In the early 20th century, German and Austrian universities changed from world-class centers of higher learning to hothouses of antisemitism. Jewish students were harassed and excluded. Professors taught texts full of antisemitic ideologies and tropes. Jewish students are confronting the same things today on campuses on Long Island and across the country.
Some Jewish donors have told university presidents to fix their culture of hatred toward Jews or donations will end. Good for them, but it probably won’t help. Ultimatums work when next steps are clear, but most university presidents have no clue how to fix their Jew-hate culture, as was clear from the testimony of four top-tier university presidents on Capitol Hill Tuesday. They’re hoping the usual round of “statements” and task forces will keep things quiet until it all blows over.
It won’t. Ignoring it, or worse paying lip service to it, will only give it time to fester. What should a university president do? Harvard’s Claudine Gay told Congress, “This is difficult work.” Well, it’s not rocket science, but it does take will.
First, understand: The problem is not that Jewish students don’t feel safe, it’s that they are not safe. That is a failure of the university community and you, the university president. You need to show disgust at what some parts of your university have become. That doesn’t mean boilerplate emails. It may mean firings and expulsions.
Second, when antisemitic and anti-Zionist vandalism occurs, you and your board — not the maintenance staff — should be out there with the scrapers and paint. Everybody — perpetrators, targets, and bystanders — should see where the school leadership stands.
Third, get out of the social justice business. The idea that there is one single thing that “is” social justice is preposterous. Such simplistic notions encourage people in their late teens or 20s to consider themselves inarguably right — something universities are supposed to teach them not to do.
Fourth, don’t let anyone else write your speeches (or tweets). With few exceptions, statements from university presidents since Oct. 7 have read more like news releases than honest, thoughtful reflection. The first email sent out by Stony Brook University president Maurie McInnis after the Hamas attack made no mention of terrorism and neither clearly denounced antisemitism nor affirmed Israel’s right of self-defense. There was such confusion and blowback that — three days later — she sent a second email to “clarify doubt” from her confusing and morally confused prior message, finally managing to write there was “no justification for the horrific acts that have taken place in Israel.”
Hofstra University fared no better. President Susan Poser’s initial response demonstrated moral clarity — and was soon followed up with a second message that walked back that moral clarity. In it, she seems to struggle with how to blame nobody. In both cases, the campus community got pure boilerplate with no leadership.
If you, university president, don’t have something cogent, individual, and specific to say about a horrific terrorist attack and the subsequent eruption of antisemitic hate on your campus, you have no business holding a job that ChatGPT could do just as well.
Fifth, when faced with antisemitism, talk about antisemitism. Folding antisemitism into “all forms of hate” evades the fact that the primary group threatened by religious hate crimes in the U.S. is Jews. Treating antisemitism as a twin of “Islamophobia” evades the fact that one of the main sources of campus antisemitism is Islamic antisemitism. Many university presidents hope to address antisemitism without being too identified with “the Jews.”
We have been here before. It’s up to university presidents to step up and lead their campuses away from what happened before.
This guest essay reflects the views of Todd Pittinsky, professor of technology and society at Stony Brook University.