At a university where Jewish students make up 24% of undergraduates, one would hope antisemitism doesn’t breed on school grounds. However, at George Washington University (GW) the large Jewish presence on campus frequently reports antisemitic incidents.
Jewish students at GW constantly face antisemitic speech and vandalism. Despite widespread condemnation throughout the Jewish community, the calls to adopt a definition of antisemitism and take tangible measures to decrease antisemitism on campus have gone largely ignored by the university administration.
Over the weekend of Halloween, an unknown perpetrator broke into the Tau Kappa Epsilon on the GW campus, where one-quarter of the members are Jewish. The house was vandalized and a replica Torah scroll had been ripped apart.
Several GW Jewish campus organizations including Chabad and Hillel organized a Torah procession and solidarity rally the Monday following the desecration. For many students, this became a beacon of hope.
“I genuinely did not expect that many people to show up. And it was a very diverse group of people, which was really nice to see,” said International Affairs student Elijah Farkash.
Though GW President LeBlanc did “condemn antisemitism and all forms of hatred,” the university has yet to take any steps to prevent further antisemitic incidents from occurring. This is just the latest antisemitic vandalization incident at GW. In February 2020, a Jewish student found antisemitic graffiti on his dorm room door that displayed Donald Trump with a Swastika on his forehead.
While the response to the Torah desecration was mainly strength and solidarity, more acts of antisemitism soon followed. The Chabad Rabbi at GW received an antisemitic email shortly that called the desecration “An Act of Resistance against The Oppressor.”
In 2018, the Student Senate passed a Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) resolution calling on the university to be on the “right side of history.” However, this side of history has previously excluded Jewish students at GW. In July, the club Students Against Sexual Assault at GW released statements that made Jewish and Israeli students feel unwelcome in previously safe spaces. It is perhaps the exclusion of key aspects of Jewish students’ identity that is the cause of their exclusion.
While no BDS vote has passed since 2018, some Jewish students feel that student-led organizations are finding different ways to the same exclusion.
“[BDS] could change the campus climate through student organizations supporting them and that will arguably have a bigger impact… They’re using student organizations as their weapons,” Farkash said.
Instead of going through the Student Senate, a long process that is not always successful, the BDS movement has begun to rely on individual students to support their ideology and in doing so, normalize the innate antisemitic nature of BDS.
As BDS opposes the one Jewish state, adopting the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism at the Student Senate level becomes increasingly challenging. After an antisemitic experience a few years ago, some students tried to get the Student Senate to pass IHRA. But the Senate would only do so on their conditions.
“The provisions taken out were the one that says that Israel is a racist endeavor and the one that said denying Israel’s right to exist as antisemitism,” Farkash said. “So they can’t say they didn’t pass IHRA. No, we passed it. We just want these two provisions taken out.”
In the past, students have called on the GW administration to adopt a definition of antisemitism in accordance with the US State Department’s definition. This definition would include the recognition of holding Jews as responsible for the actions of Israel as antisemitic.
Perhaps GW is in the news more because there are more Jewish students there to report the incidents, whereas universities with fewer Jewish students may have the same amount of incidents, there aren’t as many voices to amplify the situation. Regardless, more must be done to combat antisemitism at GW, for if it continues to go unaddressed nothing will change.
The antisemitic climate “definitely impacts my overall feeling on campus. I feel like I’m always on edge,” Farkash said.