New York University students rally at Washington Square Park in New York on October 25, 2023. Protesters chanted slogans while waving. (Fatih Aktas via Getty Images)

Shocked by the Jew-Hate on College Campuses? I Wasn’t.

For several decades, institutions have incubated a worldview, based on revisionist history, that seeks to justify the murder of Israelis and Jews.

The antisemitism on display at dozens of elite universities may come as a shock to many. But it does not surprise me.

My first day of orientation at Harvard Divinity School was on September 11, 2001. I had come to the Divinity School to study contemporary thought in Judaism and Islam. Truth—veritas—is Harvard’s motto, but not, I soon discovered, what the university ultimately stood for.

Soon after the 9/11 attacks, in the throes of the Second Intifada, the dean of the divinity school began propagating an early version of the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, leveraging his position at Harvard and as a scholar of Islam to resuscitate the demands of Arab countries from their boycott of Israel that dates back to the 1920s—before the country’s founding. At the divinity school, anti-Israel sentiment at Harvard was also taking a strange new turn: during orientation, I heard a senior university officer suggest that Israel may have been at fault for the 9/11 attacks. This was a wake-up call.

The following year, I organized a daylong conference on global antisemitism at Harvard. My goal was to engender a meaningful discussion on the oldest hatred.

At the conference, I learned that the Harvard Divinity School had recently accepted a gift of $2.5 million from then-president of the United Arab Emirates, Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan al-Nahyan, who was promoting anti-Americanism and antisemitism through his research think tank, the Zayed Center for Coordination and Follow-Up, where, among other things, they attempted to resurrect the blood libel of medieval Europe. Zayed’s think tank would sponsor the translation of antisemitic texts into Arabic and disseminate them throughout the Arab world.

As part of receiving financial support from Sheikh Zayed, Harvard had agreed to create an endowed chair in Islamic Studies. In it, the university agreed to designate a liaison with the president of the UAE, not just to encourage research partnerships—but to advise on “procedures relating to application and admission to the university.” This agreement required the “collaboration with scholars and practitioners from other countries around the world,” raising the question of whether that would include “scholars” from the think tank that promoted the blood libel and antisemitism.

In my first year at Harvard, it became clear to me that the university was more than willing to associate with an autocratic Arab leader and his think tank in exchange for a check. In other words, the university, its faculty, and ultimately, its values, were for sale.

In 2002, after several months of research, I led a campaign calling on Harvard to return the donation and instead seek a responsible source of funding to create the position. By August of 2003, Sheikh Zayed shuttered the Zayed Center. A year later, in July 2004, Sheikh Zayed requested the withdrawal of his $2.5 million. The funds were returned in 2004 and Harvard wound up using money from its discretionary fund to hire for the position in Islamic studies. 

The move was celebrated in the pages of newspapers across the country as a watershed moment. Alas, the flood had already been unleashed. 

What was taking place at Harvard was not unique, but a story that was unfolding on campuses across the nation. At Columbia, at Georgetown, and at other campuses across the country, Gulf countries had given millions of dollars to create academic centers, integrate faculty and visiting scholars into the university ecosystem, and to create “outreach initiatives” to spread their worldview.

For decades, this money has been swirling around the Ivy League and other elite schools. While the funding in and of itself did not originate antisemitism on campus, these countries rightly understood that the campuses were a powerful vessel through which to launch into the mainstream an anti-Western worldview that was once confined to the fringe.

This worldview is anchored by a toxic stew of postcolonialism, postnationalism, and postmodernism. These intellectual frameworks were first articulated in the humanities in the late 1960s and found fertile ground in area studies programs like Middle Eastern studies, gender studies, and ultimately disciplines like history and literature.

In the classroom, the language of “power” and “privilege” began to permeate formal instruction, and the organizational agenda of student groups and administrative policy. Transposed onto the paradigm of power was the idea of race. This crude ideology suggested those who are deemed to be “white” are “oppressors” while those with darker skin are “oppressed” and lack agency. 

Jews and Israelis—never mind that the majority of Israelis are from North Africa and the Middle East—were whitewashed, perceived as beneficiaries of “white supremacy.” On campus, Jews were falsely labeled as being part of the white majority, which helps explain why they are left out of the vast DEI bureaucracies that now dominate campus life.

Over time, large swaths of academia began to adopt this “heroes and villains” worldview, which stipulates that Israelis are villainous colonizers and Palestinians are innocent victims. As unimaginable as it is for anyone with a conscience to imagine tearing down posters of children kidnapped by Hamas, if you have been steeped in a worldview that says that these children are part of racist state that does not have a right to exist, you can begin to understand how college-educated Americans are doing just that.

If you have heard “Israel is a colonial-settler state” (no, Israel is the indigenous homeland of the Jewish people dating back 3,000 years); or “Israelis are really Khazars, not Jews” (no, Jews are a Semitic people); or “Zionism is racism” (no, Zionism is the basic belief in the right of the Jewish people to self-determination); or “Israel is engaged in ethnic cleansing” (no, 20 percent of Israel’s population is Arab and the population of Palestinians both in Gaza and the West Bank has continued to increase); or “Jews are part of a powerful, white majority” (no, they are a tiny minority that constitutes 0.2 percent of the world’s population), you have encountered this worldview.

All of which is why, to the products of this campus system and the environment it has created, Hamas’s October 7 massacre was a triumph. On October 8, Columbia University professor Joseph Massad celebrated the Hamas massacre. In an article, he shared his impressions of Hamas as “astounding” and “awesome.” At Cornell University, a professor proclaimed at a campus rally that he found the October 7 massacre “exhilarating.” At Stanford University, an instructor was suspended after singling out, humiliating, and insulting Jewish students during a classroom lecture. (He tried to justify the actions of Hamas, asking how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. A student responded, “six million” to which the instructor replied that more people have been killed by colonizers and “Israel is a colonizer.” The instructor demanded that Jewish students stand and move to the back of the classroom while the instructor stated, “That’s what Israelis do to Palestinians.”)

At this moment, it should surprise no one that professors at our universities openly celebrate Hamas’s massacre of Jews and publicly root for the destruction of the State of Israel. For several decades, academic institutions have incubated a worldview, based on a farcical understanding of power dynamics and of Israeli and Jewish history, that seeks to justify the murder of Israelis and Jews. At least now it’s been laid bare for all to see.

Rachel Fish, PhD, is Special Adviser to the Brandeis University Presidential Initiative to Counter Antisemitism in Higher Education. She is the co-founder of Boundless.

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