Traditionally quiet campuses now face widespread anti-Israel activity

Anti-Israel activity has spiked on college campuses since the Oct. 7 terror attacks

University of Virginia’s politically low-key climate was, in part, what drew Adin Yager to the campus. The fourth-year student had never voted in a student election.

But that changed after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel — students on the Charlottesville campus, seemingly overnight, became activists urging the university to divest from companies with ties to the Jewish state.

“I know many people who, whether they voted yes or no, had never voted in student elections before,” Yager, a music and economics double major who has served on multiple campus pro-Israel committees through Chabad and Hillel, told Jewish Insider. “Since Oct. 7, and especially [amid the divestment referendum], the overall climate here has been way more political.”

“There wasn’t as much talk about other issues, like Black Lives Matter, which is surprising given what happened here in August 2017,” Yager said, referring to the Unite the Right white supremacist rally. “The most talk here has been around BDS,” he said, referring to the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. On university campuses, the BDS movement is largely represented by an effort to pass non-binding resolutions or referendums that call on the school to divest from companies that operate in Israel. No university has ever moved forward with the recommendation to adopt the policies of the BDS movement.

UVA is among several universities that have traditionally been politically sleepy regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but post-Oct. 7 are suddenly seeing their first-ever BDS campaigns and anti-Israel activity. 

BDS efforts nearly disappeared on college campuses in recent years before Oct. 7, with just three resolutions being brought forward in 2022, compared to 44 at their peak in the 2014-2015 school year. But in the months since the initial Hamas attack and start of the war in Gaza — Israel’s longest conflict in decades — there has been a resurgence in efforts to bring BDS back to the forefront. 

Jewish groups on campus have been mobilizing at schools where Students for Justice in Palestine has been organizing for years. But on the handful of campuses that have historically been the most welcoming for Jewish students, and now are facing BDS referendums for the first time, administrators of Jewish groups are left scrambling to quickly adapt to a post-Oct. 7 landscape.

But Yager said that the goal of SJP and the group’s campus allies may not be to actually implement a boycott, but rather to cause the “very divisive campus climate” that the vote leads to. 

Lisa Glass, CEO of Rutgers University Hillel, echoed this sentiment. “There has been a noted increase of antisemitism on campuses where [BDS votes] are happening,” she told JI. Students at Rutgers are slated to vote on a BDS referendum March 25-29, a first for the New Jersey public university. 

“I’m hoping for the best but expecting it to not be wonderful,” Glass said. “It’s going to raise the rhetoric on campus and make people uncomfortable.” 

At schools that have typically not dealt with anti-Israel activity, Glass said that national groups with expertise, as well as Hillels on campuses that have dealt with the issues for years have served as a resource. “This is not what we do on a daily basis, but there are groups that do and we rely on them,” she said. 

At Vanderbilt, a first-time BDS referendum, scheduled to take place on March 25, was squashed by the administration, citing that because the school receives state and federal funds, a boycott of Israel — a U.S. ally —  would violate Tennessee state law.

“Vanderbilt may look like it’s a top school for Jews right now,” said Ryan Bauman, a fourth-year student who is the president and founder of Vanderbilt’s Students Supporting Israel chapter. “And while that may be true, at the same time this is the worst Vanderbilt has been for Jews in at least the last four years. Both can be true,” he said. 

Bauman applauded both the school’s administration as well as the leaders of campus Jewish groups for their responses to the situation. 

“The university has been a big help to us… they are investigating everything that has been reported as student affair conduct violations, from the referendum to on-campus graffiti, but they can’t divulge a lot of information to us yet,” he said. 

Bauman added that combating anti-Israel activity has united Hillel and Chabad on campus “for the first time.” 

“Pre-Oct. 7, the groups were siloed, there wasn’t a lot of overlap and collaboration,” Bauman said. “Now it’s the closest the Jewish community at Vanderbilt has been. Level of religion does not apply to any of this. It’s about feeling comfortable and having a group to talk to.” 

