Fighting back against antisemitism on campus

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Rob Derdiger | Special to the JT

We’ve all heard a lot about continued anti-Israel and antisemitic activity and rhetoric, which has become the norm on college campus in the United States and Canada. The ADL reported a 34% rise in antisemitic incidents last year. This followed a study conducted by AEPi and the Brandeis Center that found that 65% of openly Jewish students on campus have felt unsafe and that 50% actively hide their Jewish identity.

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Our students have been placed at the front lines, as they have been with many issues over generations.

For the last decade or so, the primary form of antisemitism on campus has been related to anti-Israel speech, political rhetoric and boycott. Although students and student groups should be entitled to discourse and even disagreement with Israel, the legitimate political debate almost always degrades into speech or propaganda that is antisemitic. This can take many forms, such as applying double standards to Israel; comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; accusing Jews of having dual loyalty; stating that the very concept of Israel is a racist endeavor; or holding all Jews collectively and individually accountable for actions of Israel’s government.

Here’s how such attitudes played out on campus in a week’s worth of antisemitism:

Feb. 15: A BDS petition circulates at Northwestern University targeting Sabra Hummus. The petition applies a moral double standard to Israel, using the terms “apartheid” and “genocidal” because it is a Jewish nation. Likewise, it appropriates hummus as a specifically non-Jewish food, minimizing the cultures of Persian Jews, sabras, Teimanim, Mizrahi, Romaniotes and other Jewish populations.

Feb. 16: An antisemitic BDS vote passes at the University of Toronto by a margin of 20 votes.

Feb. 18: A photo of a fraternity pledge at the University of South Florida emerges with a swastika drawn on his head. The fraternity that was involved fails to invoke antisemitism in their initial response to the incident.

Feb. 20: Fliers blaming COVID-19 on “The Jewish Agenda” are posted at the University of Illinois campus.

Feb. 21: Social-media posts at Indiana University Bloomington targeting Jewish fraternities are posted on the website “Greek Rank.”

This past year, one of the most shocking incidents was the banning of the book “Maus” in Tennessee schools. As AEPi staff worked with students to engage and counsel them, I was struck by the profound words of Matthew Parker:

One thing to watch for when discussing the banning of “Maus” is what kind of books are being offered as an acceptable alternative. Because you’ll find, fascinatingly, the ones that they tend to offer as being acceptable:

1) Minimize the violence against Jews;
2) Focus primarily on Good Gentiles Doing Good Things (GGDGT); or
3) Both.

“The Diary of Anne Frank” is acceptable because it doesn’t show what happens to Anne, and because it is filled with Good Gentiles doing Good Things. “Number the Stars?” Heroines survive due to the efforts of GGDGT. Same issues with “The Book Thief,” same with “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” etc. … “Maus” is different. “Maus” is a story centered on Jews, told in a Jewish way, in which there is horrible violence and no GGDGT to save the day. There is no redemption, there is no salvation, there is only a story so terrible it has to be told and a need to remember. … They take our story, our deeply Jewish story, and file in substitutes that highlight their story.

The fact is, most American universities are ill-prepared to handle issues related to antisemitism, with no policies or qualified staff on campus to do so. In an age where DEI (Diversity, Equity and Inclusion) dialogue and resources at college and even within the fraternity community is commonplace, the exclusion of Jews and Jewish narratives from the conversations and initiatives is a public exhibition of systemic antisemitism within higher education. Worse yet, some of the DEI officers themselves have questionable backgrounds when it comes to Jewish advocacy.

At the University of Maryland, the DEI officer in charge of the university’s antisemitism task force libelously tweeted that Israel is engaged in “ongoing genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestine.”

I wish that were the only such case, but a recent study by the Heritage Foundation surveyed nearly 800 campus DEI officers and found that their social-media posts reflect pervasive hostility to Israel.

AEPi will continue to push back against antisemitism and advocate for the Jewish people. Our Brothers will work on their campuses and in their communities to form the positive relationships that combat the negative messages.

The best way to combat antisemitism is simple: We have to exist and to thrive.

AEPi continues to exist and thrive, providing a safe peer group, mentors and homes for our students on college campuses. Our Brothers stand strong against hate, and their Jewish pride will not waver, no matter the adversity that they face. When AEPi Brothers join together, they ensure that the nation of Israel lives.

Rob Derdiger has been CEO of Alpha Epsilon Pi since January. Prior to that appointment, he served as the fraternity’s CFO, as well as managed the organization’s not-for-profit fraternal housing arm.

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