The extent to which anti-Israel activism by students on U.S. college campuses constitutes a problem has been the subject of considerable recent media attention.
Looking at the issue nationwide, some reports have claimed the problem is minimal. For example, the American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise released a report last October making this claim.
Others, meanwhile, have warned that the problem exists, is serious, and should not be downplayed.
Complicating the issue has been lack of clarity about when anti-Israel criticism, defined as legitimate disagreement with the government and policies of the state of Israel, devolves into anti-Semitism, defined as expressions of hatred of the Jewish people.
This article takes a first step toward understanding if and how these issues exist at institutions of higher learning in Wisconsin.
Our initial finding, based upon interviews with school administrators and Hillel student organization directors statewide, is that neither anti-Israel activity nor actions by students that might be construed as anti-Semitic are currently regarded as major problems on Wisconsin college campuses.
Madison and Milwaukee
At the University of Wisconsin-Madison, the Jewish student enrollment of approximately 5,000 far exceeds that of all other UW System campuses.
Greg Steinberger, executive director of the Hillel Foundation University of Wisconsin in Madison, reported in a telephone interview Jan. 28, “no strong anti-Semitic or anti-Israel activity” exists on the Madison campus.
He characterized relations between Muslim and Jewish students at Madison as “very positive,” adding that a Muslim-Jewish Volunteer Initiative there fostered social interaction between these groups.
“I don’t know how much they get into politics, and there can always be flashpoints,” Steinberger said, “but overall, on this campus, there’s maturity and respect.”
Steinberger acknowledged that expressions of anti-Israel bias by teachers in classrooms have evoked some complaints from UW-Madison students.
He suggested, however, that this is countered by the ample opportunities Madison offers students interested in Israel to learn about Israel, through formal course offerings and programs on campus.
“Students are being approached by pro-Israel groups now more than ever, in my 20 years with Hillel,” he said. “Students have access to information now more than ever, and the best students are engaged intellectually, and they can talk about Israel in an appropriate manner.”
At the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, there is currently no evidence of conflict between Jewish and Muslim student groups, said Elana Kahn-Oren, director of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation’s Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), in a telephone interview Jan. 28.
She identified the Muslim Student Association (MSA) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) as the major Muslim student organizations at UW-Milwaukee, and said that they held “a handful of events” each year, often as co-sponsors with outside community Muslim groups.
The most serious recent clash between Muslim and Jewish students occurred in 2010, during an event in which the Jewish Student Association was celebrating the 62nd anniversary of Israel’s founding.
According to a report in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (April 30, 2010), MSA members disrupted the event on the plaza outside the UW-Milwaukee Union. An altercation ensued, in which one Jewish student was reported injured and one Muslim student was arrested by campus police.
Disruptions of subsequent Israel-related events at that campus have not risen to the level of the 2010 incident, and have not attracted as much notice.
According to a report in “Israel Campus Beat” (April 5, 2012), the events constituting SJP’s first Israel Apartheid Week, held March 6-8, 2012, received little attention.
Kahn-Oren was quoted at the time as saying, “It seemed like a tree falling alone in a forest. It sort of happened and no one paid attention.”
Heidi Rattner, executive director of Hillel Milwaukee in a telephone interview Jan. 30, said there was little disruption when, in December 2012, Jewish students at UWM handed out fliers explaining Israel’s actions the month before in Operation Pillar of Defense.
This Israeli military action aimed to cripple terror organizations in the Gaza Strip and defend Israelis living under fire.
“Some hecklers appeared,” she said, “but it didn’t amount to much.”
“There’s no campus in America that’s worry-free,” Rattner said. “Jews and many other groups — LGBT, African-Americans, Latinos — experience hostility at one time or another.”
She said, however, that it would not be accurate to describe UWM, which has an enrollment of between 700 and 900 Jewish students, as a hotbed of either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic activity.
Moreover, in the limited number of instances in which Jewish students have expressed concern about the behavior of other students on campus, “we have excellent support from both the Chancellor [Michael R. Lovell] and Vice Chancellor [of Student Affairs, Michael Laliberte],” Rattner said.
Kahn-Oren and Rattner said that many students on the UW-Milwaukee campus have little knowledge about the Middle East, and both emphasized the importance of educating students not just about the politics of the region, but about its history, geography, and — above all — people.
Rattner said funds have been secured that will allow the Milwaukee Hillel to offer a course about the Middle East next fall, open to students of all religious and ethnic backgrounds.
Kahn-Oren said the JCRC has worked with community donors to fund an Israel Campus Fellowship, in which a skilled Israeli educator is brought here under the auspices of Hillel International and the Jewish Agency for Israel.
