How Donors Can Fight Rising Antisemitism on College Campuses

It’s been one month since Hamas terrorists brutally murdered over 1,400 innocent Israeli civilians – including babies, children, women and the elderly – and the international community was jarred back to the reality of the evil in this world.  

Subsequently, an antisemitic backlash to the Israel-Hamas war has ensued. According to the Anti-Defamation League, a nonprofit that fights antisemitism, in the weeks following the Hamas attack, there have been nearly four times as many instances of harassment, vandalism and assault directed at Jewish people and communities in comparison with the same period in 2022.  

On college campuses in particular, there has been an alarming rise in threats against Jewish students. This week, a Cornell University student was arrested following online threats he would “bring an assault rifle to campus” and “shoot up” a dining hall where Jewish students eat. At Stanford University, an instructor was removed from the classroom after trying “to justify the actions of Hamas” and singling out Jewish students. In response to “an extremely disturbing pattern of antisemitic messages,” the Biden administration announced this week it would partner with campus law enforcement to provide federal resources to schools.  

Universities Slow to Respond Following Hamas Attacks 

Sadly, in the wake of Hamas’ barbaric terrorism, many people tacitly supported their actions. Yet as anti-Israel rhetoric and actions have intensified among some groups, leaving Jewish students feeling scared and unsafe at American universities, too many higher educational institutions have hypocritically equivocated at the moment they should have stood firm in their opposition to antisemitic hate and violence. Encouragingly, charitable donors are uniquely positioned to hold higher education accountable to its commitments to the safety, dignity and rights of all people.    

Days after the attacks and amid pressure from donors to respond, universities released statements expressing concern. The responses ran the gamut from clear moral condemnation to near sympathy for the attackers. Meanwhile, pro-Palestinian student groups hijacked the conversation with their shocking statements and protests thereby coopting the universities’ responses.  

Harvard’s reaction illuminates this point. It took days for the most elite university to release a statement, prompting former Harvard President Larry Summers to say: “The silence from Harvard’s leadership, so far, coupled with a vocal and widely reported student group’s statement blaming Israel solely, has allowed Harvard to appear at best neutral toward acts of terror against the Jewish state of Israel.” The university released multiple follow-up statements, but failed to strongly condemn a student statement that held Israel responsible for Hamas’ violence, prompting other alumni and donors to chide the university. 

In comparison, University of Florida President and former U.S. senator Ben Sasse sent a letter to students and alumni explaining why it was unacceptable that his peers at other institutions were taking a neutral approach: “I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn’t be hard. [They] have been so weakened by their moral confusion that, when they see videos of raped women, hear of a beheaded baby or learn of a grandmother murdered in her home, the first reaction of some is to ‘provide context’ and try to blame the raped women, beheaded baby or the murdered grandmother,” he wrote.   

The neutral approach that some colleges have taken – those that even chose to speak out —stands in stark contrast to letters and commitments made after the murder of George Floyd and the social justice protests of 2020. Many of those statements condemned the officer, the criminal justice system and systemic racism inherent in all institutions against Blacks. This leads us to wonder why those who embraced social justice and the equal rights and protections of all people haven’t stepped up now to defend their Jewish counterparts or condemn the slaughter of 1,400 people. What message does this send to Jewish students, faculty, donors and alumni? 

As Sasse said on another occasion, “You got so many universities around the country [who] speak about every topic under the sun, Halloween costumes and microaggressions. But somehow in a moment of the most grave, grotesque attacks on Jewish people since the Holocaust, they all of a sudden say there’s too much complexity to say anything.” 

Donors Can Help Combat Antisemitism on Campuses 

Now, as violence and intimidation against Jewish students are rising, donors and alumni need not sit on the sidelines in dismay. They can use their voices and dollars to move administrations to stand against antisemitism in word and deed.  

Philanthropic giving to higher education last year totaled $59.5 billion, including $23 billion from individual donations, according to a 2022 survey of U.S. universities by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education. People giving $1 million or more made up less than 1% of donors but 57% of total donations.  

While higher education giving is a rewarding and meaningful use of philanthropic dollars, it can be challenging for both donor intent and grant compliance. Nonetheless, accountability is a critical element of higher education funding. Academic institutions must be held accountable for the misuse of donor funds and that includes indirectly supporting activities that can be destructive to civility, undermine academic freedom or promote violence. 

Recently, major higher education donors have ended their financial support and relationships with institutions over their response to the attack. For example, venture capitalist David Magerman, hedge fund billionaire Cliff Asness, private-equity billionaire Marc Rowan, former U.S. Ambassador Jon Huntsman and other high-profile donors cut ties with the University of Pennsylvania in protest of the university’s support for a festival featuring antisemitic speakers and its subsequent conflicting messages on the Hamas attack. Magerman, who is calling on other donors to do the same, noted, “I was just pushed over the edge by the equivocation of the response.” 

At Harvard, retailer Leslie Wexner announced he was pulling funding from Harvard over its refusal to support Israel. Meanwhile, a group of prominent alumni including Utah Sen. Mitt Romney and investors Seth Klarman and Bill Helman published an open letter criticizing the school’s leadership for creating an increasingly hostile environment for Harvard’s Jewish students and providing steps the university can take to remedy its actions. 

Perhaps the removal of charitable dollars will nudge universities to action. Academic institutions may say their hands are tied or attempt to hide behind claims they are protecting academic freedom and free speech. However, that rings hollow when we consider the alarming censorship on campus today. Let’s remind them of their sundry diversity, equity and inclusion efforts – from speech codes to removal of faculty — that have been weaponized against opposing viewpoints on campus. There is something deeply wrong when people argue “words are violence” but make excuses for and even celebrate one of the most inhumane acts of violence on a civilian population – including at least 30 Americans – in recent memory.  

While faculty and students have the right to their viewpoints, the university has a responsibility to ensure everyone’s physical safety and – given their outspoken stance on social justice – to speak out when atrocities like the unprompted murders of innocent Jews occur in the world. And when they forget, donors should remind them.   

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