Can 'Woke' Anti-Semitic Campuses Be Redeemed?

The creation of alternatives to the Ivy League are in order.

Harvard Widener Library Wikimedia

Evidence continues to pile up that antisemitism on American college campuses hasn’t just surged in the months since Oct. 7 but become commonplace. The disturbing incident last week at the University of California, Berkeley, where a pro-Israel event for students was stormed and broken up by a violent mob chanting in favor of terrorism (“intifada”) and spewing antisemitic insults was egregious, but just the latest example. It was echoed by the testimony before Congress by Jewish students from Harvard University, Columbia University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Stanford University and Cooper Union College before the House Bipartisan Task Force on Antisemitism.

The students, in what can only be termed a compendium of horror stories about troubling incidents, have repeatedly said that college administrations have been unwilling to do anything about it. Both Republicans and Democrats agreed that the situation was not just unacceptable but had created a crisis that could not go unaddressed.

And yet, for all the concern expressed, there is little indication that much is being done about it. Congressional hearings are important, but will they lead to action to punish the schools? Absent a major push by a new administration, don’t count on it. And if you’re waiting for higher education in this country to fix itself, then you’re dreaming.

Woke schools won’t change

A number of the elite institutions, especially three, in particular, that came under fire because their presidents disgracefully told Congress back in December that it depended on the “context” if advocacy for the genocide of Jews was against school policy, have made some noises about addressing the issue of antisemitism. And some are under pressure from Jewish donors like Harvard alum Bill Ackman, who just realized that he has been funding an organization that serves as an incubator for Jew-hatred. However, expectations for these efforts are low because many of the people who have been put in charge of them are part of the problem.

That’s just one of the issues at Harvard where Derick Penslar, a Jewish scholar who had labeled Israel an “a regime of apartheid” and who had denied that antisemitism was a problem on the campus was made co-chair of the university’s antisemitism task force. First, Rabbi David Wolpe and now the other co-chair of the task force, Rafaella Sadun, resigned from it once they realized the process there was set up to fail.

There is no secret about the source of the problem. The woke ideology of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), critical race theory, intersectionality and so-called “anti-racism” that has captured academia, as well as much of the rest of American society, swept through the educated classes, convincing them that Israel and the Jews are “white” oppressors who must be resisted. In doing so, it has granted a permission slip for antisemitism.

Liberal Jews have been ignoring warnings that their willingness to along with liberal fashion was enabling a movement committed to implacable and endless racial division while putting their own children at risk of being targeted by the new orthodoxy. But to their astonishment—and to the surprise of some more sanguine observers who have been speaking out on the issue for years—recent events have shocked even many who had thought concerns about left-wing antisemitism was just a conservative political talking point to awaken to the danger. The Hamas atrocities of Oct. 7 and Israel’s subsequent effort to eradicate the terrorists who had committed the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust set off an escalation in antisemitic activity that can no longer be denied.

At Harvard, some hoped that the resignation of its president, Claudine Gay (who was forced out not because she enabled antisemitism but because of revelations about ongoing plagiarism in her scholarship), would make a difference, but that was based on a misunderstanding of the problem. The issue isn’t one or even a few individuals at the top in these schools. It’s the way their entire bureaucracies and faculty have adopted the woke DEI catechism and intersectionality as a new orthodoxy from which dissent is not tolerated. This breeds hostile environments for Jews. Yet it also creates a belief on the part of those in charge that expressions of hatred for Israel and Jews are not just “free speech” but approved speech because they are in line with intersectional ideology in which Jews are automatically and falsely labeled as victimizers of the oppressed.

While a number of schools are now under investigation by the Department of Education for violations of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, who knows how long those probes will take or if they will result in serious consequences? Meanwhile, the federal government continues to pour billions of dollars into higher education. That not only helps colleges inflate their tuition bills as part of a vast scam in which a generation of young people is going into debt for expensive degrees that aren’t worth what they cost but also subsidizing a vast array of institutions that may now be doing more harm than good.

Seeking liberal alternatives

This is a problem for all Americans who know that in this case, as with so many other ones, the Jews are the canaries in the coal mine. In the long run, if universities continue to be run and taught by people who are at war with Western civilization and America, they won’t survive—or at least not in their current form. Liberal education—and by liberal, I mean studies that are dedicated to the “great books” of the core curriculum that prizes the best of the West in the humanities and not the current poor excuse for learning that focuses obsessively on race and gender—is key to the survival of our university system. It may be that college degrees, including those from the most prestigious institutions like Harvard that have always been considered a gateway to inclusion in the country’s upper echelon, will no longer be valued as highly in the past. And that is certainly true for less well-regarded schools whose degrees will certainly be worth even less in the future.

But it is especially difficult for Jewish families, including those that might not have previously thought much about antisemitism when choosing a college for their children but are determined they have the best education possible.

While the woke problem is less awful in some universities than others, so successful has the progressives’ long march through higher education that few can be said to be completely free of it. Even a well-regarded institution like Hillsdale College is not going to be an option for most Jews because it is avowedly Christian. Nor are Jews who are not Orthodox going to retreat into Jewish enclaves like Yeshiva University or religious schools, including yeshivahs.

This dilemma is what has given some impetus to a movement to provide alternatives to what is currently on offer.

One such new option is the University of Austin, a private school that will admit its first students next fall. This promising project, which is backed by people like journalist Bari Weiss and renowned historian Niall Ferguson, will offer a classical Western education dedicated to both the genius of Western civilization and the kind of open discourse that is no longer to be found at most schools, especially the most prestigious ones. And it has gained considerable support in terms of donations and student interest since Oct. 7.

Another such option is the New College of Florida, a state-run institution that, thanks to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, has begun the work of changing itself into a bastion of Western thought after its previous leftist leadership essentially put it in danger of closing due to mismanagement. DeSantis put people like Christopher Rufo, whose work exposing the way critical race theory was ruining American education has made him very unpopular in academia, on its board. It doesn’t have the prestige of the Austin project, but its value lies not just in what it can offer students. It is trying to provide a model to the nation that will show how public colleges and universities can be saved.

As Bruce Abramson, its director of student admissions, told me, the small school that previously had little in the way of Jewish life is seeking to appeal to Jewish students who want a classical education at a place where they won’t have to worry about woke antisemitism.

That’s an important selling point, and both Austin and New College, each in their own way, are in the vanguard of a movement that is likely to grow because of the demand for what they are offering.

Cutting funding is the only answer

In the meantime, the best and the brightest, including and especially Jewish students, will still want to go to Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Stanford and the rest of the elite schools simply because they remain the surest path to success even if the value of their education on offer is clearly declining.

If those schools can’t rid themselves of their illiberal and antisemitic wokeness—and there’s no reason to think they can—then some other way must be found to force them to change. The only possibility is for Washington, which plays such a key role in enabling and spreading the problem through funding policies, to change. Instead of backing up DEI mandates, it needs to overturn and ban them, withholding federal funding from those academic institutions that resist.

That’s an enormous project that will require a change in power—the Biden administration’s embrace of DEI has created woke commissars throughout the government. It will also mean a realization within the political class that their expressions of horror about the rise of antisemitism on campus are meaningless unless it is ready to start rolling back the progressive capture of these schools by starving them of the money they have used both to bilk students and to hire an army of DEI bureaucrats who have made the current surge in Jew-hatred possible. Until that happens, we should expect the tales of Jewish victimization on American campuses once dedicated to liberal thought to continue and grow worse.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of the Jewish News Syndicate.

Topic tags:
Swords of Iron United States academia Antisemitism