For student government, Jews and Zionists need not apply

by Zev Hurwitz

(JNS) — The story goes like this:

A Jewish student is elected to the university’s student government. The student’s fitness for office is challenged by peers who question whether that student can maintain “neutrality” on campus issues because of their Jewish identity. The student is targeted for impeachment, presumed guilty of the apparent high crime of being a Jew.

Several cases following this exact formula have disrupted campus life at schools across North America, causing Jewish students to feel isolated and ostracized simply because of who they are. At UCLA, the University of Southern CaliforniaMcGillTufts and other campuses, a common thread in anti-Zionist activism has been attacking students for their Jewish identity.

Perpetrators of anti-Jewish discrimination insist that their bigotry comes from authentic desire to combat the “oppression and subjugation of the Palestinian people.” They claim that “Zionists” are the targets of these campaigns. Protesters chant “No Zionists!” during campus rallies, and student organizations exist solely to demonize and ostracize Zionism on campus. One former New York University Students for Justice in Palestine president made the goal very clear: “Our point is to make being Zionist uncomfortable on the NYU campus.”

For most Jews, being Jewish and Zionist go hand in hand. A Gallup poll found that 95 percent of American Jews have a favorable view of Israel. Similarly, a 2020 American Jewish Committee survey found that 85 percent of American Jews believe that rejecting Israel’s right to exist — in other words, rejecting Zionism’s core principle — is anti-Semitic. Since Zionism is rooted in Jewish identity and since Jews are overwhelmingly pro-Israel, as a result, any anti-Zionist activity on campus will unquestionably have a negative impact on Jewish students. In effect, to target Zionists is to target Jews.

The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance Working Definition of Antisemitism makes clear that this kind of persecution of Jews for their affinity for Israel is unmistakably anti-Semitic, even as the definition explicitly protects the rights of anti-Israel activists to criticize the Jewish state.

But even as they are busy impeaching Jewish students on nonsense charges, the anti-Israel crowd is also working hard to prevent schools from adopting the IHRA definition as an educational tool.

Why would groups that are “only” anti-Zionist try to obscure campus anti-Semitism, even as hate-crime data continues to show that Jews are by far the No. 1 victims of hate crimes against any religious group? The better to continue cloaking their own Jew-hatred as a legitimate political position, of course!

Nevertheless, Jewish student activists on two-dozen campuses have successfully campaigned for their student governments to recognize the definition. This is a phenomenal achievement by Jewish students and their caring, committed allies. The contrast is stark: Jewish students are defining anti-Semitism while safeguarding free-speech rights while their opponents are busy canceling Jews.

That impeachment of Jewish campus representatives is a recurring motif in student government chambers is concerning enough, but where are the choruses of allied voices we would expect were this kind of discrimination to be directed towards students of any other identity?

One explanation is no one is paying attention. The Michigan Daily found in 2020 that among Big Ten schools, no campus reached more than 17 percent turnout for student government elections. Even at Tufts and Columbia, where a pair of highly controversial and well-publicized referenda to cut ties with Israel were on special election ballots this fall, neither vote saw turnout above 42 percent.

Apathy — both toward student governments and the Jewish campus experience more broadly — is indeed among the culprits. But the bigger issue is a campus culture that not only does not understand anti-Semitism but considers purging Jews from leadership roles to be legitimate political speech.

It’s time to stop treating these Jewish witch-hunts as isolated incidents and to start addressing the systemic persecution of Jewish student leaders. Better understanding of anti-Semitism and Zionism via the working definition is an important first step, but university leaders must make it abundantly clear that the culture of canceling Jews for being Jewish remains out of bounds.

Zev Hurwitz is the American Jewish Committee’s director of campus affairs.