How to Fight Antisemitism in Our Colleges and Universities

Solomon D. Stevens
Solomon D. Stevens (Courtesy of Stevens)

By Solomon D. Stevens

As is now well known, the presidents of three prestigious American universities recently appeared before a congressional committee to answer questions about their lack of response to antisemitism on their campuses. Their answers were beyond disgraceful, suggesting that nothing less than actual genocide of Jews would violate the principle of free speech and their campus codes of conduct. Repulsive. However, I would like to suggest that this is more a symptom of underlying, growing antisemitism in the country than it is a repudiation of our colleges and universities.

Antisemitism has been increasing for years in the United States, and there is no reason to think that our colleges and universities should be immune from this terrible trend. I think we are surprised by it, because we somehow feel that colleges and universities should be different, that they are an “ivory tower” and separate from the ugly bias and prejudice that we find all around us. They are not. In 1969, you may remember when so-called “protesters” at Cornell University stormed a university building while armed. Administrators caved to their demands, praising those who had committed this crime, even if not fully embracing what they called their “tactics.” Two professors that I know spoke out against this and were forced to flee their homes after receiving death threats.

And going back to an even more frightening example, there is Germany. When Hitler came to power in Germany in 1933, the universities embraced him and some of the greatest professors of the time, including Martin Heidegger, became Nazis and supported Hitler. The universities there were justly known as the best in the world, but that did not mean that their staff and faculty were fundamentally better than the others in Germany who caved to fascism. There were morally weak people everywhere in Germany in 1933, as there are here in the United States today.

Does this mean that colleges and universities are useless or fundamentally pointless? Have they become too “woke” to be worthwhile? I would argue no. Getting a first-rate education still matters, and there are still many excellent professors and staff in American higher education. I do, however, support those who argue that not everyone needs a college degree. Learning a trade can be everything that some people need to live a useful, satisfying lives. But a good college education is still important for many. The failure of colleges and universities to provide moral leadership should not be surprising. We should still condemn it, but it should not be a reason to encourage suspicion about learning per se.

Both Plato and Maimonides argued that knowledge is virtue, meaning that one who has achieved true knowledge would also be morally virtuous. But they did not argue that a university education is virtue. Clearly, a person can have a college degree and still be full of hatred and bigotry. And one can teach or serve on the staff of a college and be the same way. Transcending the boundaries of a mere degree and achieving true wisdom or knowledge depends on the rare coming together of a particular student and a particular teacher. Plato and Maimonides were not wrong. The pursuit of wisdom still matters, but colleges and universities are not designed as institutions with true wisdom or virtue as their goal.

Education, as we usually use the term, is no bulwark against antisemitism, in society at large or in our universities. As both Bari Weiss and Deborah Lipstadt have pointed out, antisemitism is rooted in deep conspiracy beliefs that breed dangerous stereotypes, going back thousands of years. And those who embrace them have psychological needs for these stereotypes. Education in the usual sense is no answer to antisemitism, and we shouldn’t be surprised when colleges and universities are shown to be fundamentally immoral.

So how should we respond to the spectacle of university presidents who fail to condemn threats to Jews on our campuses? With rage and calls for their resignation. And I applaud the donors who are pulling back their funds from these schools. But we should go further. Colleges and universities need to be challenged to root out antisemitism wherever it is found in their schools. The moral depravity we have seen in these college presidents does not stop with them. It runs throughout their entire institutions. Through social action, we can make things somewhat better at some colleges and universities, but we cannot insulate them from the ills of society.

The best way to fight antisemitism is, as others have often pointed out, to strengthen our own commitment to Judaism and to Israel. We need to look to ourselves and ask: How can we learn more about our own religion and people? How can we live more fully as Jews? Drawing inspiration from the Maccabees, we can fight for our religion and our people. We may not be able to eliminate the conspiracy mentality that lies behind antisemitism, but we can stand proudly and shout, “Am Yisrael Chai.”

Solomon D. Stevens has a Ph.D. in political science from Boston College.

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