Responses to Rising Anti-Semitism on University Campuses


Like dry kindling awaiting a single spark, the October 7 massacre (in which over 1,400 Israelis were murdered and hundreds more were injured and kidnapped) lit a bushfire of pro-Hamas rallies and confrontations in colleges and universities across North America. Before Israel had a chance to absorb, let alone respond, to the brutal attack, campuses were already becoming flashpoints of hateful rhetoric, anti-Semitic demonstrations, and confrontations. 


On October 9, a group of 34 student organizations at Harvard University swiftly issued a statement assigning total responsibility for the violence to the “Israeli regime.” This was followed by the national leadership of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) calling for a “Day of Resistance” on October 12, urging demonstrations across college campuses. Faculty members added to the anti-Israel fervor. At one demonstration, an associate professor of African American history at Cornell University, Russel J. Rickford, expressed his delight about the attacks, exclaiming, “It was exhilarating! It was energizing!” Later he issued an apology acknowledging that his words were “reprehensible.” A petition calling for his termination gained nearly 11,000 signatures. Cornell University confirmed his leave of absence and reassigned his course to another professor.  


A Stanford University lecturer has been suspended for allegedly making Jewish students stand in a corner and then branded them as “colonizers,” while also downplaying the Holocaust and defending murderous Hamas terrorists as “freedom fighters.”   


Joseph Massad, a professor of Modern Arab Politics and Intellectual History at Columbia University, wrote in an online article on October 9th that Hamas’  “awesome and incredible” offenses against Israel on October 7th were a “stunning victory.”  He faces calls for his removal in an online petition that has surpassed 30,000 signatures! 


At George Washington University,  the campus library’s exterior walls were turned into screens for slogans such as “Glory to our martyrs” and “Divestment from Zionist genocide now.” In New York, at Cooper Union College, Jewish students were forced to barricade themselves in a library as pro-Palestinian protesters banged on the doors and brandished wooden sticks and anti-Semitic signs in the window. An attempt by pro-Hamas demonstrators to burn an Israeli flag led to a violent altercation at Tulane University, resulting in a Jewish student suffering a broken nose after being struck with a megaphone. Multiple explicit violent threats targeting Jewish students were made on an online bulletin board. At Cornell University, multiple explicit violent threats on an online platform such as, “If I see a pig male Jew, I will stab you and slit your throat,” which caused the university to advise Jewish students to avoid the kosher dining hall, “out of an abundance of caution.”  


The incidents of harassment, intimidation, and violence against Israeli and Jewish students extend beyond these high-profile cases. Each day seems to bring new pictures and videos circulated on social media that capture the hostility they face. One recurring image, for example, is pictures of students at various universities holding a sign with a Jewish star being thrown into the trash alongside the words, “Let’s keep the world clean.” Videos of students coldly tearing down pictures of kidnapped Israelis and making anti-Semitic statements are likewise commonplace. Moreover, a video from Harvard University demonstrates the normalized hostility on campus. It shows a Jewish student enveloped by a crowd of peers instantly surrounded by a swarm of his peers holding up keffiyehs (a symbol of Palestinian resistance), obstructing his way and chanting, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” in unison. These examples are not merely anecdotal or isolated but are indicative of a pervasive trend that has sparked concern among students, parents, and faculty alike. 


Students Speak Out 

As tensions on campuses escalate, Jewish students are raising their voices, demanding action and protection from their universities. At a press conference, Columbia University and Barnard College students expressed their frustration with the administration’s lack of response to threats and called for more robust safety measures. 


A Barnard College psychology student, Jessica Brenner, shared her daily struggle. “Every day, as I walk on campus, I feel dehumanized. I feel unheard, and I feel unsafe. I feel abandoned.” Brenner’s sentiment was echoed by Yoni Kurtz from Columbia University, who criticized the university for responding to incidents with “empty statements” rather than concrete action. 


The students called for the university to clarify and enforce policies against identity-based bigotry, to increase funding and staff to support victims, and to create spaces for dialogue among students from diverse backgrounds. “This hate will not disappear on its own,” said Kurtz.  


Donors Take a Stand  


In a profound act of solidarity with students and in dismay at the universities’ inadequate response to the October 7 massacre and subsequent campus turmoil, Jewish benefactors are retracting their financial support from the academic institutions they have historically backed.   


