Jews wary of top US universities

Yeshiva University students  credit: Reuters/Pacific Press
Yeshiva University students credit: Reuters/Pacific Press

Aspiring to Harvard, Stanford and the like was natural for Jewish students, but many are now considering lower-ranked campuses less tolerant of antisemitism - or even Israel.

Elite universities are no longer the preferred option for US Jews. These are the alternatives The pro-Palestinian demonstrations on campuses across the United States have created an uproar in the local Jewish community that is now changing its preference. Coveted elite institutions like Harvard and Princeton no longer interest young people as much as personal security and resisting antisemitism Some are also considering Israeli universities. Assaf Gilead The anti-Israel protests of this past spring spread to almost every campus in the United States, but were particularly violent and vocal at the elite universities, among them Columbia, Harvard, MIT, Northwestern, and University of Pennsylvania. Even now, after their administrations accepted some of the demonstrators' demands, and students went on summer vacation, the demonstrations still erupt from time to time, reminding us that anti-Israel sentiment among young Americans has not disappeared.

Just the other week, 13 students barricaded themselves in the office of the president of Stanford - one of the nation's top universities, and the best business school on the West Coast - vandalizing it completely, and injuring a member of the security staff. The incident was particularly alarming to the Jewish communities of San Francisco and Silicon Valley, who sensed that institutions of higher learning had become a flash point for them, and their children.

"The list of campuses has shrunk a lot this year," said one mother of a 17-year-old from the US Jewish community. That list, she says, "includes places we never thought of, like the University of Florida." The mother added that her older daughter had just completed a year at New York State University at Binghamton, "and she feels happy and safe - and that means a lot more to me than any glamorous Ivy League degree".

"Many universities are courting Jewish students," says another mother of a 17-year-old, from the modern Orthodox community. "Everyone tried to persuade them their campus was safe, but at the student registration event, the Ivy League universities - Harvard, Yale, Columbia, and MIT - were conspicuously absent. The desks of campuses like the University of Maryland, Binghamton, and University of Minnesota were particularly crowded."

Another mother adds, "Although Princeton, Yale and Harvard are deeply rooted in the heritage of the American Jewish community, and many will decide to go there if accepted, many choose to go south," alluding to options in the Southern US, such as Florida, the Carolinas, and Texas. Another mother said that all enrollment events at her children’s private school network had been canceled to allow students time to reconsider their decisions.

The new list

For parents and students debating where to study next year, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) has released its Campus Antisemitism Report Card of the safest schools for Jews. The ADL rated most major US campuses from "A" ("Ahead of the Pack") to "F" ("Failing") on how they respond to antisemitic incidents. The list was distributed to parent groups on WhatsApp and Facebook throughout the country, and became a significant resource for decision-making. Unsurprisingly, Harvard, Stanford, MIT, Northwestern, University of Michigan, and Tufts University received the lowest grades. Other elite universities - including Columbia, Yale, Cornell, Georgetown, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Brown, and all University of California campuses -ranked "D" ("Deficient Approach").

According to the ADL, Harvard - where 10% of undergraduate students, and 17% of graduate and doctoral students, are Jewish - constantly fails to address cases of antisemitism. It not only hosts repeated student-led pro-Palestine demonstrations, one of which even featured flyers depicting hostages being defaced, it has also had lawsuits filed against it by Jewish students and alumni, and has been the subject of a congressional investigation.

Northwestern University - considered one of the best in the world for business administration, and where many Israelis study for an MBA degree - also ranked among the lowest. The University of Chicago has 1,400 Jewish undergraduate students (14% of all students), and although Jewish organizations are active on campus, it has also seen some of the worst antisemitic incidents in the country, and at an unusually rapid pace. Apart from demonstrations, an antisemitic newspaper was distributed on campus, Jewish manuscripts were vandalized, and mezuzot were torn off doorframes. Small wonder that, in January, the US Department of Education launched an investigation into the institution.

