American Jews Should Use Law and Jewish Pride to Combat Antisemitism

Increasingly, Jews are marginalized on campus and elsewhere when they defend Israel and Zionism.

Melbourne, Australia, anti-Israel protest

The following was adapted from the keynote address delivered at the Installation Dinner of the Brandeis Association, a Jewish bar association, in Great Neck, New York on Oct. 24, 2022.

Justice Louis D. Brandeis taught Americans that it was possible to be both American and Zionist. He explained that Zionist ideals were synonymous with American values.

As he once said, “I began gradually to realize that these 20th-century ideals of America, of democracy, of social justice, of longing for righteousness, were ancient Jewish ideals. … That that which I was striving for, as a thing essentially American, as the ideals for our country, were the Jewish ideals of thousands of years.”

For Justice Brandeis, Jewish, Zionist and American ideals were united as one. Today, however, some seek to divide them and falsely claim that they can’t coexist together. They categorize Zionism as evil.

It is increasingly common today to hear people say: I’m not anti-Jewish, I’m only anti-Zionist. But is that even possible? Is it possible to support Jews but oppose Zionists?

The answer is no. Why? Because Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity.

Judaism is more than a religion. Jews share not only a faith and religious traditions, but also a deep sense of Jewish peoplehood. The Jews’ history, ancestry, theology and culture are inextricably intertwined with the Land of Israel. Justice Brandeis embraced the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in their ancestral homeland.

Yet today, on campus and beyond, Jewish students who demonstrate pride in their Jewish ethnic heritage by expressing identification with Israel are shunned, marginalized and excluded from student clubs, support groups, social justice advocacy spaces and even student government. With frightening frequency, these students are told they are not welcome unless they first condemn Israel. No other group of students is charged such a price for admission.

As president of the Brandeis Center, I speak nearly every day to students on campus. Let me share with you some of the things they are telling me:

1. They say that the trip they took to Israel was the most amazing experience of their life, but they won’t post photos of it on social media.

2. They say they won’t wear t-shirts with Hebrew writing on them. At one school, students asked the Hillel not to manufacture t-shirts with the name of the school in Hebrew letters because, they said, When we wear Hebrew, we become targets.

3. They say they are afraid to wear items that identify them as Jewish, such as a Star of David or a kippah (a skullcap), because their peers on campus automatically assume that all Jews who are visibly Jewish are Zionists—and today, Zionism is equated with racism and all things evil.

4. They say they are being pushed out of social justice advocacy spaces, removed from clubs or even removed from student government—all because they are Zionists.

  • For example: At SUNY New Paltz, a student who created an organization to empower survivors of sexual assault was removed from the group she started. Her access to the club’s social media accounts and documents was cut off. Why? Because she shared on her own personal Instagram account an info-graphic that explained that Jews are an ethnic group originally from Israel, and that it is not possible to “colonize” a place that you are from.
  • At the University of Southern California, the vice president of student government, Rose Ritch, a fierce progressive and supporter of Palestinian human rights, became the target of an intense online harassment campaign that vilified her and urged her removal from office for no reason other than that she believes Israel has a right to exist. The posts called to impeach her “Zionist a**.” After the Brandeis Center got involved as Rose’s counsel, the university postponed her impeachment trial.

         Privately, administrators told Rose they were sorry for what she was experiencing, but publicly, they refused to issue any statement condemning the anti-Semitism.             The administrators even refused to explain to the university community why the impeachment trial had been put off, leaving it to Rose to explain to the student body             why her own impeachment trial would not be taking place. Ultimately, without the university’s public support, Rose was compelled to step down. As she explained in             her resignation statement, she was pushed out of office, and denied this student leadership opportunity, solely due to her Zionism—an integral component of her                Jewish identity.

        The Brandeis Center filed a Title VI complaint against the university for failing to protect Rose from the unlawful harassment and discrimination. This summer, the                Department of Education opened a formal investigation of the matter.

  • And at UC Berkeley Law School, at least nine student organizations, representing the majority of the student body—groups that include the Women of Berkeley Law, the Queer Caucus and the Berkeley Law Muslim Student Association—adopted bylaws that commit these student organizations to never invite speakers “that have expressed and continue to hold views … in support of Zionism.”

