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COVID-19 Distance-Learning Platforms Vulnerable to Online Anti-Semitism
In July, AMCHA Initiative released its annual report, Understanding Campus Anti-Semitism in 2019 And Its Lessons for Pandemic and Post-Pandemic U.S. Campuses, which documented a more than 300% increase in campus activity intended to undermine and discredit the global acceptance of anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism. And this increased activity was accompanied by an increase in anti-Semitism, specifically incidents targeting Jewish students for harm, on campuses that hosted those challenges.
The researchers found that Israel-related anti-Semitism is easily adaptable to the distance learning platforms that will likely play a large role in the college experience during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, and unveiled a new approach to protecting Jewish students on campuses.
Specifically, the researchers found that expression challenging the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition’s identification of anti-Zionism as a form of anti-Semitism increased 3.7 times from 34 incidents in 2018 to 126 incidents in 2019. The definition is used by 18 countries across the globe, including the U.S. In addition, researchers found that schools where these challenges occurred were more than twice as likely to host anti-Semitic incidents targeting Jewish students for harm, and the more challenges the higher the number of incidents.
Ninety-four percent of these challenges came from anti-Zionist student groups, chief among them Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), a very small but vocal minority of Jews that identify themselves as anti-Zionist, and faculty members who support and promote an academic boycott of Israel. In fact, JVP’s campus activity increased 45% in 2019, much of the activity involving challenges to the definition of anti-Semitism.
The study also found that Israel-related anti-Semitic harassment is far more likely than classical anti-Semitic harassment to occur online or be adaptable to the online platforms that will be utilized in 2020/2021 for COVID-19-related distance learning.
The researchers suggested that the dramatic and alarming uptick in challenges to the definition of anti-Semitism is likely a response to recent federal, state and student efforts, as well as the Trump Administration’s recent executive order, to get government agencies and universities to use the IHRA definition to ensure that Jewish students are adequately protected from anti-Semitic harassment under anti-discrimination laws, such as Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and university harassment policies based on them. Although Jewish students have been considered a protected minority under Title VI for several years, their complaints of Israel-related harassment have regularly been dismissed by the Department of Education and ignored by university administrators. It was therefore hoped that use of the IHRA definition would allow government officials and university administrators to recognize and adequately address Israel-related harassment as anti-Semitism.
The researchers point out, that “as challenges to the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism have led to increased harassment of Jewish students, they have also undermined efforts to ensure that Jewish students are adequately protected from that harassment. The challengers’ principle argument – that the IHRA definition ‘falsely’ identifies anti-Zionist speech as anti-Semitic, and if adopted, would have a chilling effect on freedom of speech and subvert academic freedom – has made some university and government officials reticent to use the definition in adjudicating cases of harassment.”
“Given the extent of such pushback and its linkage to acts of anti-Zionist motivated harassment, it remains unclear how effective efforts to address Israel-related anti-Semitism using the IHRA definition and civil rights law will ultimately be,” cautioned the researchers. Instead they offered “an alternative approach to protecting Jewish students that does not depend on how one defines anti-Semitism or understands Jewish identity. As a result, it effectively neutralizes challenges to the IHRA definition from anti-Zionist individuals and groups that have impeded fair and adequate administrative responses to anti-Jewish harassment. Instead of seeking protection for individual Jewish students from their membership in a federally-protected identity group, our approach seeks protection for Jewish students as individuals, with the same rights as all other individuals, to be free from behaviors that seek to suppress or deny their self-expression, including expressions of belief and group identity.”
The new approach is rooted in protections provided to all students by the First Amendment, and it calls on colleges and universities to take a number of steps to combat intolerant behavior that suppresses student expression, including: (1) view intolerant behavior, including anti-Semitic harassment, as a major threat to students’ right to freedom of expression; (2) consider intolerant behavior to be actionable when it infringes to an unacceptable degree on the freedom of expression of others; (3) establish robust bullying/cyberbullying policies that protect all students equally from intolerant behavior that suppresses expression or restricts the ability to participate in campus life, irrespective of the motivation of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim; and (4) establish fair and consistent protocols for handling intolerant but constitutionally protected speech.
“In the long term, ensuring that all students are afforded equal protection and equal redress from behaviors that deny their right to self-expression, regardless of the motivation of the perpetrator or the identity of the victim, can provide Jewish students with permanent protection from anti-Semitic behavior that has previously been denied to them,” recommended the researchers. They also noted that “in contrast to the current approach of protecting students by virtue of their membership in legally protected groups, which can easily lead to the exacerbation of group difference and an unhealthy competition for group rights, the proposed approach offers the possibility of a healthier campus climate.”
The study also revealed that, different from what has been documented globally, campuses, for the second year in a row, have experienced a significant decline in incidents of classic anti-Semitic harassment (down 49%) and a significant increase in Israel-related incidents (up 60%). In addition, promotion of academic BDS, including attempts to restrict or shut down popular study abroad programs, continued to rise dramatically and was strongly correlated with discrimination against, harassment of and the suppression of speech of Jewish students.
“[T]he current study of anti-Semitic activity in 2019 has shown that Israel-related harassment continues to be the dominant and steadily increasing form of behavior targeting Jewish students for harm and is easily adaptable to the online platforms that are likely to play a major role in the 2020-2021 academic year, and perhaps longer. It is therefore more important than ever that universities consider a new, comprehensive approach to combating all forms of intolerant behavior, including both classical and Israel-related anti-Semitism, and begin taking the necessary steps to ensure that all students are equally protected from action and speech that suppress their self-expression ad deny their full participation in campus life. We believe an approach that holds all students to the same behavioral expectations, and addresses all intolerant action and speech equally, is the best way to protect Jewish students from all forms of campus anti-Semitism,” concluded the researchers in their recommendations.
AMCHA monitors 450 college campuses across the U.S. for anti-Semitic activity. The organization has recorded more than 3,500 anti-Semitic incidents since 2015. AMCHA Initiative is a non-partisan, non-profit organization dedicated to combating anti-Semitism at colleges and universities in the United States.