What’s happening on college campuses?

What’s happening on college campuses?

A college president explains the tense situation

Dr. Alan Kadish of Teaneck is the president of Touro University, a Manhattan-based system that includes branches across the country. It’s got Jewish values and education at its core, but also offers a range of entirely secular degrees to students from all backgrounds.

This perch atop a widely diverse system gives Dr. Kadish — a long-time, Columbia- and Albert Einstein College of Medicine-trained practicing cardiologist before he became an academic administrator — an unusually clear look into the situation on college campuses right now.

He doesn’t like what he sees.

Although antisemitism had been rising on campuses and throughout the country for the last eight or so years, “it was an overt rise, and relatively modest,” he said.

“And then the murder, rape, torture, and kidnaping of well over 1,200 people seems to have engendered a series of anti-Israel and antisemitic protests, events, social media posts in what superficially seems to be an almost bizarre way. And some of the worst incidents have been on college campuses.

“There have been events elsewhere, such as the gentleman who was killed in California” — that was Paul Kessler, a pro-Israel protester in suburban Los Angeles who died after he was assaulted and then pushed hard to the ground. “An arrest has been made in that case – the alleged assailant is a college professor,” Dr. Kadish noted drily.

Still, most of the overt antisemitism seems to be happening on college campuses, and it’s deeply unnerving to the students who confront it.

“Statistics are hard to come by, but there is no question that there has been a huge increase in actual incidents, and Jewish students are feeling a huge level of discomfort.

“It’s impossible to generalize — it’s better in some places, worse in others,” he continued. “We’ve been really lucky at Touro. Nothing overt has happened. There has been a small handful of private social media posts, but they’ve not been official, or even unofficial, from organized groups. They’re just students’ own private social media.

“We’ve had no protests. We issued a statement” after October 7 — not pussyfooting or on-the-other-handing about the horror — “and got very minor blowback. I received two emails from 19,000 students. One of them was rational, so I answered it. The other wasn’t, so I ignored it. And that was the extent of it.”

Other colleges haven’t been so lucky.

“There have been many instances on college campuses, many statements with either coded language or overtly calling for the destruction of Israel and venturing into areas that could easily be seen as advocating for killing Jews,” Dr. Kadish continued.

“It’s important to point out that these things came immediately after the October 7 attack. They can’t be attributed to any other concerns.”

Columbia, his own alma mater, “has turned into one of the most difficult environments for Jewish students. A student group issued a statement supporting Hamas— and so did a group of professors.”

The Jewish students and the institutions that support them are fighting back. “Columbia’s Hillel director wrote to everyone Jewish associated with Columbia” — students, parents, alumni, donors, faculty, everybody on its list — “saying please help. Help by lobbying. Help by doing whatever you can.

“That’s a big step for a Hillel director. They usually try to work with the college administration.” To have to reach outside like this, to make the stress public, to allow the strains rather than the happy face to show — “my only conclusion is that they have been receiving some real sentiments of discomfort from students,” Dr. Kadish said.

Columbia, to its credit, has responded by banning two organizations that were calling overtly for Israel’s destruction, and by setting up a commission to examine the problem, he continued. “But the administration still hasn’t met with the Jewish students.

“There are two real questions,” he said. “One is why doesn’t the college president just do something? And the second is how did this happen?”

Dr. Kadish can answer those questions, at least in part.

“First of all, college presidents are in a very complicated governance environment,” he said. “There are about seven different constituencies that they have to interact with. Universities are run on the principle of joint governance, where the faculty has a significant say.” That’s why the economist Larry Summers, Bill Clinton’s treasury secretary who became president of Harvard, was fired from that role. He angered the faculty for a range of reasons, including but not exclusively for speaking out against antisemitism on campus.

Then there is the board of directors, “which has significant power but has to be sensitive to the faculty, whose members can leave or do other things that will harm the administration. The board is charged with long-term guidance, but like the president it also has to be cognizant of joint governance.

“The other constituencies are the students, alumni, and donors, and in the case of public institutions, the government.

“So college presidents don’t have complete freedom to act by fiat.

“Still, if I had to characterize their responses overall, although there definitely are exceptions, it has been disappointing.”

“There are three reasons for that,” Dr. Kadish continued. “One is that the administrations can’t always act with impunity. Second is that some presidents are afraid to act because they are afraid of the consequences. And in some cases, the presidents – who came from the faculty – agree with the protests or are sympathetic to them.