Michal Makov-Peled is currently a half-time Israel Campus Fellow at UW-Milwaukee. Makov-Peled and her husband, Ro’ee Peled, are the current shlichim (emissaries from Israel) to the Milwaukee Jewish community.
Makov-Peled was recently promoting Birthright Israel, a program that, according to a statement on its website (www.birthrightisrael.com), envisions strengthening “Jewish identity, Jewish communities and solidarity with Israel by providing a 10-day trip to Israel for young Jewish people.”
Kahn-Oren said Palestinian students on the Milwaukee campus challenged Makov-Peled, sarcastically questioning their chances of getting a free trip to Palestine.
“She engaged them in conversation, and transformed a contentious situation into something human” and amicable, Kahn-Oren said.
In an informal survey of other Wisconsin four-year campuses, Jan. 19-Feb. 1, college administrators and media liaisons who responded reported no awareness of anti-Israel protests or demonstrations over the past four years.
“I cannot recall any incidents on campus, and I’ve been here since 1985,” said Larry Riggenberg, director of university centers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse, in a telephone interview Jan. 28.
“We have a very small number of international students, some of whom are Muslim,” he said. “There are no [organized] Muslim student groups, but we do have a Hillel student organization, formed within the last five years, with a membership of about 25.”
Eve Lager, now a senior, has been president of La Crosse’s Hillel for four years. She said in a telephone interview Jan. 31 that she was always struck by how little students on her campus knew about Jews and Judaism.
“Many come from rural backgrounds, and have never met a Jew,” she said. “Our Hillel activities are open to everybody — only 13 or 14 of the 25 members are Jews. There are always lots of questions, but there’s no hatred, and I’ve always felt comfortable here.”
Julie Poquette, news bureau director at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, reported in an email Jan 29, “no anti-Israel protests or demonstrations [occurred] during the past four years that our campus police or student affairs staff are aware of.”
She said, however, two reports had been made over the past two years of “anonymous anti-Semitic graffiti” in the residence halls.
Such reports are handled by the UW-Eau Claire Bias Incident Response Team, created in 2010, making it a university priority to ensure “that everyone feels safe and comfortable on our campus.”
James Heim works closely with student organizations at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. He said in an email Jan. 28 that to his own knowledge and that of other professionals on campus, “there have not been any anti-Israel or anti-Semitic protests/behaviors in the past four years.” He confirmed that UW-Platteville has no formal organizations of Jewish or Muslim students.
The Jewish Daily Forward (May 13, 2011) reported that in 2005, a pro-Palestinian group from UW-Madison successfully lobbied the UW-Platteville Faculty Senate to pass a non-binding resolution calling on the university to divest from companies that supply the Israeli military.
While no divestment occurred, this was one of “a handful of instances” between 2005 and 2011 in which the anti-Israel BDS (Boycott Divestment Sanctions) movement was “well organized enough to draw an active official response from a … campus administrative body,” the Forward said.
Lynne Williams, director of marketing and communications at the University of Wisconsin-Superior, reported in an email Jan. 30 that she was unable to find anyone on the Superior campus with knowledge of any protests or demonstrations during the past four years.
This was likewise the case at both the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, according to Sara Kuhl, director of news and public affairs, in an email Jan. 28; and at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, according to Paul Shepherd, director of student life, in an email Jan. 29.
“Our students at UW-River Falls are highly engaged; however, a demonstration or protest on our campus is rare,” Shepherd said. “I have had the opportunity to observe many positive cross cultural dialogues among students through the programs we offer related to diversity education.”
Stephanie Sirovatka-Marshall is interim director of the student center and student activities at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. She said in a telephone interview Jan. 29 that she recalled no anti-Israel protests or anti-Semitic incidents on the Parkside campus in her 17 years there.
David Buchanan, director of public relations at Parkside, recalled in a telephone interview Jan. 22 having Muslim speakers on campus, but no threatening situations arising from their respective appearances.
Brian Dorrington is senior director of university communication at Marquette University, Milwaukee. He reported in an email Feb. 1 that no incidents have occurred on the Marquette campus that could be described as either anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.
“We are committed to creating a welcoming and nurturing institution at Marquette University,” Dorrington said. “We have more than 12,000 students and 3,000 employees who come from all walks of life and backgrounds. Our Catholic and Jesuit tradition emphasizes an equal measure of care for all students, faculty and staff and we have multiple Jewish student groups on campus, including the Jewish Student Union and Jewish Law Students Association.”