While most high-quality campuses in the US rank at the bottom of the ADL's Campus Antisemitism Report Card, two universities rank at the top, high above everyone else. At the same time, however, neither is highly ranked for educational quality, according to "The Wall Street Journal". One is Elon University, in North Carolina, established by the United Church of Christ. Although the percentage of Jewish undergraduate students at Elon is smaller than at Harvard (only 13%), and despite an incident in which a swastika was spray-painted on campus, even before October 7, the university had taken practical measures to combat antisemitism, including a task force of Jewish Studies researchers to address the matter, and programs to educate students on antisemitism awareness.

Not surprisingly, Brandeis University -- which was founded by Jews, and where 35% of the student body are Jewish -- ranks second on the list. Following a demonstration led by a small group of 70 protesters who shouted in Arabic "Say it loud, say it clear, we don’t want Zionists here," and "From the river to the sea" graffiti spray-painted on one of the walls, the university took vigorous action against antisemitism. The anti-Israel demonstration was quickly dispersed by the police, who were immediately called in. Brandeis also became the first campus in the US to revoke official recognition of its Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter immediately after October 7, deeming "From the river to the sea" to be hate speech contrary to the university’s principles. The Brandeis Student Union also issued a statement "strongly condemning" Hamas.

Brandeis has adopted a plan to combat antisemitism and is conducting mandatory classes on the subject. This is thanks, in part, to the leadership of the university’s president, Ronald D. Liebowitz, who launched a plan, called the Presidential Initiative to Counter Antisemitism in Higher Education, and is personally leading a line supportive of the State of Israel. During the first weeks of the war, he invited the president of the Sapir Academic College in Sderot to a whistle-stop tour of elite campuses across the US, to share the story of the Gaza envelope residents.

Next are the "B"-rated ("Better than Most") institutions, which rank less high academically, but are very alert to antisemitism. Several of these are in Florida: University of Florida, University of Central Florida Orlando, International University, and University of Miami. Also ranked are campuses in so-called "red" states such as Duke University, University of Texas, and Washington University, Missouri. "B"-rankings are also assigned to several New York State Universities, such SUNY Binghamton, CUNY Brooklyn College, Ithaca College and Hofstra University, as well as Amherst College, and two Maryland institutions: Towson University, and the University of Maryland.

Playing it safe

Brandeis University was founded just six months after the State of Israel, to provide higher education for members of the Jewish community, who, like other minorities in the United States, had been discriminated against by elite universities. "Its calling card is having been established by the Jewish community, and that's how it's known unofficially," Prof. Shai Feldman, chair of Israel Studies at Brandeis University’s Crown Center for Middle Eastern Studies, told "Globes." "There's nothing that makes it that way - there's no charter that establishes a Jewish majority on campus, or a Jewish administration. On the contrary, Brandeis is open to all communities interested in attending it, and because of its good reputation, it’s popular among students from China, who reached a record number in the past year, much higher than Jews."

Feldman says that choosing Brandeis is, for many Jews, a logical choice, despite its relatively low ranking on the "Wall Street Journal" campus list. "Brandeis graduates have a good chance of being accepted to the best business schools," he says, adding: "Even today, 76 years after its founding, like the State of Israel, Brandeis is grappling with the question of what makes it Jewish. Apparently, this stems from an understanding of antisemitism - and this year things came full circle. Just as it was 80-90 years ago, today's analysis of antisemitism stems from the status of Jews as a minority, and from Brandeis being Jewish by virtue of the fact that it has a large group of Jews."

In addition, he says, Brandeis has refused any offer of funding from Arab countries. It also recently extended the deadline for transferring from other universities, to enable a large number of Jews to leave their campuses if they felt unsafe, and move to Brandeis.

