What's behind the sharp rise in U.S. antisemitism
Tearing down posters of kidnapped Israeli children. Death threats sent to Jewish schools and students. Swastikas spray painted in public spaces.
U.S. antisemitism is at near-historic levels, according to FBI director Christopher Wray.
“A group that makes up 2.4%, roughly, of the American population, that same population accounts for something like 60% of all religious-based hate crimes,” Wray said.
But are the acts antisemitic, anti-Zionist, or anti-Israel? The distinctions are blurred.
Today, On Point: The deep historical and intellectual undercurrents driving the sharp rise in antisemitism in America.
Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the University of California, Berkeley School of Law. Author of a recent Los Angeles Times op-ed called “Nothing has prepared me for the antisemitism I see on college campuses now.”
Julia Steinberg, junior at Stanford University, where she’s studying comparative literature. She writes for The Stanford Review, the school’s conservative paper. Intern at The Free Press.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Erwin Chemerinsky is one of America’s most highly regarded legal scholars. He’s the dean of the University of California, Berkeley Law School, a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, a former president of the Association of American Law Schools.
He’s argued a number of times before the United States Supreme Court. His legal analysis has led him to support affirmative action, abortion rights, and gun control, putting him squarely toward the progressive end of the legal spectrum. However, in a recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times, Chemerinsky says nothing has prepared him for the antisemitism he sees on college campuses now.
And he joins us today from Berkeley, California. Erwin Chemerinsky, welcome to On Point.
ERWIN CHEMERINSKY: Thank you for having me on.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor, can you first tell us, since October 7th, what have you seen or experienced directly on the Berkeley campus that has led you to feel such shock?
CHEMERINSKY: It began immediately after the attacks on October 7th, when messages were put out by our law students in Justice Palestine, by a campus group celebrating what Hamas had done.
I sent a message to the community on October 9th that began by saying I was horrified by the terrorist attacks in Israel and expressing compassion for all of my loved ones who were in danger or lost their lives. Immediately, our law students in Palestine posted on Instagram denouncing what I had said as racist and Islamophobic for calling it a terrorist attack.
I’ve seen on our campus, posters involving those who are hostages being torn down. A week ago today, some of my students posted on Instagram a picture of me with combat makeup saying I’d take an indefinite sabbatical to join the IDF. I held town hall as I do every semester, and a student said she felt unsafe.
I said, “What could we do to make you feel safe?” And she said, “Get rid of all the Zionists in the law school.”
CHAKRABARTI: Hm. What was the reaction when she said that, not only from you, but from the rest of the people at the town hall?
CHEMERINSKY: I think there was stunned silence. I think I responded with saying that, “Of course, we can’t do that. And indeed, I consider myself a Zionist and that I support the existence of Israel.” A number of Jewish students wrote me after that and said they were there and wish they had spoken up. But didn’t know what to say in the atmosphere.
CHAKRABARTI: For the purposes of this conversation, and in fact every conversation we have on this show, I believe that being specific about our language is very important. So Professor Chemerinsky, when you say that you are a Zionist, how would you define that? What does it mean?
CHEMERINSKY: I think you’re right. The language is very important, and the definition of Zionism is much contested.
I simply mean that I believe in the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. That doesn’t mean I support Israel’s particular policies. I very much disagree with the policies of Netanyahu. I support Palestinian rights. I’ve long supported a two-state solution. But I also believe that there needs to be an Israel.
CHAKRABARTI: Now, you’re, if I may say, because you wrote about this in your LA Times op-ed, you’re in your 70s, professor, correct?
CHEMERINSKY: I’m 70 years old, yes.
CHAKRABARTI: Exactly 70. And you wrote about how what you’ve seen and witnessed, not just on the Berkeley campus, but of course through social media, and television on many campuses across the United States, that nothing in your life prepared you for the kind of antisemitism that you’re witnessing now, even though when you grow up in working class Chicago, you were regularly or people regularly hurled antisemitic insults at you, even as you were walking to school.
CHEMERINSKY: I think any seven-year-old Jewish person has, from time to time in their life, experienced antisemitism. As I mentioned in the article, I remember as a child being called a dirty Jew. I remember my friends and I walked to Hebrew school, and we were called Christ killers. I’ve been in a building where a swastika was painted on the wall in the past.
I’ve taught classes where students have, I think, inadvertently, but clearly said antisemitic things. But I would say that what we’ve seen on campus across the country over the last month is really in kind different than what we’ve witnessed before. There was a student at Cornell now under arrest and in custody who made threats to kill Jewish students on campus.
