Ahead of Chanukah, two students at Colgate University in upstate New York vandalized a campus menorah. When they were caught, they explained that they didn’t mean it. They were just drunk.
The incident at Colgate isn’t a big story in and of itself, because anti-Jewish incidents on campuses happen every day, all over the United States. However, the explanation the students provided for their behavior — “We were drunk” — exposes a larger truth. Their thinking, apparently, was that their drunkenness made their deed understandable. Of course, if you’re drunk, you’d think it was a good idea to vandalize a Jewish religious symbol. Everyone hates Jews, so if you want to prove that you’re cool and with it, as drunken students invariably do, the right move is to destroy a menorah.
Last month, the AMCHA Initiative published an extraordinary and vital study on the design and aim of antisemitism on US campuses. In the aftermath of the latest round of Hamas’s terror war against Israel in May 2021, assaults against Jews at US colleges and universities doubled. The AMCHA Initiative report, “Campus Antisemitism and the Assault on Jewish Identity,” was authored by Tammi Rossman-Benjamin and Leila Beckwith.
Benjamin and Beckwith explained that antisemitism on college campuses cannot be understood simply by counting the number of verbal and physical assaults on Jewish students. The phenomenon is much broader and far more insidious than mere attacks like the drunken vandalization of a menorah.
The AMCHA Initiative report demonstrates that antisemitism on campus is an all-out assault on Jewish identity. The assault is undertaken by three groups: Faculty members who support and work to advance the campaign to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel and its supporters on their campuses; non-Jewish BDS campus groups like Students for Justice in Palestine; and Jewish anti-Zionist groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. Working separately and together, faculty, non-Jewish BDS groups and Jewish BDS groups assault Jewish identity in three ways.
First, they seek to redefine what Judaism is. Consistent, multiyear surveys show that some 80 percent of American Jews say that supporting Israel is an essential component of their Jewish identity.
This isn’t surprising. Identification with the Jewish people and the Land of Israel have been foundational components of Jewish identity from time immemorial. The campus antisemitic groups insist that Zionism — that is, support for and identification with Israel — is alien to Judaism, that Judaism has been “occupied” by Zionism and that Zionism is an assault against “authentic” Judaism.
In other words, Zionism is a form of antisemitism.
By the same token, not only is anti-Zionism — that is, support for the destruction of the Jewish state and rejection of the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their homeland — not a form of antisemitism, it is pro-Jewish. The good Jews, the authentic Jews, under this new “Judaism,” are the anti-Zionist Jews in Jewish Voice for Peace and its aligned Jewish groups.
Having redefined Judaism as the opposite of what Judaism actually is, the groups involved in assaulting Jewish identity on campus then use the “good Jews” who embrace the new invented Jewish “identity” as a means to justify the persecution of the “bad Jews” who reject the appropriation and redefinition of their identity.
Persecution of “bad Jews,” is undertaken in two ways. First, Jewish identity — the real one — is denigrated. Zionist Jews and Zionism are castigated as anti-progressive and racist. They are “Jewish supremacists,” and “colonialists.”
Having invented a new Judaism, with “good Jews,” the groups assaulting Jewish identity have a way to protect themselves from charges of antisemitism. Not only are they not antisemites, they say, they are the good Jews’ best friends. They are protecting and defending these anti-Zionist Jews from the racist, evil “antisemitic” Jews who are trying to compel the “good Jews” to accept the alien, “anti-Jewish” concept of Zionism and support for the Jewish state as part of their Jewish identity.
Having redefined Judaism in a manner that empties it of its actual content, and transformed the newly minted anti-Jewish Judaism into “authentic” Judaism, the BDS-supporting faculty, non-Jewish BDS student groups and anti-Zionist Jewish student groups work to suppress expressions and manifestations of Zionism and Jewish pride on campuses.
Efforts to boycott Jewish professors who support Israel, ban Zionist speakers from schools, boycott Birthright trips to Israel for Jewish students and intimidate Jews into avoiding expressions of their Judaism are all part of this suppression effort. Taken together, the purpose of the assault on Jewish identity on college campuses is to wipe out Jewish life on campus and replace it with a fake Judaism and fake Jewish life.
