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Colleges could lose federal funding if they don't curb antisemitism and Islamophobia


The alarming rise of antisemitism on college campuses, as President Biden has called it, is showing no signs of abating. The spike that started after the October 7 massacre by Hamas in Israel is leaving many Jewish students feeling unsafe. As NPR's Tovia Smith reports, many pro-Palestinian students say they're also being targeted and doxxed, leaving colleges caught in the middle.

TOVIA SMITH, BYLINE: It didn't take long for the demonstrations that began after October 7 as vigils to devolve into vitriol and violence.


SMITH: Pro-Palestinian protesters banged on doors and windows of the campus library at the Cooper Union in New York, where Jewish students were holed up inside. A Cornell student was arrested for allegedly threatening to slit Jews' throats. At Drexel University, a Jewish student's dorm room door was set on fire.


SMITH: And at Tulane University in New Orleans, protestors assaulted a Jewish student, breaking his nose.

DYLAN MANN: You know, there's blood pouring down my nose. It's, like, all over the sidewalk.

SMITH: Freshman Dylan Mann is still recuperating, physically and mentally.

MANN: It was scary. I think what we're seeing right now is a lot of shouting at each other. And at the end of the day, it's not going to change anyone's mind. It's just going to add fuel to the fire.

JONATHAN GREENBLATT: Things have intensified in ways we have never seen before.

SMITH: Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League says students are afraid and angry that many universities were slow not only to condemn the Hamas attacks of October 7, but also to address students' security concerns.

GREENBLATT: The universities generally are failing the test. I would give the vast majority of university administrators an F.

SMITH: Muslim, Palestinian and Arab students are also reporting a spike in hate-based incidents from countless cases of doxxing and losing jobs to the Stanford student injured in a hit-and-run that's now being investigated as a hate crime. But Greenblatt says schools have long been more lax on antisemitism than other kinds of hate, like anti-gay or anti-Black.

GREENBLATT: Universities for far too long have been permissive about actions they would never countenance directed at any other community. And it creates the conditions in which crazy people feel compelled to take action. And I worry that it could get worse.

SMITH: Some Jewish students are withdrawing applications from certain schools. And many donors, Jewish and non, are pulling their giving unless universities do more to condemn and curb antisemitism. Schools across the nation have been beefing up security. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, where there's been many incidents of antisemitic harassment, vandalism and threatening emails that are now being investigated by the FBI, the university concedes it, quote, "has work to do" to root out what it calls the evil of antisemitism. Even on relatively calm campuses, Jewish students say they're rattled by acts like destroying pictures of Israeli hostages.


EMMA JONAS: So seeing those posters ripped down on my walk to class can just really clog my brain for the day.

SMITH: University of Michigan student, Emma Jonas, says what may be most upsetting is seeing so many colleges failing to make this a teachable moment. Students are uninformed, Jonas says, as she saw recently at a campus demonstration where pictures of the youngest hostages were taped to baby strollers.

JONAS: And then this girl came over and looked in the stroller and was like, oh, my God. Like, what is this? Like, this has been going on for three weeks. And then just, like, for someone's first encounter with it to be today - like, I was totally shocked.

MARIA AYOUB: I do believe this is very much driven by ignorance.

SMITH: Maria Ayoub, a Palestinian student at the University of Maryland, College Park, was among many who got mixed up with a group of pro-Israel students last week.

AYOUB: We heard some Palestinians like yelling at them, telling them to, like, kill themselves and just to, like, get out, like, they're not welcome - all these things.

SMITH: But what could have gone really bad actually went the other way.

AYOUB: We were like, that's not OK. You can't say that to anybody. So we did apologize on that person's behalf.

SMITH: Two hours later, the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students were still talking. By the end, Ayoub and a Jewish student, Keren Binyamin, even shared a laugh.

AYOUB: She said that me and her looked very similar. We could practically be sisters in terms of looks.

KEREN BINYAMIN: She, you know, looked a lot like me. Like, we have the same eyes and hair. So we, like, stood next to each other. We're like, look. Like, oh, isn't this so funny? There was a chuckle.

AYOUB: It definitely made us laugh.

SMITH: Before leaving, the two shook hands and traded phone numbers. But those kinds of encounters are more the exception than the rule. When University of Texas Arlington Professor Morgan Marietta organized a Q&A for students with the school's resident Mideast expert, pro-Palestinian students immediately balked, insisting the single expert would be one-sided and unfair. They protested outside and inside, Marietta says - swearing and shouting questions like, what's the difference between Zionists and Nazis? Things only went down from there.

MORGAN MARIETTA: There was a student shouting, [expletive] all of you. [Expletive] Israel. [Expletive] the United States. How she thought that would persuade anyone that she was taking a reasonable position is beyond me.

SMITH: To Marietta, it's a sign of how much students have to learn about how to have a robust but respectful and intellectually honest academic debate. He says that should be a mandatory part of freshman orientation. But for his efforts, Marietta ended up rebuked by the university, and he resigned his job as department chair. Indeed, to many, it is still too soon for calm conversation. This Arab American student leader at the University of Maryland asked that his name not be used, noting the many pro-Palestinian students who are getting harassed and doxxed.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: I don't want to have to face backlash - often blatant smearing and libel - because of employers not wanting to hire someone who is allegedly antisemitic or allegedly a terrorist sympathizer.

SMITH: He accuses universities of leaning too pro-Israel and not doing enough to prevent harassment of pro-Palestinian students, who he says are also being targeted. Patty Perillo, University of Maryland VP of student affairs, says the blowback is inevitable from one side, the other or both.

PATTY PERILLO: It's tough. There's no doubt about it. You can get slammed either way.

SMITH: Some schools are taking a cue from the Kalven Report, a 50-year-old University of Chicago paper that implores universities to simply stay neutral on political and social issues. Schools should be the home and sponsor of critics, the case goes, not critics themselves. But Perillo calls that untenable.

PERILLO: You can't stand in neutrality. We're an institution that says we are deeply invested in inclusive community. You can't say that and then stand on the sidelines.

SMITH: The Muslim chaplain at Rutgers University, Kaiser Aslam, agrees. And when emotions are high, he says, it's actually a more teachable moment.

KAISER ASLAM: Meaning, in that moment in which we feel very sensitive and raw, oftentimes that's where if there was some inert Islamophobia, antisemitism, those come to the surface. And that's a great opportune moment to correct it rather than ignore it or excuse it.

SMITH: Meantime, the U.S. Department of Education is also warning college administrators not to ignore it. In a letter to schools this week, the Biden administration says schools must unequivocally condemn and take aggressive action to address antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on campus. If they don't, officials warn, they could lose federal funding. Tovia Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF HENRIK JANSON'S "LUNA IS DANCING") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.