There are statements by professors, a Chicago Art professor, posted a note saying, and I’m quoting, “Israelis are pigs, savages. Very bad people. Irredeemable excrement. May they all rot in hell.” A UC Davis professor, not far from here wrote and I quote, “Zionist journalists have houses with addresses. Kids in schools, they can fear their bosses, but they trust more.” And at the bottom of it, were emojis of a knife, an axe and three drops of blood, and I could give you so many more examples. That’s when I say, I haven’t seen anything like this before.
CHAKRABARTI: Now the professor in Chicago at the Art Institute of Chicago School that you mentioned.
Yes, she did indeed post that, calling Israelis savages. When it was identified to the school through other posts and people saying, “Hey, do you know that your faculty is saying this?” She did issue an apology, and I wonder what you make of it, Professor Chemerinsky.
She said in her apology, quote, “I wrote some things on my Instagram story that I unequivocally reject and do not stand behind. I am deeply sorry for what I wrote. I’m especially sorry to Israeli people that I broadly placed at fault for the war.” And then she said, “I recognize my harmful words are an unfortunate distraction from what I feel deep in my heart, that all people, no matter their race, religion, et cetera, deserve to live in peace.”
CHEMERINSKY: What do you think of that? I’m glad she apologized, but it doesn’t undo the harm of the statement. It was there and it was seen by many. If I were to use a racial epithet towards a student, and I would cause harm to the student, my apologizing is important, but it doesn’t undo the harm either. And my point with this quote and others is show much there is out there that is deeply offensive and why it does feel different from before.
CHAKRABARTI: I think it’s time, professor, that we just call this tension for what it is. And that is, so many people on the left, even the center and the left, whatever the center might be defined as in the United States now, are especially dismayed by these statements and actions of antisemitism now. Because they’re coming from people who ostensibly would share their progressive views in every other issue.
The language that this Chicago professor used to apologize is exactly the kind of language that we’ve come to expect from, other people who have been, previously called out for being racist or sexist or homophobic or anti-trans, you name it. Is that what’s particularly painful here now for you?
CHEMERINSKY: I want to say at the beginning that in no way am I minimizing the Islamophobia that’s going on as well. I think I can decry antisemitism without minimizing Islamophobia. I think I can condemn antisemitism without in any way lessening the importance of Palestinian rights.
I think in answer to your question, what’s so difficult is to hear the expression of antisemitism at this moment in history. I want to believe that this kind of antisemitism is a thing of the past. And yet, I think what we see is, it’s always been there under the surface. And these events just give it an occasion to be expressed.
CHAKRABARTI: If I may, I want to just play a quick example of how some or many Jewish students on college campuses have been feeling.
For example, this is from what’s been going on in Columbia University. Jewish students there are urging school administrators to do more to protect them. And here’s what some students said to CBS2 in New York.
FAY: We have students on our campus calling out by name explicitly that they want certain students on this campus to die slowly.
SHMIDMAN: He said f*** the Jews.
KURTZ: There’s many, many more steps that need to be taken that are not just or even physical police presence. This is a cultural problem.
CHAKRABARTI: Those are Columbia university students, Noa Fay, Eli Shmidman and Yoni Kurtz. Professor Chemerinsky. You are in the administrative, you’re not only just a teaching faculty, you’re the dean of the law school at Berkeley.
So what do you think of the students saying that administrators are not doing enough on college campuses at this moment to, first of all, protect Jewish students, but second of all, diffuse whatever culture has allowed the easy expression of antisemitism to even be possible on campuses?
CHEMERINSKY: Of course, administrators have to do everything we can to protect the physical safety of our students, and I think campus are taking that very seriously.
On the other hand, I agree with the students that I think that college administrators have not denounced the antisemitism that’s occurred. I think they’re afraid that if they denounce the antisemitism, they’ll be called Islamophobic or anti-Palestinian. Some evidence of this, I’ve written thousands of op-eds over the last 40 years.
I have never written an op-ed that’s generated the kind of response that the one in the LA Times did. I’ve gotten hundreds and hundreds of messages. And why is that? I think it’s because I’m saying something that many people feel. But other administrators haven’t expressed, and so I do, in the op-ed, and I do now, call on my fellow college administrators to condemn the antisemitism there, to condemn the Islamophobia and then get to the hard work of, where do we go from here?
CHAKRABARTI: We had a lot of listener response to the fact that we’re doing this show today, Professor, and they run the gamut. So this is Jonah Rothstein. He lives in Minneapolis, and he wanted to just put a finer point on this part of the issue. He basically says antisemitism on campus is not new. He graduated from the University of Hartford in Connecticut in 2016, and he really points to the fact that he thinks professors and administrators are now, whether they want to or not, reaping what they’ve sown.