Another campus that attracts Jewish students is Yeshiva University, located in the heart of Manhattan and traditionally considered the Orthodox Jewish community’s academic institution. "Globes" has learned that YU is trying to attract more students following the rise of antisemitism, and has even admitted to parents that enrollment in its excellence programs increased by 12.5% this year. "They're flooded with inquiries," says a mother of a 17-year-old who contacted YU. "No one wants to put themselves at risk socially and get 'stuck' at another university in New York that has already created friction with Jews," she adds.

"A persecuted minority"

Shuly Galili, a founding partner at the venture capital fund Upwest who lives in Palo Alto, says that while anti-Israel protest on campuses is nothing new, they have been gaining momentum since October 7, thanks in part to the free hand given by faculty and university administrations. "Parents are monitoring what's happening and trying to understand how much this is affecting their children, and whether hate experiences are creating anxiety and fear. I know students who have been hurt by such incidents - some have changed their names on the Uber app out of concerns for their safety."

Galili says the events on campuses over the past year have led many parents to stop donating to elite institutions, while among students it has led to two patterns of behavior: on the one hand, there are those who have gotten closer to Jewish organizations, pro-Israel activism, and participation in pro-Israel demonstrations. On the other hand, are those who have gone underground. "Changing names on apps, thinking about how not to stand out, how to lower my profile so that it doesn't hurt my status, my ability to find a job, or for people to like me - it’s bringing us back to the state of a persecuted minority that is constantly considering where it can feel safe."

Two of Galili's children attended universities in the US this year, one in Boulder, Colorado, the other in Santa Barbara, California. A few months ago, after one semester at Tel Aviv University, one of her daughters decided to move to Israel for good. "What affected her more than the protests on campus was the content posted by her classmates on social media," Galili says.

Indeed, Tel Aviv University, Reichman University, and the Technion - Israel Institute of Technology, are all seeing an increase in enrollment among children of Israelis living abroad, and to a smaller extent of Jews from the United States. The Technion, for example, reports "dozens" of applications following a call for researchers and students to apply to register for a limited period or for a longer term. Next summer, a new program at Technion will enable students who do not speak Hebrew to do their first year of degree studies in English, along with learning Hebrew.

Nevertheless, Galili contends, the reality is more complex, and there is no outright rejection of elite institutions. "The aspiration is still to reach the best schools, and parents understand that the difficulties experienced by Jews depend on the faculty or professor, and they’re trying to understand through Facebook or WhatsApp groups where it’s worth going. The group, Parents Against Antisemitism, has quickly reached 60,000 members in the US, in the last few months alone."

Oleg Ivanov, assistant director of the American Jewish Committee in San Francisco, says there are also some success stories in preventing campuses from acquiescing to acts of violence against Jews. After the president of Sonoma State University surrendered to protesters' demands, the Jewish organization contacted the Board of Trustees and the president of California State University (the public system to which Sonoma State belongs), after which the concessions to the protesters were canceled and the president of the university retired. However, "the effort to prevent a recurrence of protests, as we saw last year, is not only taking place on campuses, but also with other authorities, at the local, state, and federal government levels," Ivanov told "Globes." Among other things, this includes ensuring that there is a task force on campus to address complaints about antisemitism, courses, and training about antisemitism, and ensuring that discrimination against Jews is included within the framework of the equity and inclusion laws applied to other minorities.

One of the main tools currently being adopted by more and more legislatures in the United States is an updated definition of antisemitism formulated by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). California, for example, a state with one of the highest rates of antisemitism, as seen in centers of progressivism like the San Francisco Bay area, has adopted these definitions and introduced the study of "Middle Eastern Jewry" into social studies. "Elite universities have also imposed sanctions against protesting students who crossed a red line, and many have been expelled. Many institutions are trying to address the issue, which may improve confidence in the learning environment among Jews next year. However, we don't expect all these problems to be resolved by the time the next semester begins."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on June 30, 2024.

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd., 2024.

Yeshiva University students  credit: Reuters/Pacific Press
Yeshiva University students credit: Reuters/Pacific Press
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