“That’s the answer to the question about why somebody doesn’t do something. That somebody is always the president, who is the college’s public face.”

Despite his firsthand understanding of why the responses have been what they’ve been, “I’ve been disappointed in them,” Dr. Kadish said. “With rare exceptions, the ones that ultimately have come to a good place have gotten there after many statements. And some of them have said that hate speech is constitutionally protected, so we’re doing the right thing.

“I think that we have a lot of work to do.”

But the heart of the problem is something else. “There is a double standard. When this happens to other groups rather than to Jews, the response is different.

“This dovetails into the second question, about how this could be happening.

“At the rally in D.C., I spoke with some other Jewish leaders, who said that they were shocked with what has happened on campuses. I am outraged and appalled — but I am not shocked.

“We have seen the development over the last decade on college campuses, with the radicalization of some of the humanities faculty. Some are driven by political considerations and some by donations.

“If I had to compare it to something else, it would be to the fascination with the Soviet Union on college campuses in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s. Stalin was murdering more people than Hitler, but he had supporters on campus. Some of them even spied for the USSR.”

Then there are the philosophical justifications for antisemitism (although of course it’s never put in terms quite so stark).

“There is an ethos that says that everyone who is powerless is just,” Dr. Kadish said. “That ethos has produced intersectionality. That’s basically that every group has a grievance against people who are successful, it’s all intertwined, and it has resulted in the wholesale adoption of the hatred for Israel. It’s led in some cases to excluding Zionists and Jews from progressive circles.

“A lot of the ethos is that the justice and history and righteousness of individual situations is not evaluated; instead, it all falls into the narrative of who is the white oppressor and who is not.

“That is the only way that I can explain the outpouring of anti-Israel demonstrations, when Israelis are raped, tortured, kidnapped, and murdered. This lack of morality has been going on for decades, and now we see the results.”

And then of course there’s antisemitism, “which always has been around,” Dr. Kadish said. “We deluded ourselves into thinking that it was going away, but it’s always been there sub-rosa, and it was triggered on October 7.

“Antisemitism has been going on for 2,000 years. It results from the othering of Jews, which is why it’s so ironic that groups that oppose othering have adopted antisemitism as an acceptable idea.”

He quoted Thomas Sowell, the Black conservative philosopher who headed Stanford University’s Hoover Center. “How can Jews get rid of antisemitism?” Dr. Sowell asked. “They can fail.”

Dr. Kadish acknowledged that there is antisemitism on the right as well as on the left, but he’s more worried with the left. “Although overt incidents in the United States in the last few decades have come from the right, I have argued for a long time that the greater danger is from the left, not because it is more pernicious but because the radical right never will be normalized.

“I don’t think that mainstream America supports the radical right, but I do see it as supporting what’s going on now.” He cited last week’s Time magazine cover story, which focused on Gaza without providing any history, background, or context; it didn’t even mention Hamas’ barbaric October 7 attack.

So what can we do?

“People are doing a lot, and we have seen some results,” he said. “Colleges and universities are responding to donors and groups of faculty and alumni who have written letters and lobbied. They’re responding to the fact that by and large state and local governments have been supportive of Israel.

“I think that one of the reasons that the chancellors of CUNY and SUNY signed statements condemning Hamas terror is because Mayor Adams and Governor Hochul have been willing to go on record supporting Israel.” (To decode, those are the City and State Universities of New York, overseen respectively by New York City’s Mayor Eric Adams and New York State’s Governor Kathy Hochul.)

“The rally in Washington was enormously important. Until then, antisemitic messages had dominated.”

Dr. Kadish thinks that the constant barrage of images of suffering in Gaza — the suffering is real, although the images often are photoshopped and the statistics, coming from the Orwellian-named Gaza Ministry of Health, are suspect — showing up on everyone’s phone every five minutes makes the problem worse. “There have always been wars, and there always have been civilian casualties, and that always is terrible. But the images change the narrative.

“It is a social media war. Some of it seems to be bot-driven. We think Iran might be behind it, but it’s hard to be sure. We have some research going on, primarily in Touro Berlin, looking at how to counter social media terrorism, but it will take awhile.

Once this war is over, “I think that things will get better, but they never will go back to where they had been unless there are fundamental changes,” Dr. Kadish said. “Now, most colleges and universities are dealing with the symptoms, but not with the root causes.”

The fight to unearth, expose, and destroy the root causes of antisemitism is an old one; we’re engaged in a new battle in that old war.

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