         Mind you, these bylaws do not say that the organizations will prohibit programs related to Zionism or Israel. The bylaws say that the groups will not invite any                       individuals who support Zionism to speak on any subject. So, for example, the Women of Berkeley Law will not invite a Zionist attorney to speak about Roe v. Wade,           and the Queer Caucus will not invite a pro-Israel speaker to discuss gay marriage. As the dean of Berkeley Law acknowledged, these bylaws would preclude him                 and 90% of the Jewish students at Berkeley from addressing these clubs, because the overwhelming majority of Jews believe Israel has a right to exist. This is not             viewpoint discrimination. The clubs that have adopted these bylaws are excluding Jews. They are actively denying Jews a space at their speaker podium.

Today, students who believe that Israel has a right to exist in any borders are being called “racist,” “colonialists,” “oppressors.” They are told they are responsible for “apartheid,” “genocide” and “ethnic cleansing.”

It is no longer sufficient for a student to express support for a “two-state solution.” Today, students must deny the right of Jewish self-determination and deny Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state. Israel has become the litmus test.

Don’t get me wrong. Hostility towards Israel is not the only anti-Jewish sentiment we see on campus. Sadly, there is still plenty of the traditional, historic anti-Semitism. Random swastikas, hateful fliers circulated by white supremacists containing traditional anti-Semitic tropes and mezuzahs that are torn down.

All of it is disturbing. The difference, however, is that when students complain about the traditional anti-Semitism, the administrators seem to understand. They recognize the swastikas and white supremacists as anti-Semitic and they usually act.

But when the discrimination includes the words “Israel” or “Zionist,” university administrators mistakenly think that what they are witnessing is a good faith political debate. Rather than pick a side or risk silencing anyone’s speech, the administrators remain silent and do nothing. By failing to even condemn the harassment and discrimination that is taking place, universities permit it to fester and grow.

One of the challenges we face on college campuses today is that university administrators—and the general public—don’t understand contemporary anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism may be society’s oldest hatred, but it is the most difficult form of bigotry to recognize, because it looks different in each generation. It morphs.

The one constant, however, is that anti-Semitism always takes whatever that generation’s greatest evil is, whatever that society views as its misfortune, and pins it on the Jew. The Jew becomes the scapegoat. The Jew is to blame.

The implication is the world would be a better place without Jews. Jews have been maligned as the Christ-killer, the capitalist and the race polluter. Today, when racism, apartheid and settler colonialism are viewed as society’s greatest evils, there are those who label all Jews as “white, colonialist oppressors.”

Traditional anti-Semitism sought to deny individual Jews their place in society. The Nazis required Jews to wear a yellow Star of David so that the public could identify them and treat them as pariahs.

Today, in addition to individual Jews, we have a Jewish collective—the Jewish nation state of Israel. And so today there are those who claim that the country which is the worst offender when it comes to the world’s greatest evils is not China with the Uyghurs, Russia with Ukraine, North Korea or Iran.

Rather, they say the world’s worst offender is the Jewish state, Israel, the sole democracy in the Middle East, where all races, genders, faiths and ethnicities are equal under the law—that is the country they blame for this generation’s greatest evils.

And that is the only country in the world—the one and only Jewish state—that they claim has no right to exist.

This is contemporary anti-Semitism, and yet most of the world still does not recognize it as anti-Semitism.

Throughout history, there have been members of society (including some Jews), who have had difficulty accepting that Jews are not only a religion but also a people. Today, Jews are once again being pressured to shed our sense of Jewish peoplehood. We are being told that to be accepted by society we must abandon this key component of Jewish identity; namely, the shared ancestry and collective memory that binds us together as Jews. Our historic link to the Land of Israel is denied and erased.

This is not a new phenomenon.

It happened in Europe when Jews were offered emancipation and equal rights for the first time. In 1789, when the French National Assembly debated whether the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen should apply to Jews, Count of Clermont Tonnerre said, “The Jews should be denied everything as a nation, but granted everything as individuals.”

The Jews of France were told that if they did not pledge allegiance only to France, they would be expelled. With a choice like that, many Jews complied. They announced, “France is our Zion!”