Sandra Kallio, senior university relations specialist for UW-Extension/UW Colleges, said in an email Jan. 31 that in her own survey of the 16 two-year colleges in the University of Wisconsin System, none reported having experienced either anti-Israel demonstrations or behaviors that might have been construed as anti-Semitic over the past four years.
She said none of these campuses had any formal Jewish or Muslim student organizations, and courses of study about Israel and the Middle East were generally not offered in the two-year curriculum.
“UW Colleges campuses focus on providing a broad liberal arts curriculum for freshmen and sophomores seeking an Associate of Arts and Science degree and therefore have no formal academic programs in specialized areas such as Israel Studies and/or Middle East Studies,” she said.
AICE and critics
The American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise study is entitled, “Israel and the Campus: The Real Story,” and was co-authored by AICE Executive Director Mitchell G. Bard, and Jeff Dawson, AICE campus coordinator. It covered the 2011-2012 academic year.
A major finding of that study was that anti-Israel events occurred on the campuses of less than three percent of all U.S. colleges in 2011-2012, most taking place “during a two-month period (February and March) when 49 American campuses held Israel hate fests.”
Writing in the Dec. 7, 2012, newsletter of The Institute for Jewish & Community Research, critic Aryeh Weinberg said AICE’s “three percent finding” had dominated media coverage of the study, and had “dangerously defined the problem as non-existent.”
Weinberg argued that rather than focusing on how many campuses have held an anti-Israel event — the AICE study reported tracking 674 anti-Israel events at 108 U.S. universities and at 25 in Canada — the more important focus should be on the effect of these events “on campus life, on American public opinion, and on American foreign policy.”
Steinberger said he could not recall details of the six anti-Israel events Bard reported in an email Jan. 28 as having taken place on the Madison campus in 2011-2012. Steinberger added that he also thought it was “not the number of such events, but their quality and content” that would warrant considering them significant.
The AICE study conceded that “many of the anti-Israel events transpire unnoticed,” because campus professionals advise students to ignore them, and “do not want to give the detractors the publicity they seek.”
This appears to have been the case at UW-Milwaukee last year. According to a report in “Israel Campus Beat” (April 5, 2012), Kahn-Oren sent mass emails urging students to avoid confrontations during SJP’s Israel Apartheid Week, an event that ultimately attracted little notice.
Weinberg further stated that of the more than 4,000 campuses cited in the AICE study, approximately 2,700 are four-year, degree-granting institutions, only some of which offer the platforms for political and social activity needed for staging anti-Israel events.
He argued that four-year commuter colleges, rural campuses, discipline-specific campuses, and two-year colleges are not of major interest to anti-Israel activists, who “are much more focused on promoting anti-Israelism on [four-year] campuses with a national and international impact.”
If the AICE study had been confined to the latter set of campuses, Weinberg wrote, “we can be sure that [the incidence of anti-Israel events] increases from the 3 percent reported.”
Michael Blumenfeld is executive director of the Wisconsin Jewish Conference. In a telephone interview Jan. 29, he said he thought that “students at two-year colleges tend to be less involved politically,” in general.
The AICE study denied the existence of a well-funded network of organizations working to delegitimize Israel.
Instead, Bard and Dawson claimed that anti-Israel activity on college campuses is primarily the work of two student-led groups, the MSA and the SJP, both of which operate without professional guidance.
Further, they reported that fewer than 10 percent of the anti-Israel events on campuses were related to the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement, which the study concluded had failed to gain traction, in light of strong opposition to it by campus administrators.
While anti-Israel activities may not be a major concern, whether anti-Semitism constitutes a problem on college campuses is less clear.
In December 2011, the IJCR published, “Alone on the Quad: Understanding Jewish Student Isolation on Campus,” in which more than 40 percent of the 1,400 students surveyed reported anti-Semitism on their campus.
Michael C. Duke of the Houston Jewish Herald-Voice (Jan. 5, 2012) said, “The study found a disparity between Jewish student perceptions of anti-Semitism on their campuses, at 43 percent, versus 11 percent of non-Jewish students who recognize the existence of anti-Jewish bigotry on campus. The disparity highlights the isolation Jewish students face in confronting anti-Semitism.”
Duke also noted that the study highlighted the lack of consensus as to what constituted anti-Semitism. Students, asked about their own experience of anti-Semitism, identified a range of instances including offensive jokes, comments about Jewish greed, and general derogatory remarks.
The statistics on anti-Semitism in the AICE study were higher. The AICE survey reported 78 percent of Jewish students witnessing or being subjected to anti-Semitism, defined as a situation “when the denigration (exemplified by expressions of support for terrorism; a call for the end of the Jewish state; the evocation of Nazi analogies) becomes so severe that it creates a hostile environment for Jewish students.”
