Responding to Anti-Israel Campaigns on College and University Campuses
|Frequently Asked Questions
When Responding to Anti-Israel
Activities on Campus
Updated: January 20, 2009
The following scenarios are adapted from actual incidents on campuses across the country. The answers are intended to help you think strategically about different ways to address these concerns.
If you are encountering any of the scenarios presented, or would like to seek assistance with other situations where you feel targeted by hate on your campus, please do not hesitate to contact the Anti-Defamation League at www.adl.org.
Q.Recently, an anti-Israel group organized a protest rally on my campus. During the event, several speakers used anti-Semitic language in their speeches. Some of the speakers were faculty and students, and others were from outside the university’s community. I was deeply offended by their comments. Isn’t such hate speech against the law? Is there anything I can do about these rallies?
A. Both the protest rally and the speakers’ comments are likely protected speech and not subject to discipline. In general, speeches at a political protest rally on a university campus are protected from discipline by both private and public schools, so long as no specific threats were directed at an individual student or a group of students. The fact that you were offended by the words does not mean that they were unlawful.
Since your true concern is with the behavior you experienced, you should urge your university administration and student leaders to issue a public statement against the hateful speech that occurred at the rally. When administrators speak out and condemn the hateful and anti-Semitic nature of speech, they are exercising their own right to free speech and academic freedom and demonstrating their commitment to campus safety.
Q. During a recent anti war rally, a few of the participating students singled me out as Jewish. They pushed me up against a wall, threatened to physically hurt me and made anti-Israel comments like calling me a “Zionist Nazi” and saying “You have blood of innocent Palestinians on your hands.” I feel threatened. What can I do?
A. The first thing you should do is contact your university police or local police station and report the incident. Physically assaulting a person because of the victim’s actual or perceived race, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability is a hate crime. Hate crimes affect entire communities, not just the victim. For this reason, many states have adopted hate crimes laws that call for more severe penalties when crimes are determined to be motivated by hate. Further, most states have laws against verbal provocation, often called “fighting words.” In this example you were physically threatened. However, even if you were not physically touched, it is possible that the words directed at you might have constituted fighting words.
You should also report the incident to the university. If you do not feel comfortable contacting the university yourself, you can ask a friend, faculty member, or school counselor to do it for you. Most universities allow anyone to report a violation of the code of conduct, regardless of whether he/she was the target of the incident. Some universities have online capabilities for anonymously reporting events. Faculty members and counselors can be good resources for helpful advice and guidance in resolving the issue. You also can ask the local Hillel to speak out on the issue so that you do not feel alone.
ADL, with its extensive academic and law enforcement contacts, is a valuable resource as well. As a respected off-campus agency, it can be most effective when working in concert with on-campus groups and individuals.
In addition, review your university’s written policy prohibiting student-to-student discrimination based upon race, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability. The university can take disciplinary action against students who intimidate and threaten other students in violation of that policy.
Q.Following a recent anti-Israel rally, several students posted anti-Semitic flyers around campus. Can I have these removed?
A. Leaflets are one of the most highly protected forms of speech. The government may rarely restrict, let alone prohibit, the distribution of literature. However, most universities have policies for posting flyers on campus. If the flyers were not posted in accordance with the university policy, the administration may take the flyers down. If this does not happen, contact the university and complain about the flyers and the fact that they have not been removed. If there is still no action, contact the university again to register a complaint about its failure to act. Given the varied nature of campus administrative responsibilities, be sure to register your complaint with a variety of relevant offices (i.e. Student Affairs, Housing, Campus Union, individual departments, maintenance, police, etc.).
If the flyers were posted in accordance with university policy, it is illegal for individuals to remove the flyer. Ask the university administration and other campus leaders to respond to the flyers by explicitly stating that it does not condone anti-Semitic behavior, whether in written publications or in speech. When a university responds with a strong statement condemning such behavior, it sends a strong message of community and respect to all students.
Another approach is to counter offensive flyers with your own flyers. Your flyers should provide strong, factual language that corrects the misinformation or bias presented in the original leaflet.