One of the remarkable aspects of this effort is its similarity to the events we commemorate on Chanukah. Nearly 2,200 years ago, following their conquest of Judea, the Greeks engaged in an all-out assault on Jewish identity in all its component parts. Jewish faith and religious practice, Jewish national identity and Jewish sovereignty were all denigrated, suppressed or redefined.
The Greek effort to wipe out Jewish identity involved prohibition of Torah study, circumcision, Shabbat observance and other Jewish rituals. They were replaced by Greek paganism and culture. To advance their effort to redefine Judaism as Hellenism, the Greeks mobilized Hellenized Jews who they promoted to positions of power and religious authority.
The Maccabees and their comrades revolted against this cultural imperialism. They waged both a civil war against Hellenized Jews and an anti-imperialist struggle against Greek colonial rule of Judea. It is their victory over both forces that we celebrate on Chanukah.
Persecution of Jews on campuses and the dismantling of their communities is only one aspect of the effort to blot out Jewish identity. The other side is what it does for non-Jews, because the assault on Jewish identity is not only directed against Jews. It is also directed towards non-Jews. It is a marketing tool for popularizing antisemitism and making progressives antisemitic.
Progressives are trained to hate two types of people — those who are defined as members of racial (or sexual identity groups) defined as oppressors; and right-wingers/conservatives/fascists. The campus assault on Jewish identity redefines Judaism as of a piece with both hated categories of people. Jews must be hated because they are “white.” And Jews must be hated because Zionism is “racism,” “Jewish supremacism” and “fascism.”
Under the circumstances, all right-thinking progressives must hate and despise the Jews.
This is not a new ploy. The communists acted in a similar fashion. From Karl Marx on, to mobilize communists to hate Jews, communists defined Jews as capitalists and rootless cosmopolitans. Likewise, for more than a thousand years, Christians defined Jews as Christ-killers who rejected God and were, in turn, rejected by God. Both communists and the Christians used Jews who converted to their cause to demonize the Jews who maintained faith in Judaism and their Jewish identity. They used their demonization of Jews to make their societies antisemitic.
The AMCHA Initiative’s new study enables us to see the insidious scope and nature of the campus assault on Jews. By redefining Judaism as anti-Judaism, they define Jews who try to defend themselves as “antisemites.”
With the understanding of the actual scope and aim of this antisemitic assault on Jewish identity in hand, it becomes apparent that Jews cannot engage with those assaulting them.
This isn’t about Israel. It is about them.
This isn’t about the best way to achieve Middle East peace or human rights. It is a bigoted assault aimed at making antisemitism a component of progressive identity, destroying Jewish life on campuses and eventually destroying Jewish communal life throughout the United States.
Defending Judaism against progressive allegations of racism and Jewish supremacism is like arguing with a communist that Jews aren’t rootless cosmopolitans. The minute you engage in the debate you lose it. These people don’t care if a Hillel or AIPAC or Jews on campus support the establishment of a two-state solution.
They don’t want a two-state solution. They want to eradicate Israel and destroy Jewish life in America. They are antisemites, not sparring partners.
The AMCHA report, and a follow-up report published last week, discuss ways to use campus codes of conduct and the Civil Rights Act to defend Jewish students. Whatever efforts are made to protect Jewish students, however, the best protection for Jewish life on campuses and in the United States more generally is disengagement from antisemitic discourse. With help from Jewish organizations and Israeli consulates, American Jewish parents, students and faculty need to develop and deepen their Jewish identity and pride in who they are.
To stand up to the antisemitic assault, Jews need to embrace the truth and authenticity of Zionism and their membership in the Jewish people.
More than spinning dreidels or lighting the menorah, the best way for Jewish students in American colleges and universities, and the American Jewish community as a whole, to truly celebrate the miraculous victory of the Maccabees over the cultural imperialists of their day is to stand up to the cultural imperialists of our day; not by the sword, but by embracing the truth, the beauty and the spirit of Judaism throughout the ages.