At a grassroots level, former donors are taking to social media to showcase their marked donation cards, marked with handwritten declarations such as, “Until you protect and support your Jewish students, I am NOT donating ONE DOLLAR” and, “ZERO dollars to organizations that support Hamas.” 


Major donors are also taking a stand, attracting media attention as they withdraw their support from the universities they have championed. Leon Cooperman, a Columbia Business School alumnus and CEO of Omega Family Office, expressed his stance on Fox Business: “I’ve given to Columbia, probably about $50 million over many years, and I’m going to suspend my giving.” 


The University of Pennsylvania faces a potential loss of up to $1 billion in donations due to a campaign led by Marc Rowan, CEO of Apollo Global Management. Rowan, alongside other alumni, has paused donations, urging for a change in leadership due to their dissatisfaction with the university’s response to the Hamas-inspired violence. In an interview with CNBC, Rowan explained, “There has been a gathering storm around these issues. Microaggressions are condemned with extreme moral outrage, and yet violence, particularly violence against Jews, seems to have found a place of tolerance on the campus, protected by free speech.  


“Imagine telling a group of firefighters, a week after 9/11, that you’re sorry for their loss – and then adding the word ‘but’ – as if you’re going to explain the action of the terrorists. That’s kind of what happened on our campus. This has tapped into a nerve. Yesterday, my email and text blew up with people sending me photocopies of a $1 check to the University of Pennsylvania. Sometimes, when people don’t give to the university, the university can misunderstand it. By sending them $1, they’re sending the university a very important message, and trustees are really faced with a very difficult choice.”  


Similarly, the Wexner Foundation has severed ties with Harvard University, writing, “We are stunned and sickened at the failure of Harvard’s leadership to take a clear and unequivocal stand against the murder of innocent Israeli citizens…” The letter, signed by prominent figures including Leslie Wexner, marks the end of a longstanding relationship with Harvard, where a building at the John F. Kennedy School of Government bears Wexner’s name. Israeli businessman Idan Ofer and his wife have also resigned from board positions at the Kennedy School. 


This financial backlash from donors is a clear message to universities: the Jewish community demands action and accountability, not just words, in the face of anti-Semitic rhetoric, harassment, and violence. 


Beyond Financial Withdrawal – Additional Strategies for Combating Campus Anti-Semitism 


While the withdrawal of financial support is a powerful expression of opposition, it is one facet of a multifaceted approach needed to address anti-Semitism on university campuses effectively. 


Israeli President Herzog has penned an open letter to American universities, advocating for a balance between free speech and preventing violence-inciting speech. Among other suggestions, he has urged universities to establish task forces dedicated to developing comprehensive action plans against anti-Semitism for both campuses and the wider community. 


Dartmouth College has emerged as a model for constructive engagement, with Professors Susanna Heschel and T.K. El-Ariss spearheading forums for students to partake in respectful, scholarly discussions concerning the situation in Israel. These forums, endorsed by Dartmouth’s leadership, have cultivated an inclusive atmosphere for diverse student voices and perspectives, while also prioritizing mental health and spiritual support. 


In situations where students and faculty face anti-Semitic acts, the law firm Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, in collaboration with the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), Hillel International, and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, has established the “Campus Anti-Semitism Legal Help Line.” This initiative offers crucial legal assistance and advice to those confronting anti-Semitism. 


If the situation becomes completely intolerable for students, Yeshiva University has forged a coalition of over 100 institutions ready to streamline the transfer process for Jewish students seeking to escape anti-Semitic climates in the aftermath of the October 7 Hamas attacks. The list is primarily composed of U.S. Catholic universities that are extending their campuses as sanctuaries for Jewish students subjected to harassment.  


A Call to Action: Universities, Donors, and Communities Unite Against Anti-Semitism 


As we look to the future, it is clear that the fight against anti-Semitism on campuses requires a collective effort. The measure of our success will not be counted in dollars withdrawn or statements issued but in the everyday experiences of students who should never have to choose between their safety and their education. It calls for the commitment of university administrations, the vigilance of legal and advocacy groups, the compassion of interfaith allies, and the unwavering support of the global community. Our academic institutions must remain places where all students, regardless of their background or beliefs, can pursue knowledge and growth without fear.