Anti-Israel Activism in American Universities I
The Advent of Anti-Israel Sentiment on Campus

by November 2023
Demonstrators in Washington, DC protest Israel’s military operation in Gaza, August 2014. Photo credit: Shutterstock / Ryan Rodrick Beiler.

Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh.
[ “All Israel is bound one to the other,” 
Jewish legal principle of the Talmud.]


What hit Israelis with such ferocity and sudden force in the villages and kibbutzim on the Gaza border on October 7 was unprecedented, a disastrous tsunami of indiscriminate violence in which Hamas took 1300 lives and 239 hostages. In contrast, the ensuing explosion of anti-Israel protests on American campuses and streets was a repetition of earlier activism, not the result of a sudden shift in sentiment against Israel.

What was unexpected, however, was the intensity and anger of these public protests. At the core of both was lethal and indiscriminate antisemitism. This antisemitism includes extreme verbal degradation, indiscriminate killing of Jews, their demonization, delegitimization of Jewish self-determination, and systematic sowing of doubt that Zionism and Israel are just and moral, and therefore not worthy of sustained emotional, physical, and financial support, otherwise defined as “distancing.” 

This essay identifies multiple reasons for the growth of anti-Israeli sentiment on American campuses. Part I covers the rise of anti-Israeli activism on campus which paralleled the political discourse in the country. Part II to be published tomorrow will focus on the role of Middle East studies and absence of Israel studies in campus settings. 

This essay asserts that 1) both the Hamas massacres and the anti-Israel demonstrations reflect delegitimizing of Jews as a people, undercutting the legitimacy of Jews to constitute a state. Embedded in modern Arab and Muslim attitudes toward Zionism and Israel are a century of denigration, boycott, and belittlement interrupted with significant, yet transactional Arab acceptances of the Jewish state; 2) the public and scholarly realms have become increasingly abusive of Israel, acerbic toward her policies, and vengeful toward her political leaders; 3) campus teaching of the Middle East and Israel in the US since 1967 has disfavored students broad learning about Israel except for studying Hebrew; 4) college professors and campus organizations have increasingly preached anti-Israeli views to unsophisticated, apathetic, and unknowing students; 5) pre-collegiate learning about Zionism and Israel, for Jewish and non-Jewish students alike, is sporadic, often lacking in content and concept, and self-limited to less than half of American Jewish students between the ages of 5 and 18. 

Historic anti-Zionism as a core element of modern antisemitism

Conceptually, the brutal killings and anti-Israeli protests are linked by a prolonged and relentless objective to degrade and obliterate the inalienable right of Jews to self-determination in their own state. Anti-Semitism has ancient roots in thousands of years of Jewish history. The Salience of Islamic Antisemitism, in the words of Martin Kramer, may be found in numerous Koranic passages, and earlier in Christian theology, reaffirmed as anti-Zionism in Ottoman and Mandatory Palestine through local Arab leadership’s rejection of Jewish state-building. It was summarily expressed by the Arab League Secretary General, Azzam Pasha in September 1947, “The Arab world is not in a compromising mood. We shall try to defeat you. I’m not sure we’ll succeed, but we’ll try. We were able to drive out the Crusaders, but on the other hand we lost Spain and Persia. It may be that we shall lose Palestine. But it’s too late to talk of peaceful solutions.” 

Delegitimizing Israel was carried forward by the USSR and Soviet Bloc states in the Cold War to curry favor with states recently independent of Western colonial presence. It took the forms of an Arab economic boycott of Israel and denial to Israeli diplomatic representatives of access to acceptability as a legitimate state. In the Arab world this led by Nassar’s May 1967 rhetoric to eliminate Israel. It was sustained after the June 1967 war with a general Arab policy of ‘no negotiation, no recognition, no peace’ with Israel stated unequivocally at the 1967 Khartoum Arab League Summit Resolutions. Hamas reaffirmed that 1967 concept in the 1988 Hamas Charter. Article 15 of the 1964 PLO Charter asserts that “the liberation of Palestine…aims at the elimination of Zionism in Palestine.” 

The disparagement chain against Israel is continuous, intervening with times of Arab state diplomatic recognition. Yasser Arafat, Hafez al-Assad, the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, Palestine Islamic Jihad, and many Palestinian leaders held steadfast to the same central objective of seeking Israel’s disappearance or eradication. Faisal Husseini, a prominent PLO leader in Jerusalem, said on September 9, 1996, on Syrian Television, “All Palestinians agree that the “just boundaries” of Palestine are the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea… realistically, whatever can be obtained now should be accepted and that subsequent events, perhaps in the next fifteen or twenty years would present an opportunity to realize the just boundaries of Palestine.”