The situation was repeated seven years later in 1796 before the Dutch Parliament. There, they debated the question of how they could they give Dutch citizenship to a Jew if he felt connected to Jews in England, France or Germany.

One of the Dutch parliamentarians proposed that the Jews take an oath that began: “I, so-and-so, declare that I do not belong to any other people, nor any part of a people, but solely and only to the people of the Netherlands.”

For many Jews, Zionism is as integral to their Jewish identity as observing the Sabbath or keeping a kosher diet. It is true, not all Jews are Zionists. At the same time, not all Jews are Sabbath observers. But ask anyone who incorporates any type of Shabbat observance into their life why they do it, and they will tell you it is an expression of their Jewish identity.

By the same token, for many Jews the connection to the Land of Israel is also integral to their Jewish identity. It is an expression of pride in the Jews’ shared ancestry and ethnicity, a celebration of Jewish heritage and the Jewish people’s connection to one another and to the Jews’ ancestral homeland.

Demanding that a Jew shed their Zionism as the price of admission is comparable to demanding that a Catholic disavow the Vatican or a Muslim shed their connection to Mecca. It is discriminatory, biased and immoral.

The law is the most effective tool we have to combat anti-Semitism and protect individuals from harassment and discrimination. If we want to effectively utilize our legal tools, such as Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, the first thing we must do is accurately articulate what is happening as harassment and discrimination. If we fail to do that, if we continue to misdiagnose the situation and treat it as a political debate, then we will disable our most potent weapon.

Ostracizing, marginalizing and excluding Jews on the basis of the Zionist component of their Jewish identity is not a “speech” issue. It is discriminatory and unlawful conduct and must be confronted as such.

Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 requires universities (and all entities that receive federal funds) to protect students from harassment and discrimination based on race, color or national origin.

Although Title VI does not mention religion, according to sub-regulatory guidance, members of religious groups including Jews, Sikhs and Muslims are protected by Title VI when they are harassed or discriminated against on the basis of their actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnicity.

The Department of Education is currently investigating several universities, including the University of Southern California, the University of Vermont and the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign in response to Brandeis Center complaints that have advanced this legal argument.

As members of a Jewish bar association, you instinctively understand the challenges of our current moment. You read and hear about the rise in anti-Semitism and know that the law is our most effective tool. So, I am here tonight to ask for your help.

You—Jewish lawyers and jurists—are uniquely situated to help stem this growing scourge.

You, with your knowledge and understanding of both the law and Jewish identity, can help effectively address today’s anti-Semitism.

Here’s how:

First, remember that the best antidote to harassment and discrimination is self-confidence and pride. Don’t let anyone make you feel insecure or uncomfortable about your Jewish identity. Embrace it with pride. Talk about why your Jewish identity matters to you. Lean in. Learn about Jewish history, culture, philosophy and tradition. Share the richness of Jewish heritage with your friends and community.

Second, don’t acquiesce or accept what has been called “erasive anti-Semitism.” Push back against those who ignore—or worse, revise—Jewish history and pressure Jews to abandon the Zionist component of their Jewish identity. No one has the right to demand that Jews give up their sense of Jewish peoplehood or deny the Jews’ historic yearning for and connection to Zion.

Third, insist that Jewish identity be fully recognized and included in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. DEI seminars must recognize Jews as an ethno-religion and educate attendees about contemporary forms of anti-Semitism. When DEI programs refer to Jews only as “white oppressors,” the programs undermine the very purpose for which they were created. Instead of promoting inclusivity, they end up fostering hostility towards Jews.

Finally, and perhaps most important, as attorneys it is incumbent upon you to recognize and label anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination. When Jews are being marginalized and excluded on the basis of their Jewish identity, call it out and condemn it for what it is. Use all our legal tools to protect Jews, not only on the basis of their religious practice, but also on the basis of their national/ethnic heritage. Don’t permit anti-Semitic harassment and discrimination to masquerade as a phony political debate.

In this way, by combining Jewish pride and our legal tools, we will turn the tide. And in the process, we will strengthen the Jewish community, isolate the haters, enrich our democracy, preserve our common values and, as Justice Brandeis would have believed, improve the world in which we live.

Alyza Lewin is president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law.

Topic tags:
Israel Antisemitism Zionism academia United States human rights consitution