This op-ed reflects the views of this author and does not necessarily reflect the views of Jewish on Campus.
Antisemitism is present on college campuses all over the world. Students confront antisemitism in their interactions with peers, in the classroom and on an institutional level. While this phenomenon is on the rise, its presence has a deep-rooted history.
An influx of Jewish immigration to the US in the early 20th century resulted in an uptick in Jewish university enrollment. The Jewish commitment to education caused universities to become disproportionately populated by Jews, and the higher education system was clear in their disdain. American Jews applying to universities were met with quotas and extra barriers to admission, such as additional testing and interviews attempting to flag Jewish applicants. Many universities started screening applicants by last name in hopes of catching Jewish and other ethnic names, instituting a sort of silent quota. Both then and now, antisemites trying to drive the culture on campus won’t necessarily broadcast that they’re a no-Jew zone, but, covertly, make these campus spaces inaccessible to Jews.
Blunt antisemitism keeping the Jewish presence to a minimum or even zero is not as common as it used to be, but even in an environment that is supposedly growing more accepting and inclusive, some students still find messages that read “No Jew go away.”
Brown University in the 1950s refused to accommodate students who kept kosher; they were told to go elsewhere, that Brown wasn’t the place for them. Now, the same message is still expressed on countless campuses but with less explicit messaging. Universities have retired the brazen language that observant Jews should simply enroll elsewhere but ban kosher products in an attempt to implement BDS on campus.
Even those who gained admission faced obstacles to their success on campus. Social life at Princeton in the mid-20th century rested on their social eating clubs, which in modern terms, had the cut-throat social competition of ‘Bama rush. If a student didn’t get into a good eating club — or worse, if they received no bid at all — they could say goodbye to a social life. Some said goodbye to Princeton altogether because of the social oust. Even though there weren’t overt quotas, students who were clocked as Jewish or fit negative Jewish stereotypes were rarely if ever, granted bids. Having been the cultural norm for so long — and at one of the most prestigious universities in the country — this social caste set a precedent for campus cultures to socially isolate Jews.
These biases still exist similarly in Greek life and are often found in clubs’ conditional acceptance of Jews: Jewish students who wish to participate in this club must renounce Zionism. The new way of saying, “We don’t mind Jews, just don’t be too Jewy.”
Abram Sachar founded Brandeis University to provide a secular college education for Jews at a time when quotas were the norm. In 1948 — the time of Brandeis’ establishment — there was not a single medical school in New England without a quota for Jews. But the student body has outgrown its Jewish roots into a campus whose climate of antisemitism follows the same pattern as so many other schools; the hostility and ostracization that mirror that of countless other campuses overshadow the strong Jewish roots and mission upon which the institution was founded. Even a school created with the intent to provide a flourishing Jewish educational environment is now infested with antisemitism.
Antisemitic campus culture creates a dynamic between the Jewish community and the student body at large that is always subject to scrutiny: when Jewish students try to integrate, they’re ostracized, and when they form their own communities and clubs, they’re criticized for being too insular and separating themselves from mainstream student life. And when these communities that Jewish students create so they can feel safe, included, and socially successful, they’re targeted by antisemitic groups on campus calling to boycott or defund Jewish entities on campus.
These unwelcoming sentiments have always existed on college campuses, both from students and at the administrative level. Jews are either welcomed conditionally or not at all. The aversion to Jews who were too “Jewish presenting” has, over time, morphed into the isolation of Zionists. While the institutions themselves may no longer outwardly be endorsing this othering of Jews, they have done nothing to rectify it either. Antisemitism is an institutional problem, even if the problem has assumed the illusion of being on a smaller scale.