campus beat

Stanford’s antisemitism committee co-chair aligned with anti-Israel groups, concluded antisemitism wasn’t a problem on campuses in 2017 paper

Professor Ari Kelman also argued in an amicus brief against the IHRA definition of antisemitism

Frank Schulenburg

Stanford University

Amid rising tensions on college campuses since the onset of the Israel-Hamas war, it may come as no surprise that Stanford University’s newly formed Antisemitism Committee is already touching off a debate — before it has even held its first meeting. 

The controversy centers on the faculty co-chair of the committee, Ari Kelman, an associate professor in Stanford’s Graduate School of Education and Religious Studies, and his record of downplaying the threat of campus antisemitism along with his recent alliances with anti-Israel groups. 

Kelman authored a 2017 paper on antisemitism he co-wrote with several other Stanford faculty members. The 36-page report, called “Safe on the Sidelines,” concluded that antisemitism isn’t a problem on college campuses because “different representations of campus culture come from the difficulties in defining what counts as political speech and what counts as antisemitism.” 

That conclusion, along with Kelman’s appointment and whether the committee will consider anti-Zionism as a form of antisemitism, “concerns a number of us,” a Jewish MBA student at Stanford who requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter told JI.

Kelman also served on the academic board of Open Hillel, which has worked to overturn Hillel International’s guidelines that prevent partnering with anti-Zionist groups or individuals. The Open Hillel group has pushed for anti-Israel groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, an organization that advocates for the boycott of Israel and eradication of Zionism, to be included, even as these groups have been responsible for the growing hostility on campus against Jewish, pro-Israel students. 

Immediately after the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack against Israel, Jewish Voice for Peace released a statement declaring: “The Root of Violence Is Oppression,” laying the blame for the massacre on Israel.

Kelman said that he hasn’t been on the board of Open Hillel for over a decade. “I don’t recall doing anything as a board member, either,” he told JI. “I don’t think I ever attended a board meeting, even. Mostly my service was in the form of advice I gave to individual students,” he continued, noting that he also served on the board of Stanford Hillel from 2012-2015. “[On the Stanford Hillel board] I did attend meetings and participated in a strategic planning effort,” Kelman said. 

Asked whether he currently supports allowing JVP to be included in the Hillel umbrella, Kelman said, “I’m not in a position to say what Hillel ought to do.” 

The Jewish MBA student pointed to that lack of clarity as a reason for concern. “What we need is an advocate who is really aggressive in pursuing the kinds of actions and speech we see on campus, and many of us feel that very harsh anti-Zionist activities on campus are really just code for antisemitism and a chair that distinguishes between the two, we fear may not be the most aggressive watchdog over this,” the student said. He expressed further concern that the committee established “does not cover anti-Israel hate, only anti-Jewish hate,” a charge that Kelman denies. 

“That’s a double standard,” the student said. “Because at the same time Stanford created a committee to combat Muslim, Palestinian and Arab hate, it lumped in ethnicity, religion and state-based hate. In our case it’s only antisemitism. If someone says something targeted at Israelis, they are not protected.”

Another Jewish student, a senior studying computer science, also expressed concerns about the committee. “They’ve chosen people to lead this committee who believe anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitism,” she said. “They don’t have to make this a democratic process, but I don’t feel the committee represents the Jewish community.” 

“They’re making this committee only to prevent from liability,” she continued. “If they actually wanted to help they would actually listen to the concerns of Jewish students. There is so much polarization on campus right now.” 

The student pointed to a rally she witnessed on campus attended by 300 people, where “someone called to take up arms to undo Zionism,” adding that some members of Stanford’s administration were at the rally, and that afterwards a “video was shared with the university many times and they never did anything about it.”

“It feels like every day, something new happens and the university does nothing, so it feels like a lost cause and it feels empty to allow a student to call to take up arms on campus and then make a task force,” she said. 

The MBA student argued that Kelman’s research deliberately excluded pro-Israel or Hillel-affiliated students, while focusing on those in favor of the BDS movement.

Kelman’s paper stated, “It is likely that those who are highly connected to Israel become a target of antisemitic or anti-Israel sentiment because they make their support for Israel known. It is also likely that those who are more connected to Israel are more sensitive to criticism of Israel, or more likely to perceive such criticism as antisemitic. Both dynamics are, perhaps, in play,” the paper continued. 

Kelman denied the claim that pro-Israel students were ignored, calling it “preposterous.” 

“Based on a paper published by the [Cohen Center at] Brandeis around the same time as ours, they found that students who were involved in AIPAC on campus were actually much more likely to report antisemitic acts on campus,” he said. 

“So we were trying to mitigate against that bias that had been established in previous research. We also didn’t interview first-year students because we wanted to exclude the noise of adjustment to college life. We also excluded late seniors because they’re checked out. We didn’t exclude students who go to Hillel, but we chose people who are not in Hillel leadership. We didn’t choose people who are on any kind of far extreme, we didn’t include student leaders of any kind.”

Regarding the newly formed Antisemitism Committee, Kelman said that “while there’s some flexibility in our range, our main focus [of the committee] is on antisemitism, in all of its forms, on our campus and in the larger Stanford community.”

“The student is quite wrong to presume that ‘something targeted at Israelis won’t be considered as antisemitism,’” Kelman continued. “The student’s presumption on this matter is simply and plainly incorrect.”

Kelman said that he realizes that the situation on campus regarding antisemitism has changed since 2017. “America has experienced a significant increase in antisemitism since then,” he told JI. “The goal of that paper was to understand from the position of Jewish undergraduates on college campuses in California how they were experiencing antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campuses. What we found was that they were not concerned for the most part.” 

But when it comes to determining what constitutes antisemitism, Kelman has argued in an amicus brief through the anti-Israel group Jewish Voice for Peace that the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of antisemitism is “flawed and overly expansive” and “silences Palestinian voices.” The brief was filed in support of San Francisco State University in a case brought by Lawfare, in which SFSU later admitted to antisemitism. Kelman said he stands by criticism of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. 

“I still believe that it does [silence Palestinians],” he said. “I don’t think the IHRA definition is operationally appropriate in the context of the university.” 

Kelman said the current climate for Jewish students at Stanford is “tense.”

“There’s no monolithic climate,” he continued, noting that Stanford’s move to create two committees, one to combat antisemitism and one to combat Islamophobia, was “absolutely the right strategy.” 

“For our campus, I don’t think for a variety of reasons that the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion office is equipped to deal with the level of concern and complexity of issues that have swamped our campus and other campuses in the last six weeks,” he continued. 

Jonathan Levav, a professor of marketing at Stanford Graduate School of Business, called the campus climate “difficult.”

“Students are feeling a range from very fearful to uncomfortable,” he told JI. “I’ve heard from many students, ‘I don’t feel comfortable identifying as Jewish or pro-Israel.’” 

Levav called the administration’s response “flaccid and reluctant.” “Basically what they’ve done is like if they said after George Floyd’s death ‘all lives matter.’” 

“Nothing has been proactive,” Levav continued. “Anything they have done has been the result of prodding.” According to Levav, a pro-Palestinian protest has been allowed to continue on campus even without getting a required permit “because of the optics,” he said. “They care more about optics than enforcing their own rules, and in the meantime they are sacrificing the well-being of Jewish students.” 

“It’s odd we have a situation where Israel is at the center and we have so many Israelis on the faculty but no Israeli faculty members on the committee. The decisions are curious,” he continued, comparing it to “having a committee on race without any Black people. Who would do that?” 

“[Stanford’s administration] is going to marginalize the issue of Israel and act as if anything anti-Israel is not antisemitism, which is false,” Levav continued.  

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