Q. In celebration of the festival of Sukkot, my fellow Jewish students and I got permission to construct a Sukkah on our campus. Several days later it was defaced with swastikas. What should I do?
A. This criminal act of vandalism is considered a hate crime. You should report it to the university police and/or the local police department. You should take pictures of the swastikas to preserve a record of the crime. Have the swastikas removed after the photos are taken and the police complete their on-site investigation.
If you know who committed the crime (or have concrete suspicions), you should report that to the police and university administration as well, so that both criminal charges and disciplinary proceedings can be pursued.
Q.A panel discussion is taking place on campus, sponsored by a student organization. The panelists are an Israeli and a Palestinian. The program is publicized as a balanced view of the conflict. In reality, both the Israeli and the Palestinian panelists are harshly critical of Israeli policy. Is there anything that can be done to ensure a balanced discussion the next time around?
A. The best thing to do in this situation is to counter this speech with your own speech. Set up a debate that is truly balanced, write a letter to the editor of your campus newspaper, or find and invite speakers supportive of Israel to your campus. Or invite the student organization to co-sponsor a debate with you, where each of you can present a speaker. It is highly recommended to hold a debate if, and only if, the speakers are professional experts. Reach out to other student organizations and individuals who may agree that the presentation was biased and unfair.
Strategically thinking, your response would differ if this event had been sanctioned by the university rather than a student group. If the panel had been coordinated by the university, explain clearly why this is a biased program and ask them to sponsor another event that provides a pro-Israel perspective.
Your university Hillel or local ADL can assist you in finding engaging and informative speakers to participate in panels or speaking engagements that you organize.
Q.This past week there was an anti-Israel rally on campus where students held signs saying “Zionism = Racism” and “Israel = Nazism,” and constructed mock “Israeli Apartheid Walls” on the main campus thoroughfare which included pictures of bloodied Palestinian babies. Anti-Semitic flyers were posted around campus and a student who sits next to me in one of my classes had a Star of David with a slash through it on his notebook. It seems that almost every week there is a protest, a speaker, or a rally of this sort. The number of offensive comments flowing from these events has increased steadily as well. I feel insecure walking through campus, going to the dining hall, or even attending class. What can I do?
A. General non targeted expressions of anti-Semitism, although hateful, offensive and sometimes scary, are protected by the First Amendment and are not legally actionable.
However, depending on the frequency, location and intensity, if a threshold is crossed which creates a hostile learning environment, there are possible avenues of legal recourse. For example, if the people holding the signs or conducting the mock checkpoints are blocking your access to class, then the school should respond and ensure your unimpeded access to class or other university locations.
If you have been singled out on your campus and are the target of harassment, which has become so pervasive, persistent or severe that you feel insecure going to class or even walking across campus, you should immediately contact the police to file a complaint.
If the harassment is based upon your race, color, or national origin and the university receives federal funding (most do), then the administration has an affirmative duty to prevent such an environment from continuing on the campus. Such harassment may be in violation of federal law. Many state and local laws extend this protection to race, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender identity or disability as well.
If you have registered a complaint about the hostile conditions that exist and your university takes no actions to eliminate the problem, you may need outside legal assistance. A school violates its legal duty to prevent a hostile environment when (1) there is a hostile environment, (2) the school has notice of the problem and (3) it fails to respond adequately to remedy the situation.
Q. The student government was recently presented with a proposal to divest all university financial holdings from companies that do business with Israel. How do I counter this campaign?
A. Since the outbreak of the second intifada in September 2000, organized campaigns have promoted the “divestment” of university, municipal, church and other investment portfolios from Israeli companies and from companies that do business with Israel, as a punitive measure against Israel for its policies in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Divestment campaigns have been defeated on campus due to effective counteradvocacy. Petitions in support of divesting from Israel led to counterpetitions that, in most cases, have gathered even more signatures. For example, while a pro-divestment petition drive in 2002 at MIT and Harvard managed to collect 440 signatures, a counterpetition had the signatures of more than 2,500. A pro-divestment petition at Columbia University in 2002 had garnered 537 signatures, while a counterpetition collected 24,820 signatures.
