In the campus war against Israel, the all too familiar refrain from student anti-Israel activists, many of whom form the loose coalition of groups and individuals spearheading the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, is that their quarrel is only with Israel and its government’s policies, not with Jews themselves. But that specious defense continues to fall away, revealing some caustic and base anti-Semitism and representing a seismic shift in the way that Jewish student leaders are now being indicted not just for supporting Israel, but merely for being Jewish.
One of the latest victims in this covert anti-Semitism and purge of student leaders based on their Jewish identity and Zionist leanings was Rose Ritch, Undergraduate Student Government Vice President at UCLA, who resigned her position this past August after a virulent social media pogrom against her Zionist identity forced her out of office. As anti-Israel activists on campus are wont to do, Ritch was repeatedly accused of being a racist, that her support of Israel—which activists regularly accuse of being a racist, apartheid regime—meant she was morally ineligible to be in student government.
“I have been accused by a group of students of being unsuitable as a student leader,” Ritch wrote in a letter explaining her decision to resign. “I have been told that my support for Israel has made me complicit in racism, and that, by association, I am racist . . . Students launched an aggressive social media campaign to ‘impeach [my] Zionist a**.’”
“An attack on my Zionist identity is an attack on my Jewish identity,” Ritch wrote. “The suggestion that my support for a Jewish homeland would make me unfit for office or would justify my impeachment plays into the oldest stereotypes of Jews, including accusations of dual loyalty and holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.”
In 2019 at McGill University, student Jordyn Wright, a member of the Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) Legislative Council and its Board of Directors, was invited to participate in a Hillel Montreal-sponsored trip to Israel and the Palestinian territories called “Face-to-Face.” Even though Wright noted that the trip included travel to both Israel and the Palestinian territories “to meet with politicians, journalists, and locals from all sides to better understand a very nuanced geopolitical conflict . . . the SSMU Legislative Council voted to call for my resignation from my positions in student government.” In fact, Wright wrote, it was clear that she was being targeted specifically because she was Jewish, noting that “The SSMU president personally singled me out, and actively encouraged others to attack me,” even though another non-Jewish councilor was planning on taking the same trip.
Ironically, Wright noted, “SSMU passed the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism, which includes that holding Jews accountable for the actions of the Israeli government or holding Israel to a double standard is antisemitic.” By “scrutinizing only me for participating in a trip to Israel, SSMU is engaging in this kind of antisemitism by assuming I have to be held accountable for what the Israeli government is doing,” Wright wrote, and even with all the pressure, she stressed, “I will not resign.”
This is not the first time McGill students have targeted Jewish students for special treatment. In 2017, three board members of the University’s Students’ Society were removed from their appointments after a vote at the Fall General Assembly due to what was reported to be their perceived “Jewish conflict of interest.” The ouster was led by a pro-BDS student group, Democratize McGill, which was campaigning against pro-Israel students in the wake of a ruling by the Judicial Board that, once and for all, rejected the BDS movement on the McGill campus, stating that it was violative of the SSMU’s constitution because it “violate[d] the rights of [Israeli] students to represent themselves” and discriminated on the basis of national origin.
In retaliation, and to eliminate any pro-Israel views on the board, Democratize McGill launched an effort to clear the board of BDS opponents, based on the cynical notion that these members harbored clear conflict of interests which arose from their purported biases, those conflicts of interests and biases stemming from the poisonous notion that because the students were Jewish or pro-Israel, or both, they could, therefore, never make informed or fair decisions as student leaders.
Blithely ignoring their own obvious biases and the lack of any balance or nuance in their personal views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the pro-BDS members nonetheless felt comfortable with suppressing pro-Israel voices and Jewish students on the board, asserting that they sought to remove these students because they “are all either fellows at the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC), an organization whose explicit mandate is to promote pro-Israel discourse in Canadian politics, or primary organizers for the anti-BDS initiative at McGill.” In other words, they were being disqualified for having views that differed from those student leaders seeking to purge them from SSMU. The Jewish board member and two other non-Jewish, pro-Israel board members were subsequently voted off the board.
An attempted purging of a pro-Israel student from student government, very similar to the inquisition that occurred at McGill, took place in February of 2015 at UCLA, when several councilmembers on the USAC Judicial Board, UCLA student government’s highest judicial body, grilled Rachel Beyda, then a second-year economics student, when she sought a seat on the board.
The focus on her candidacy was not her qualifications for the position (which no one seemed to doubt), but specifically the fact that she was Jewish and how her “affiliation with Jewish organizations at UCLA . . . might affect her ability to rule fairly on cases in which the Jewish community has a vested interest in the outcome, such as cases related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” as the student newspaper described it.
“Ruling fairly” in this case, of course, meant that she was likely not to support the increasingly virulent anti-Israel campaign on the UCLA campus, so she failed to pass the political litmus test that so-called progressive students, enthralled with their pursuit of social justice, see as their default position—namely, being pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.
It was the same thinking that inspired a similarly discriminatory proposal the previous May by two members of UCLA’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which attempted to bar Jewish candidates from filling council positions if they had taken trips to Israel subsidized by the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, or other organizations, which, according to the sententious activists, “have openly campaigned against divestment from corporations that profit from Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights.”
Of course, there was no mention in this debate of trips paid for to send pro-Palestinian students to Israel or the territories on propaganda excursions designed to malign Israel and teach visitors an alternate, anti-Israel narrative. Once again, in addition to trying to stack the deck against the pro-Israel argument, this grotesque and inequitable proposal took as a given that anyone not committed to the Palestinian cause was by default not to be trusted, incapable of making unbiased decisions, morally compromised, and unjustified in even harboring pro-Israel opinions.
Progressive students have decided, in their own moral self-righteousness, that the Palestinian campaign for self-determination is such a sacred cause that anyone who questions it or speaks for the Israeli point of view is a moral retrograde. To even support Israel is to risk being deemed a racist, an imperialist, a tacit supporter of apartheid. And more than that: now, if you are Jewish —nowhere near or involved in the affairs of Palestinian Arabs and Israelis—if you have not publicly proclaimed your allegiance to the Palestinian cause and denounced the Israeli one, you can be deemed morally unworthy of serving as a student leader or even attending a particular university.
The student leaders who, in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, now try to suppress all thought of which they disapprove have sacrificed one of the core values for which the university exists. In their zeal to be inclusive, and to recognize the needs and aspirations of victim groups, they pretend to foster inquiry but actually stifle and retard it.
And as this otherwise productive purpose for the university has devolved, and ideological opponents are silenced and suppressed, the first victim in the dilution of academic free speech and debate, unfortunately, has been the truth.
Richard L. Cravatts, Ph.D., a Freedom Center Journalism Fellow in Academic Free Speech and President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.