According to Shakyh Ahmed Yasin, in March 2002 in al-Majallah, a founder of Hamas, “We declare very clearly that Palestine from al-Naqurah to Rafah and from [the River] Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea is the land of Palestine. There is no harm in establishing a Palestinian state on any part that is liberated at this stage, but without this meaning conceding the remaining territories of Palestine. This is the difference between the brothers in the PA and us.” Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar was quoted on al-Jazeera on May 26, 2021, “We support the eradication of Israel through armed Jihad and struggle. This is our doctrine.” 

Advent of anti-Israel sentiment on the American campus 

Anti-Israeli sentiment on American college campuses and in the public sphere is of recent vintage, while Middle Eastern anti-Zionism has evolved over the last century. American campus anti-Israeli sentiment emerged notably after the June 1967 War. It grew slowly on campuses as Israel was flipped from a sympathetic embrace as ‘David’ to being criticized and vilified as “Goliath,” primarily because of its territorial successes. Only in the mid-1970s did the US government and the national media begin to take note of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank and Gaza.

Growing anti-Israeli sentiment evolved from a variety of sources. It was popularized by writers, scholars, professors, politicians, and the media. Articles began appearing first in the Arabic media viewing Israel as an “oppressor tyrannizing an oppressed people,” simultaneous to Palestinian engagement in terrorism, with the 1972 Munich Olympic massacres standing out along with airplane hijackings, and attacks on Jewish institutions world-wide. Palestinian terrorism against Jews and Israelis was condoned or only mildly criticized. Israel had in the 1967 and 1973 Wars defended itself. Then Israel engaged in a preemptive war of choice with the 1982 invasion of Lebanon, with the Sabra and Shatila massacres of Palestinians by Israel’s Phalange allies. Responsibility was laid at Israel’s feet, and Israelis themselves condemned the war, reinforced by the Israeli Commission of Inquiry in the Kahan Report (hyperlink: 

The Carter administration had just left office, having become the most openly critical US administration of Israeli political behavior to that date in the 20th century. Carter’s policies were inspired and led by his National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski who cajoled and offered to pressure Israel in public if it did not withdraw from the West Bank. In addition, Brzezinski sought to severely reduce the influence of the American Jewish community upon Middle Eastern foreign policy making.

I saw firsthand while working at the Carter Center at Emory University how Carter, upon entering his post presidency, placed responsibility and blame on American Jews for his loss to Ronald Reagan in the presidential elections of 1980. He said, ‘they and the evangelicals abandoned me in 1980.’ He repeatedly stigmatized Begin in the public sphere and in the Emory classroom. Moreover, for four subsequent decades after he left office, he carried anger towards Israel for two reasons: denying his administration a comprehensive peace between Israel and all Arab states, which was never realistically possible; and continuing settlement building and expansion in the Occupied Territories. Later in the 2000s, Carter cultivated a decade of embrace of Hamas, while he promoted the view that Israel was an ‘apartheid state.” Whatever one’s view of Israel’s practices in the Territories, or the use of the term apartheid, he popularized it as an accepted descriptive of Israel’s political behavior over decades in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Jerusalem. With the use of ‘apartheid’ he implied that Israel was racist. He legitimized the use of the term to describe Israel because others heard and saw a former president embrace it wholeheartedly, his disclaimers notwithstanding. 

From Carter forward, American presidents with varying degrees of intensity criticized Israel’s building of settlements, its management of Palestinian affairs, and failure to do enough to move a Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process forward. Carter and subsequent presidents always prefaced their criticism of Israel with iron clad support for Israel’s security. Israel continued to build and expand settlements which poked fingers in the eye of many who supported Israel but also wanted an equitable (whatever that meant) political outcome for the Palestinians. The first Palestinian intifada (1987-1992) generated dismay among those on the political left because Israel used more force in quelling Palestinians violence in the territories; Israel’s behavior was routinely categorized as not ‘proportional’ however that was defined. More frustration developed from the unrealistic expectations that the 1993 Oslo Accords between Rabin and Arafat would also result in a peace treaty as had unfolded between Begin and Sadat. 

Many on American campuses and across the world erroneously believed that Palestinian statehood was promised in the Oslo Accords. Still the attitude was held that only if Israel would do more, negotiations would ensue; but Arafat was not interested in ending the conflict with Israel, and Rabin’s assassination in 1995, again exploded massive unrealistic expectations that negotiations might have continued under his leadership as prime minister. No evidence ever appeared that Rabin was prepared to promote an independent Palestinian state, though be believed that Israel should get out of the lives of the Palestinians. Just before Oslo was signed and Arafat recognized Israel, Hamas embraced all the views of Palestinians, in the Middle East and elsewhere who totally rejected Arafat’s recognition and legitimization of Israel. In early 1996, Hamas timed a series of bus bombings that killed hundreds of Israelis to effectively help push Benjamin Netanyahu past Shimon Peres as Israel’s next prime minister. 

Anger with Israel spilled out into courses taught on campuses. Israel was using check points, collective punishment, building settlements, erecting the security fence, known in the vernacular as the “Apartheid Wall,’ and repeatedly its politics and policies were defined as ‘racist,’ ‘colonialist,’ engaged in ‘ethnic cleansing.’ 