He says back in 2016, he once found a swastika drawn in chalk in a dorm quad.
JONAH: The problem here is not just the fact that college campuses are uniquely positioned as ideological cesspools, frankly, against Jews. It’s that administrators don’t want to admit that there’s a problem, and professors, most of whom are virulently leftist, they help create that cesspool through their lesson planning.
CHAKRABARTI: That’s Jonah Rothstein from Minneapolis. We’ll hear more from many listeners who shared their thoughts with us, and again, they run across the political spectrum, as we talk today about the dramatic rise in antisemitism in the United States. We’re looking at college campuses. But it’s really a broad across the United States, as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s listen to a little bit more of the feedback that we’ve received from On Point listeners, this is Christine Klopfer. She lives in San Luis Obispo County, California, and she says her county has definitely seen a rise in antisemitic incidents, not just now, but in recent years.
CHRISTINE KLOPFER: Part of it started when Trump was defeated in 2020. In the north part of our county, on the overpasses, there have been men with large sheets, with white pride slogans and symbols. I won’t wear my Star of David outside. And I’m keeping a really low profile, as I think many people are these days, for fear of danger. It just feels dangerous.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Chemerinsky, is there a difference between the type of antisemitism demonstrated by the people Christine was just talking about, versus the type of anti Semitism you’ve seen on campuses recently, or is there no difference at all?
CHEMERINSKY: There’s some difference, but I don’t know how much that matters. I think the kind of antisemitism that she’s describing is like the swastika that was painted on a restaurant in Los Angeles a couple of days ago. And it’s the kind that we’ve seen historically. I think now it’s much more focused on campus, with regard to Israel and Israeli policies.
But while you and I can draw a distinction between criticizing Israel and criticizing policies and antisemitism, the way that it’s expressed is often no different at all. So when my students were cheering from what Hamas did, one could say that was more political.
But how it’s felt by Jews is very much as antisemitism.
CHAKRABARTI: Here’s Paul Simons in the Philadelphia area. And he says he got a Facebook message that was filled with anger and insults because he said he supports Israel and condemns what Hamas did.
PAUL SIMONS: This is a horrible thing. They did it to provoke retaliation. They got it. They are absolutely cynically using their own people to make themselves the darlings of antisemites worldwide. That’s the only thing they’re going to get out of it.
CHAKRABARTI: Joining us now is Julia Steinberg. She’s a junior at Stanford University. She’s studying comparative literature. She writes for the Stanford Review.
That’s the school’s conservative paper. She’s also an intern at the Free Press and recently wrote an article in the Free Press explaining why she thinks her generation has been poised to be a source of an eruption of antisemitism. Julia, welcome to the show.
JULIA STEINBERG: Hello. Thank you so much for having me.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So tell me a little bit more about what you wrote in the Free Press, that there’s something about the confluence of social media and certain types of anti-justice, or sorry, social justice education that many young people have had that you say is contributing to this massive eruption of antisemitism.
STEINBERG: Sure. So after the initial attacks on October 7th, I knew what was going to happen. I knew that there was going to be an uptick in antisemitism, despite the fact that it was the largest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. And my reason for this was fairly simple. It’s that since I was in high school, and since many people in my generation were in grade school, even, we’ve been taught to side with the oppressed rather than the oppressor.
And Israel, which is the only Jewish nation, is very militarily powerful, economically more successful than its neighbors. And because of that, as well as the treatment of Palestinians from the Israeli state, it’s been labeled neatly in the oppressor category. And that’s not to mention Jews generally, who also in some ways fit into the oppressor category.
I disagree with what Dean Chemerinsky said. I think that I’m not surprised at all about this antisemitism. Because it’s the rational result of the ideologies that have been taught on campus for even since the ’60s, but ideologies that have been very commonplace in the last 10 years, and at least since I’ve gotten to college.
When I got to college, I was really surprised and taken aback by how my peers oriented themselves around sympathy with the quote-unquote oppressed, no mind that the oppressed, it can misbehave. It’s incredibly paternalistic. And I wrote in my article for the Free Press, “Why My Generation Hates Jews” in a discussion section in a first-year class I was taking when we were talking about the author Frantz Fanon, known as the spearhead of anti-colonial thought, de-colonial thought.
