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OPINION

Campus DEI offices have failed to address antisemitism

Colleges’ responses to Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel highlight struggles of Jewish college students.

A Cornell University campus police officer and a state trooper were parked outside the Center for Jewish Living on Nov. 3, in Ithaca, N.Y., where a Unity Shabbat dinner was held. The Department of Justice has charged a student with posting threatening messages to a Cornell "online discussion site, including posts calling for the deaths of Jewish people."Matt Burkhartt/Getty

Israeli Harvard sophomore Maya Shiloni said she has been called a “murderer” behind her back on campus because she completed her mandatory military service in the Israel Defense Forces. “There are people who don’t want to be friends with me who justify it because of their political reasons,” Shiloni said.

For years, there have been instances of harassment of Jewish and pro-Israel students on college campuses. But since Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack in Israel and Israel’s military retaliation, the slights students like Shiloni say they have experienced have burgeoned in volume and severity, including charges of violence. Hillel International received 589 reports of antisemitic incidents on campus between Oct. 7 and Dec. 1, including allegations of assaults, vandalism, bullying, intimidation, and threats of violence, according to Mark Rotenberg, Hillel’s vice president and general counsel. A survey of Jewish college students by Hillel and the Anti-Defamation League found that 73 percent of students who responded had experienced antisemitism during the 2023-2024 school year so far, compared to 32 percent in 2020-2021.

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The US Department of Education has launched civil rights investigations against seven schools — including Harvard University and Wellesley College — for failing to respond appropriately to discrimination based on antisemitism or Islamophobia. At Wellesley, resident assistants emailed dorm residents that there should be “no support for Zionism” on campus. The Harvard investigation reportedly relates to an incident where an Israeli student was allegedly shoved by pro-Palestinian demonstrators. At Cornell University, a student was arrested for making online threats of violence against Jews on campus.

Palestinian students have also been targeted, including the horrific shooting of three Palestinian college students in Vermont, although authorities have not yet confirmed a motive.

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For several years, particularly since George Floyd’s 2020 murder by a Minneapolis police officer raised heightened awareness of racism, colleges have invested heavily in diversity, equity, and inclusion programs. Yet the effort has been inadequate to meet students’ recent needs.

Brandeis University recently convened a conference on antisemitism in higher education; its president, Ronald Liebowitz, said one conclusion that emerged was the investment schools made in diversity training and education “hasn’t had the impact and effect that has been hoped for.”

Thankfully, DEI is not a static movement. As LeManuel Bitsóí, vice president for diversity, equity, and inclusion at Brandeis, noted, equity work has morphed over the years, from civil rights to affirmative action to multiculturalism to DEI, encompassing Black Lives Matter and transgender rights. “The beauty of DEI work is that it’s constantly evolving,” Bitsóí said.

The DEI movement now needs to incorporate and reemphasize a commitment to fighting antisemitism and other forms of anti-religious hate, including Islamophobia. The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance has established an internationally accepted definition of antisemitism that campuses can adopt, and it provides resources to clarify the often blurry line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Theoretically, DEI offices — alongside campus student affairs officials — are well-poised to do this. Existing DEI trainings for students and staff could incorporate antisemitism and Islamophobia. Campus codes of conduct that create accountability for racist or homophobic behavior can and should cover behavior that targets any religious or ethnic group. Procedures for investigating and responding to racial bias, inside or outside a classroom, should also be available to Jewish, Muslim, Israeli, and Arab students dealing with religious or ethnic bias. Different affinity groups should all receive university support.

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Yet DEI movements have often avoided antisemitism. Initiatives focused on racial justice have sometimes led to Jews being seen as white and privileged, although Jews are racially diverse. In some cases, Jews have been targeted by critics of Israel, who consider the Jewish state “colonialist.”

“DEI offices in American higher education spaces were not set up with Jewish students’ needs in mind,” Rotenberg said. “They’re not historically focused on the needs of Jewish students and when Jewish students’ needs now have become urgent and critical, most of these DEI offices have been frankly asleep at the switch.”

Harvard recently announced that its DEI office will seek “to more fully integrate antisemitism” into its work. Wellesley officials declined to comment due to the federal investigation, but an email to the Wellesley community announced plans to train faculty and staff on preventing discrimination based on religion and ancestry.

Campus officials say some of the most successful strategies for handling post-Oct. 7 unrest have been policies that encourage academic engagement with the issues, support for individual students, and small group dialogues involving students, faculty, and administrators. Strong campus policies allow wide latitude on what constitutes free speech while strictly adhering to codes of conduct that prohibit harassment or threats and set rules around protests to maintain security.

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The DEI movement is not a monolith. Some schools have inclusive DEI programs that focus on all hate and discrimination and successfully teach skills like dialogue and empathy. That is a model worth emulating. Regardless of whether a student is Black, white, Hispanic, Jewish, Muslim, or has any other racial, ethnic, gender, or religious identity, all deserve equal respect.


Shira Schoenberg can be reached at shira.schoenberg@globe.com. Follow her @shiraschoenberg.