Back at UVA, this semester, for the first time, a BDS referendum appeared on the student government ballot. The campus-wide referendum demanded that the university audit its investment portfolio to identify any connections to companies engaging in or profiting from what the sponsors call “the State of Israel’s apartheid regime and acute violence against Palestinians.” 

The vote — co-sponsored by SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace — was the only referendum in this year’s student elections. The UVA Apartheid Divest Referendum passed in February by a 68%-32% vote, with 7,993 students of the campus’ total 17,294 undergraduate students casting ballots.

Truman Brody-Boyd, Hillel’s assistant director of development, estimated that prior to Oct. 7, UVA Hillel focused on combating BDS “maybe 5 percent of the time.” 

“But with the war… it’s definitely a lot more. It’s intense,” Brody-Boyd said, adding that the best response to oppose BDS is “student empowerment.” 

Efforts among students to campaign against the referendum took resources away from the center’s usual programming, Brody-Boyd said. “We’ve been more limited in our more traditional [non-Israel related] programming but our mission is to empower students so we respond to their needs— which right now is comfort, support, community, education and discourse.” 

Roughly two-thirds (65%) of Jewish college students see the BDS movement as a “serious threat” to the safety of Jewish students on campus, according to a survey released earlier this month by the Israel on Campus Coalition. In a statement to JI, Jacob Baime, the group’s CEO, called for “university leaders to step in and cancel these votes.” 

“BDS is not about free speech. It’s about free hate,” he said. 

Yager, the UVA student, said that since the vote he has stopped wearing an Israeli flag on his backpack.

”It’s very clear that this referendum targets Jewish students,” he said. “The referendum has made the campus climate a lot less pleasant toward anyone who voices any support for Israel.” 

In some cases, faculty participate in and encourage anti-Israel activity. A UVA art history professor canceled her class days before the vote in solidarity with a walkout on campus held before students voted overwhelmingly to call on the school to divest from companies with ties to Israel.

“I’m writing to let you know that I am canceling class today in solidarity with the ‘Yes on Divest Walkout’ that the UVA Apartheid Divest Coalition organized,” Christa Robbins, an associate professor of art history wrote in an email to students, a copy of which was obtained by JI.

In a statement to JI earlier this month, Virginia’s attorney general, Jason Miyares, said, “Our universities must reject any action that could be seen as justifying terrorist attacks, rape or kidnapping. This is not a time for moral confusion, and the Board of Visitors at the University of Virginia must unequivocally condemn the radical BDS movement and the supportive vote taken by the student body.” 

The UVA chapter of SJP described the Oct. 7 terrorist attack as “an unprecedented feat for the 21st century,” and said that “resistance fighters in Gaza” had broken through an “illegal border fence” and taken “occupation soldiers hostage.”

The “less pleasant” climate, as Yager described it, has also led to several other forms of anti-Israel organizing on campus — leading to the Department of Education opening investigations into threats against Jewish students at several universities, including UVA and Rutgers’ flagship campus in New Brunswick. 

According to data tracked by ICC, some of the most egregious antisemitic incidents at Rutgers since Oct. 7 have included a social media post stating, “There is an Israeli at AEPi, go kill him,” and a section of the street on campus being chalked with anti-Israel messages. 

The group has also tracked 15 anti-Israel rallies on the main Rutgers campus since Oct. 7, with an additional four on the Newark campus, which historically has had higher rates of anti-Israel activity.

This week at Vanderbilt, SJP is holding “Israeli Apartheid Week” — which includes a display of a large wall on campus, meant to signify the border fences between Israel and the Palestinian territories. Weeks earlier, the group held a “die-in” protest on campus, where participants laid on the ground posing as dead Gazans. 

“These are things that we view as escalations,” Bauman said. “Only because we’ve never had to deal with stuff like it on campus before… it’s intimidating and scares a lot of the younger classmen… Jewish students are tired of waking up every day and having to defend our right to exist.” 

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