I disagreed with the reading, and I said I think it’s wrong to blanket agree with violence for the sake of quote-unquote decolonization. And I think back to that conversation a lot as we’ve seen 1,400 Israelis dead including the brutal rape and murder and beheading and burning alive of more than 1,000 innocent civilians.
But my peers who have been trained since high school, to place people just on first sight based on in the either oppressor column or in the oppressed column, which was a literal exercise I had to do in high school in Los Angeles. It makes complete sense why this is their reaction to it.
I’m not surprised at all.
CHAKRABARTI: Julia, a quick question. When you had to do that assignment in high school about putting people in either category. Was it like actually putting your fellow classmates in either category? How did that assignment work?
STEINBERG: No, it wasn’t, “Oh, Julia’s in the oppressed category. Susie is in the oppressor category.” It was a T chart on the board. So we wrote, white people were oppressors. Gay people were oppressed. Asian people, even, were oppressors or turning into oppressors. Whereas Black people were oppressed. Men were oppressors. Women were oppressed.
CHAKRABARTI: But what if you were gay and white?
STEINBERG: That’s where it complicates itself.
STEINBERG: I would say that intersectionality has been touted as this cure-all answer to despicable behavior within social movements, such as how women of color have been negatively treated within the larger feminist movement, for example. But how I’ve seen intersectionality devolve is an oppression Olympics where a gay, white man is less oppressed than a Black, white man and should therefore be deferential.
CHAKRABARTI: So let me ask you, how rigid do you think these oppressed versus oppressor dichotomies have become? Like when someone is saying “I support the Palestinian people because they are oppressed by the Israeli government,” does then in the minds of people making those dichotomies, does it then allow any sort of action by the oppressed as being justified?
STEINBERG: I think so. And this is something I wrote about in my Free Press article, which was that nuance has just completely been lost. And there are so many things you can blame that on. You can blame it on TikTok. You can blame it on a failing American education system.
But the bottom line is that what we as Gen Z comprehend best in terms of information is tweet length and infographic size. And that does not allow for the discussion of thousands of years of history. It allows for the discussion of maybe 100 years of history at best. For the article, I redownloaded TikTok for the first time since 2021, and I searched terms like Zionism and history just to see what my peers were being told.
And by the way, more than half of Gen Z uses TikTok as a primary search engine. How that works bewilders me. But what I found was a litany of posts also on Instagram saying, “Okay. Let’s start in 1897.” “Okay. Let’s start in 1948.” But that’s not when history started. It’s certainly not when Jewish history started.
CHAKRABARTI: I want to play a moment from a high-ranking member of Hamas and something he said just this week. This is Ghazi Hamad, deputy foreign minister of Hamas. And he said on television that Hamas will make Israel pay a price for the occupation of all Palestinian land.
So Hamad is saying there, quote, “The existence of Israel is illogical. The existence of Israel is what causes all of this pain, blood, and tears. It is Israel, not us. We are the victims of occupation, period. Therefore, nobody should blame us for the things we do. October 7th, October 10th, October 1 million, everything we do is justified.”
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Chemerinsky, how do you hear that from a Hamas leader in light of the analysis that Julia is offering?
CHEMERINSKY: Obviously deeply disturbing, but it also reflects something that we’re seeing on college campuses. Until a few years ago, the discussion about this was, what’s the best solution? Should there be a two-state solution?
How do we deal with the settlements? How do we protect Palestinian rights? But I’ve seen in the last couple of years, and it’s reflected in what you just played, the statement that Israel should not exist at all. And that’s the position of my students for justice in Palestine. It’s very hard to find any bridge between those who believe that Israel should be eliminated and those who believe the existence of Israel is essential.
And I think that’s a fundamental problem on campus. How can we ever find a way of bridging or bringing those two sides together?
CHAKRABARTI: I also want to briefly ask both of you this, that Support for the Palestinian people expressing outrage about IDF bombing in Gaza, those are things that I think many people would accept.
Also, it’s a right of an American to say that, but I think, from what I’ve understood, many Jewish Americans are looking at this moment, as you said, it’s different, Professor Chemerinsky, with particular horror because there wasn’t perhaps as much on-campus outrage after the immediate aftermath of October 7th, mourning the death of 1,400 people in Israel, women, children, the elderly, What have you?
And so folks had nothing to say about that, but they’re speaking very loudly in defense of Palestinians right now. And so the idea that Jewish death doesn’t matter as much as Palestinian death might Julia, what do you think about that?