To help counter anti-Israel divestment initiatives, develop materials and share your views explaining why divestment from Israel is wrong. Talking points may be found through organizations such as ADL, AIPAC, and the Israel embassy and should be used as the basis of your own personal advocacy, opinion pieces or letters to the editor. Shape these talking points into a petition. Reach out to build a coalition against divestment efforts. Call on local politicians, college administrators and professors to speak out against divestment.
Q.While I was trying to go to class, a group of anti-Israel protesters blocked my access to the building. They made threatening comments toward me and made anti-Semitic remarks. Is there anything I can do about this?
A. Depending upon the severity of the threats, the conduct may violate state and federal law and may be considered a hate crime. If you felt threatened by the incident, you should contact your local and/or university police department and file a report.
In addition, blocking your access to classrooms and university buildings is most likely a violation of your school’s policies for protests. You should report this incident to the university, which can take appropriate disciplinary action.
Q. While attending a recent on-campus Israel-Palestine debate sponsored by an anti-Israel group, I was singled out and searched and then placed under “security surveillance” by the students hosting the debate. They followed me to my seat and stood behind me throughout the debate. I believe this was because I am Jewish. Can they do this to me?
A. This group cannot use the event as an opportunity to discriminate and humiliate other students on campus. Such harassing behavior by students most likely violates the school’s code of conduct. You should immediately notify the university that such conduct occurred and work with the administration to remedy the situation and discipline the perpetrators.
Q. My university does not have a student code of conduct that prohibits students from harassing each other. Is there anything I can do to get one written?
A. You can help your university to develop guidelines to prevent this type of harassment on campus. ADL has many resources to help schools and students develop rules to prevent discrimination, including model and sample codes of conduct, such as those in appendix A. You also can contact your local ADL office for assistance.
Q. I recently wrote a paper in my Middle East Studies class supporting Israel’s right to exist. I have always been a solid A student, but received a C in the class. If I do not agree with my professor’s political perspective, can my grade be penalized?
A. If you feel discrimination or intimidation within your classroom, the most important action is to speak up. It is the responsibility of a university to provide an atmosphere conducive to speculation, experiment and creativity. Faculty members are hired as experts in their field to educate students on a specific subject. Individual professors are entitled to their personal and professional perspectives on religion, politics, history, and current events. These various perspectives are crucial to the academic process and environment. However, when faculty enter the classroom, it is their duty to present their subject in a professional manner.
The classroom environment is a venue for learning. Students have a right to learn in an environment without intimidation based on their perspectives. While this does not mean that students should only hear views with which they agree, it does mean that the professor has an obligation to create an environment where multiple perspectives can be expressed. A professor’s intolerance may isolate students who hold opposing perspectives and force them to hide their beliefs in order to protect their academic standing.
The first step is to talk with your professor about the situation. If you do not feel comfortable confronting the professor on your own, talk with other students in the class who may have experienced a similar situation. Keep copies of your term papers and exams. If you feel that you are being penalized based on your political perspective, show your work to the department head or dean of students who can determine if you were graded fairly. You can also contact the academic dean/administrator for the subject area, Hillel director, or another university professional who can advise you.
Q. I was harassed by students participating in a recent anti-Israel rally. Three students came up to me and made anti-Semitic statements. They followed me to class yelling “Zionism is racism.” I was not physically assaulted, but I felt threatened. I reported the incident to my university, but it failed to take any action against the other students. What should I do now?
A. You should contact the university to confirm that they have reviewed your complaint. It is possible that they are conducting an investigation before holding any disciplinary hearings. If they have decided not to go forward with any disciplinary action, find out the reason. For example, they may have settled the issue with the students in an alternative way. Keep in mind that your university might have a nondisclosure policy regarding school disciplinary actions and may not be willing to inform you about the actions it took.
If the harassment you suffered continues and the university continues to refuse to, or fails to, rectify this, you might consider pursuing legal action against the school. If the school receives federal funds, it has an affirmative duty to eliminate a hostile environment of which it is aware and it is liable to you if it fails to do so.
If the harassment you suffered included threats of physical violence against you, this would be considered a hate crime. Contact the local police immediately. They may be able to bring charges against the individuals who threatened you.