The shamelessness of antisemitism in higher education has been unmasked with the horrific Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel. Until now, examples of antisemitism have been mostly beneath the surface and largely unaddressed: student organizations blocking leadership posts for pro-Zionist students; faculty refusing to write letters of recommendation for students who wish to study in Israel; administrators treating claims of harassment against Jews differently from other groups.
No surprise, then, that so many leaders of elite colleges and universities were caught off-guard with late or insufficient communications in response to the Hamas attack — the worst violence against Jews since the Holocaust.
Brandeis University is a secular institution founded by the American Jewish community in 1948 to counter antisemitism and bigotry in higher education. So where do Brandeis and higher education find themselves today? Unfortunately, things are no better and possibly worse: Faculty and students, through social media and university-chartered organizations on campuses across the country, celebrate the barbaric killing of Jews just because they are Jews. To counter this, leaders at colleges and universities must find their moral compass and no longer allow speech that constitutes harassment or threat of violence to flourish on our campuses. The logic of antisemitism is that left unchecked, it corrodes even the most basic moral standards that stand in its way.
Specifically, chants and social media posts calling for violence against Jews or the annihilation of the state of Israel must not be tolerated. This includes phrases such as “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” — which calls for the erasure of the Jewish state; “there is only one solution” — which echoes the Nazi strategy of killing all Jews; and “intifada, intifada” — an incitement to violence against Israeli civilians. Although some news outlets mischaracterized the student sentiment on the Brandeis campus, our community rejects terror and antisemitism alike. In fact, a student-led open letter standing with Israel and the Jewish people, and denouncing the atrocities perpetrated by Hamas, garnered more than 1,300 signatures.
Student organizations that do engage in such practices should lose all privileges associated with affiliation at their schools. In no way does this violate higher education’s deep and enduring commitment to free speech. With the focus on creating an environment for exchanging ideas freely for the purposes of challenging one’s limited views, freedom of speech rightly understood demands also the responsibility to uphold community standards against the incitement of violence and harassment, and free of intimidation.
Another blatant demonstration of antisemitism on campuses tolerated for far too long both here in the United States and abroad is the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. The movement aims to dismantle the Jewish state and end the right to Jewish national self-determination. Academic leaders must speak out against this unfiltered bigotry and cut official ties with student groups and professional associations that look to intimidate and bully students, faculty, and staff.
In what ways is Brandeis addressing these issues and how might it serve as a beacon for others? Most urgently, in this twilight zone moment when students and faculty seem to be enjoying their freedom to express grotesque language about Jews, Jewish life, and the Jewish state, Brandeis will uphold free speech rightly understood. Universities cannot stop hate speech, but they can stop paying for it. Brandeis will ensure that groups that receive privileges through their affiliations with the university, including using its name, will lose their affiliations and privileges when they spew hate.
Contrary to the prevalence of the BDS movement on college campuses, Brandeis will pursue closer ties with Israeli academic and cultural institutions and will encourage more universities to follow suit. Faculty interest in engaging with Israeli academics might be far greater than assumed. Through our own Israel initiative launched last year, we sent a survey asking our faculty one question: whether they would be interested in a visiting position at an Israeli institution. The result was counterintuitive and stunning. Seventy-seven percent of the 235 faculty who responded to the survey answered in the affirmative, which reflects an unusual openness among our faculty and an obvious willingness to engage rather than boycott Israeli academics. There is likely to be a significant portion of the professoriate on other campuses that has remained silent but would vote as our faculty did.
We are also offering opportunities for our peer institutions to be part of the solution. Seven months ago, Brandeis launched a three-part initiative to raise awareness of, and offer responses to, the impact of antisemitism on American campuses. The project offers programs for undergraduate students, leaders in higher education — including presidents and chancellors — and graduate students in the university’s program on Jewish professional leadership. We will continue to invite peer institutions to join our programming to educate and engage on the issue of antisemitism in collegiate life.
It is not only for the American Jewish community, nor for world Jewry, that Brandeis is today more relevant than ever. Certainly, the Jewish people need a strong and thriving university to mark a path for Jewish students to live their lives proudly and securely as Jews. But when such a path comes blisteringly into question, as it has these past few weeks, it means a special kind of ugliness is rearing its head — an ugliness about which we have thousands of years’ worth of history to remind us that the Jewish people serve as canaries in the coal mine.
Ronald D. Liebowitz is president of Brandeis University.