After Rabin’s assassination, the clarion call for a two-state solution steadily dominated political hopes. In the first decade of 2000, Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak, Ehud Olmert, and Bibi Netanyahu spoke in support of two states for two peoples, all with some limitations on governing prerogatives, with no Palestinian leader stepping forth to challenge Israeli overtures.

The campus gradually became a hotbed of Israeli disfavor. Then anti-Israel voices abounded on many fronts. In 2003, the Boycott Divest Sanction (BDS) movement was formed, whose goal of ‘ending the occupation’ did not define itself as limited to removing Israel from the territories secured in the June 1967, but rather included all of Israel from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea.

A man rips off a poster with a picture of an Israeli woman kidnapped by Hamas, at a pro-Palestinian demonstration by students of New York University, October 25, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.
A man rips off a poster of an Israeli hostage of Hamas, at a pro-Palestinian demonstration at New York University, October 25, 2023. Photo credit: REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton.

In 2006, President Carter published Palestine Peace not Apartheid where he suggested that Palestinians stop their attacks on Israel only after Israel accept a roadmap to negotiations. Beyond the book, Carter went around the country to promote his view that Israel was brutalizing Palestinians. He ripped Israel, its policies and leaders at every opportunity, his book became a regular text in Palestinian-Israeli conflict courses.

In 2007, two professors Walt and Mearsheimer published The Israel Lobby which claimed that American support for Israel was not in the US national interest and was morally unjustified. In John Mearsheimer’s speech on April 29, 2010 at the Palestine Center in Washington, DC, he ridiculed major Jewish leaders as ‘new Afrikaners,’ putting a nasty verbal mantle on David Harris, Abe Foxman, Lester Crown, Mort Zuckerman, Malcolm Hoenlein and a host of others, an example of demonizing and degrading American Jewish leadership.

In November 2007, J Street was formed and gradually secured support from many American progressives who opposed Israel’s policy in the Territories and toward the Palestinians. In 2008, Tel Aviv University Professor Shlomo Sand published The Invention of the Jewish People, claiming that Zionist attachment to the land of Israel is a myth. After Netanyahu imposed himself in 2015 at the US Congress with his angry speech against American support of an Iran deal, a new low point in US-Israel relations was reached in the public and on campus.

In the 2016 and 2020 presidential election campaigns, Democratic candidates for office advocated halting or slowing American military support for Israel until a Palestinian-Israeli negotiating process unfolded. In the center and on the left of American politics, the abundant dislike for Trump was transferred to Prime Minister Netanyahu who was seen as equally despised. 

Campuses had become breeding grounds for anti-Israeli sentiment, catalyzed by two student groups with chapters across the country, Students for Justice in Palestine established in 1993, and Jewish Voices for Peace established in 1996. On various campuses and with varying degrees of followers, both persistently tarred Israel as racist, implying that any Jewish student who supported Israel was automatically complicit in Israel’s policies. Across the US in many campuses, student government organizations increasing passed anti-Israeli resolutions; simultaneously, Jewish college students voiced discomfort that their safety was threatened. 

As Israel and her supporters were held responsible for Israeli actions vis-a-vis the Palestinians, no matter how much Palestinian Arab violence was perpetrated against Israelis in attacks in restaurants, at religious functions, on public transport, or in public places, the abusive language and misinformation continued. In the college classroom, mostly tenured faculty criticized and condemned Israeli policies. Anger against Israel evolved into proclaimed boycotts of Israeli universities, Israeli professors, and academic links to Israel. 

After the October 7 murders, the Middle East Studies Association, the major organization of Middle Eastern college professors in North America issued its statement on October 16 that read, “MESA’s Board of Directors has previously addressed the broader context emphasizing how the decades-long Israeli military and government attacks on Palestinian students, teachers, and educational facilities are part of a broader political, administrative, and legal system of racial discrimination and domination – regularly enforced through violence – that has defined the Israel government’s treatment of the Palestinian people.”

The October 7 attack and the anti-Israel demonstrations on campus are two sides of the same coin. Jews in Israel and in the Diaspora are the focus of delegitimization by groups deeply antagonistic to any form of Jewish nationalism or nationhood. So, what should Jews do about these catastrophic realities? Allow October 7 to become merely another day of remembrance on the Jewish calendar, another Yom Ha-Zicharon? I suggest some Jewish actions to be taken in Part II of this essay.

Kenneth Stein
Kenneth Stein is Emeritus Professor of Middle Eastern History, Political Science and Israel Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. He is the founding President and Chief Content Officer of the Center for Israel Education (CIE), which provides Israel content to 3,000 Jewish teachers in the US and has an online presence of 40,000 users. For over half a century, he taught 5800 undergraduates at Michigan, Brown and Emory. His books include The Land Question in Palestine, 1917-1939 and Heroic Diplomacy: Sadat, Kissinger, Carter Begin and the Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (1999).
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