STEINBERG: Yeah. So on the quote-unquote Global Day of Jihad at Stanford’s campus, students for Justice in Palestine organized a vigil for the lives of Palestinians killed and if that were not on the quote-unquote Global Day of Jihad, I would have shown up and expressed my sympathies, but the fact that it seems that Stanford students and students around the country are only willing to turn up to voice anger and loss and mourning for people Palestinians, only after Israelis were killed, is really troubling to me.
There’s this sort of dismissal of the inherent worth of Jewish lives, Israeli lives that really disturbs me. And in the clip you paid earlier, I believe that later in that same interview, this Hamas spokesman calls for the murder of every Jew worldwide, when my classmates, people who I eat with, live with, go to classes with hold up signs saying, “This is what decolonization looks like.” Or “Decolonization is not a myth.” Or, “To the river, to the sea, Palestine will be free.” What they’re saying is that the lives of the 9 million Israelis, including 2 million Arab Israelis really don’t matter to them. What they’re calling for is not necessarily a referendum on Zionism.
Because Zionism happened. Israel already exists. What they’re calling for is a genocide of the Jewish people.
CHAKRABARTI: Part of what Hamad said before that cut, Julia, just to offer some clarity for listeners, is he said, “Israel is a country that has no place on our land. We must remove that country.
The occupation must come to an end. Does that mean the annihilation of Israel? Yes, of course it does.” That’s what Ghazi Hamad said. Professor Chemerinsky, I want to play again some comments from listeners. Because there was a lot of objection from many of our listeners to the fact that we were discussing this particular rise of antisemitism. Because folks were saying, they are saying, that there is a deliberate misleading conflation of their support for the Palestinian people with antisemitism.
So first of all, here’s Rip Keller. He’s from Walden, Vermont.
RIP KELLER: I’m Jewish, I’m horrified by Israel’s crimes against humanity, and I think it’s important for Americans to realize that the antisemitic threats and violence now in the U.S. are a reaction to the fact that nothing else seems able to stop Israel on its rampage. People turn to violence when nothing else works.
CHAKRABARTI: And this is Beth Lowry from Williamsburg, Massachusetts. She says she works closely with students on college campuses in her area, and she really objects to what she sees as a conflation here. And here’s what she said.
BETH LOWRY: I’m an anti-Zionist Jew, and I know that many of the students with whom I’m working right now who are calling for a ceasefire and advocating for the rights of Palestinians are also Jewish.
I know that the college demonstrations that are happening in my area have been organized by or in conjunction with Jewish student organizations. However, many of these same demonstrations are being identified as antisemitic. I want to urge listeners to think critically about the ways in which voices for Palestinian liberation are being stifled under the guise of antisemitism.
CHAKRABARTI: Professor Chemerinsky, what do you think about that?
CHEMERINSKY: I, too, support rights for Palestinians. I mourn all of the loss of life in Gaza, but nothing justifies what Hamas did on October 7th. And nothing justifies those who celebrate what Hamas did on October 7th. Going to a music festival and killing 260 people is terrorism.
Pulling people from their homes and taking them hostage is terrorism. Going to a kibbutz and killing 100 people and beheading them is terrorism. When I called it that, just use the word terrorism, that was then labeled as racist. It’s not. It’s terrorism. So I believe it’s possible to support Palestinian rights, but it’s also important to condemn antisemitism when we hear it.
CHAKRABARTI: Julia, I’ve just got another question for you before we have to let you go. I’m still very, my mind is still full of what you offered in terms of a possible explanation here. That there’s been this decades of the advancement of social justice teaching that may have become narrow and narrower over time. And that, along with social media, has produced very rigid ways of thinking amongst people of your generation.
What would you think it would take to unwind that?
STEINBERG: I was actually talking with one of my professors from my freshman year about this yesterday. He reached out to me after the article because he wanted to talk about this exact issue. And I think it’s so difficult because people, my classmates, are so unwilling to have conversations.
Earlier I talked about how I was shot down after disagreeing with Anti-colonial author Frantz Fanon’s blanket approval of violence. The next day, I was ridiculed by my classmates. I wore a red dress to class and one of them really loudly declared, “Julia’s wearing her Republican red dress,” which I don’t really mind.
I thought it was funny, but those sort of instances added up. There’s this sort of hostility to opposing viewpoints. That makes liberal debate extremely difficult. I’m not sure what the solution to this is, but I think that professors and students alike really need to examine their commitment to free and open discourse, which is the only thing that makes universities and not just centers for propaganda.
CHAKRABARTI: Julia Steinberg, junior at Stanford University, writes for the Stanford Review and also an intern at the Free Press. Julia, thank you so much for joining us today.
STEINBERG: Thank you for having me.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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