The AICE study, like that of the IJCR, stated that campus administrators have been more reticent in acting against those targeting Jews than, for example, in cases in which gays, Hispanics, African-Americans, or women are offended.
Rattner said that in 2011, Harriet McKinney, executive director of the Milwaukee Area Jewish Committee, spoke with a group of resident assistants (“RAs” play a supervisory and guidance role in dormitory life) on the UW-Milwaukee campus, to enlighten them about anti-Semitism.
“We talked about Jewish stereotypes — that Jews are smart; that Jews control all the money; that Jews are cheap,” McKinney recalled in a telephone interview Jan. 31. “We talked about oppression — what it does to the victim and to the oppressor. We talked about ways in which Jews in this society do not feel welcome — how in celebrating Christmas, for example, there’s little recognition that everyone is not Christian. We talked about confusing Jews with Israel, and why Jews are sensitive about Israel.”
Judging by the questions the RAs asked, McKinney continued, it was apparent how little people know about Jews and Judaism.
Commenting on the general climate on the UW-Milwaukee campus today, McKinney said she was aware of “some Jewish students working hard around peace and building relationships with Muslim students.” She said, however, that she would like to see a greater push by university officials toward establishing good relationships among these groups.
The AICE study differentiated legitimate criticism of Israel from criticism that “has crossed the line and become anti-Semitic.” The IJCR study said that — according to one-third of Jewish students surveyed — anti-Israel campus protests have frequently targeted Jews.
“The environment is different now than it has been,” Kahn-Oren said. “While it’s legitimate to criticize the government and policies of the state of Israel, today Israel detractors are more emboldened to say that Israel should not exist — and that’s anti-Semitism.”
McKinney said that anti-Semitism is frequently generated through media bias, myths, and misinformation. “Israel is portrayed as a colonial force, versus people [Palestinians] wanting to return to their homeland,” she said. “Some would say that the Palestinians deserve a homeland, and Jews don’t.” She characterized this as classic anti-Semitism, where Jews are held to a different standard and regarded as “unlike any other people on the planet.”
Writing in the Jewish Political Studies Review in 2004, Natan Sharansky, well-known Soviet dissident and current chair of the Jewish Agency for Israel, proposed a “3D” test to help distinguish legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism.
• Demonization. “When the Jewish state is being demonized; when Israel’s actions are blown out of all sensible proportion; when comparisons are made between Israelis and Nazis and between Palestinian refugee camps and Auschwitz — this is anti-Semitism, not legitimate criticism of Israel.”
• Double standards. “When criticism of Israel is applied selectively; when Israel is singled out by the United Nations for human rights abuses while the behavior of known and major abusers, such as China, Iran, Cuba, and Syria, is ignored; when Israel’s Magen David Adom, alone among the world’s ambulance services, is denied admission to the International Red Cross — this is anti-Semitism.”
• Delegitimization. “When Israel’s fundamental right to exist is denied — alone among all peoples in the world — this too is anti-Semitism.”
However, Joel Sipress, professor of history and chair of the Department of Social Inquiry at UW-Superior, said that false claims of anti-Semitism can and do stifle debate.
“I do agree that criticisms of the Israeli government do sometimes take on anti-Semitic overtones,” he said in an email Feb. 4. “Personally, however, I am far more concerned with the efforts of what I would term extreme Zionist individuals and organizations within the United States to shut down open discussion of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through spurious charges of anti-Semitism.”
The AICE study identified the most serious problem on campus as coming from faculty rather than from student activities. Bard and Dawson contended that what faculty members convey in the classroom carries far more weight than a student protest or an occasional guest lecturer.
They concluded, however, that “it is difficult to do anything about professors who abuse their positions for political purposes because they are allowed to hide behind the shield of academic freedom.”
The IJCR study noted that many students do not hold strong opinions about the Middle East conflict, and are thus susceptible to accepting faculty points of view, especially when offered in the classroom, as truth.
The research for the present article revealed little if any evidence of expressions of bias against Israel or Jews by teachers in the Wisconsin colleges surveyed.
Questions did arise, however, over the extent to which certain viewpoints about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for example, could be interpreted as anti-Semitic. These questions remain open to debate.
Lynne Kleinman, Ph.D., is a retired teacher and journalist. She has been working with a group developing “Jewish Neighbors in Wisconsin: A Web-based Curriculum,” a project of the Wisconsin Society for Jewish Learning, Inc.