Wadea 26 times.
The president continued:
We can’t stand by and stand silent when this happens. We must, without equivocation, denounce antisemitism. We must also, without equivocation, denounce Islamophobia.
And to all of you hurting—those of you who are hurting, I want you to know: I see you. You belong. And I want to say this to you: You’re all America. You’re all America.
increase in antisemitism
The Anti-Defamation League reported an almost 400% increase in antisemitic incidents from Oct. 7 through Oct. 23 compared to the same period last year. Of the 312 incidents, 190 were “directly linked to the war in Israel and Gaza” (the numbers last year during the same days were 64 overall, and four related to Israel).
Likewise, the Council on American-Islamic Relations reported the highest number of overall complaints and incidents of bias since December 2015, when The Man Who Lost An Election And Tried To Steal It called for a “total and complete shutdown” of Muslims entering the U.S. Both Muslims and Jews in the U.S. are facing an upsurge of hate, on and off campus. The federal government has raised the alarm about potential attacks on members of both groups.
Jews are also being confronted with hate, threats, and violence across the globe. FBI Director Christopher Wray stated that the threat is reaching “historic levels.” He continued: “The Jewish community is targeted by terrorists really across the spectrum—homegrown violent extremists; foreign terrorist organizations, both Sunni and Shia; domestic violent extremists.” We’re even seeing hatred of Jews in China—encouraged by that country’s government.
Roger Cohen wrote in The New York Times that “perhaps not since the Holocaust, which saw the annihilation of about two-thirds of Europe’s Jewish community, have the Jews of Europe lived in an atmosphere of fear so acute that it feels like a fundamental shift in the terms of their existence.” For just one example (among many others), rioters at an airport in Dagestan, a predominantly Muslim region of Russia united to attempt what State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller described as a pogrom—an organized massacre of a particular ethnic group, usually referring to Jews.
From the BBC:
An Israeli passenger told Ynet that rioters stopped a bus carrying passengers and asked every person if they were Muslim or Jewish. “It was lucky that the Israelis on the plane spoke Russian,” he said. “I saw death on that bus.”
One passenger, who said he was on the flight from Tel Aviv, told local media that he was stopped by the crowd. He said he was let go after rioters told him: “We are not touching non-Jews today.”
A local Telegram channel encouraged people to gather at the airport at the time of the flight’s arrival and encouraged participants to search for every Jewish person there.
use of antisemitic tropes
Please note that the perpetrators of this would-be pogrom were looking for Jews, not Israelis—as bad as it would have been to target only Israelis. The conflation of all Jews with Israel, and holding of all Jews responsible for that state’s actions, are themselves core antisemitic tropes.
As Jews, the fundamental truth of our collective existence going back centuries is that people are going to hate us, and are going to commit acts of violence against us. This was true long before the creation of Israel. And the most recent mass murder of Jews in the U.S. had nothing at all to do with Israel.
But much of what is happening right now does connect to the Israel-Hamas war. There have been some—a sizable minority more than large enough to have an impact—who embrace a hateful ideology that justifies the Hamas attacks on civilians by claiming that all Israelis are “colonizers,” thus any form of “resistance” that advances “decolonization” cannot be questioned. In this twisted way of thinking, the deliberate taking of the life of any so-called colonizer—including children—is a morally just act. Colonizers do not deserve to live. This ideology dehumanizes Israelis as well as all Jews, given that antisemites typically equate Israelis and Jews worldwide.
Such ideologies can radicalize people to commit acts of hate, including those, like Cornell student Dai, who have no previous public record of interest in this issue. Let me say again: Strongly criticizing the actions of Israel’s government is not only acceptable, it is protected by our sacred right to free speech. But there is a difference between criticizing a government and attacking the humanity of the Jewish people, or making threats or statements that leave Jews feeling unsafe anywhere they go. Words have impact.
Additionally, it is vitally important to denounce Islamophobia, which is without question a hateful ideology that dehumanizes Muslims and has led to violence. But it’s also important to emphasize that there have been no reports of anyone on the left publicly declaring that the murder of Muslim civilians is “exhilarating”—or anything even approximating that. That only happens when Jewish civilians are massacred, and it cannot happen without an ideological foundation that supports such hate.
We who identify in any way as part of the left have to grapple with that.
Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)