Young Jewish communities are being formed to help define and fight the problem of campus antisemitism.
In 1985, I stood in the corner of a crowded meeting room at the Wayne State University Student Center, stone-faced, while people I did not know lined up at a microphone to denounce me before the Student Newspaper Publications Board.
“I don’t think Howard Lovy should be editor of The South End because he is biased toward Israel,” said one, referring to the name of the student newspaper, where I was up for the editor’s position. The board would decide if I should take the top job. I was next in line, and the position should have been mine.
“Howard is a Zionist, so he should be disqualified from this important job as editor of The South End.”
Some of them said something about the racist rabbi, Rabbi Meir Kahane; another said something about the Sabra and Shatila massacre in Lebanon three years previously. Apparently, I was responsible for all these things and people. I should not have been surprised.
A few “anti-Zionist” students had targeted me months earlier and not only peppered the Letters to the Editor column about me but would show up at The South End office specifically to harass and threaten me.
At this hearing, there were not dozens, but hundreds of people I had never met, telling the board about what a lousy journalist I was because I had written pieces on the opinion page in support of Israel. The Student Newspaper Publications Board, wary of controversy because of a previous editor’s anti-military activism, rejected me, and I did not get the job.
I was 19 years old then. I’m 55 now and over the shock, but I look back on it as a key event in my development as a Jew and as a journalist. It was an important lesson for me in how isolating antisemitism could be.
It was difficult for me to explain to my friends and colleagues that this even was antisemitism at all. I mean, it seemed perfectly reasonable to many that my “bias” in favor of Israel’s existence compromised my impartiality. But what was the “other side” I was supposed to take equally? Israel’s nonexistence? In 1985, at the age of 19, I lacked the words to explain to anybody that I was being targeted for harassment specifically because I was a Jew.
In this way, I understand what is happening on campus today, with the rise in antisemitism masquerading as anti-Zionism.
Same Thing — Different Name
The AMCHA Initiative has been tracking antisemitic incidents and activities on college campuses all over the country since 2015. Out of curiosity, I punched Wayne State University into their database and found 16 incidents of “antisemitic expression” and “BDS activity” (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions against Israel) between March 2016 and June of this year.
The argument, of course, can be made that all these events are not antisemitic, that they simply express solidarity with Palestinians. And, if you’re not a Jew on campus and see and feel for yourself how these things manifest themselves in reality, it is difficult to explain this gray area between pro-Palestinian activism and antisemitic hate speech. You just know it when you feel it.
And, ultimately, Jews are gaslighted with the phrase, “Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism,” which creates a nonexistent caricature of a Jew who takes offense at every criticism of Israel.
What got me into the whole mess, and sent me down a path I continue to this day, was a story I wrote about a pamphlet. Earlier that year, the director of the campus Hillel approached me at the Wayne State Student Center. He tossed a book near my lunch tray and asked, “Guess what I found the Muslim Students Association selling at Manoogian Hall?”
It was The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, that infamous czarist-era Russian forgery that set out the Jewish plan for world domination. The Hillel director knew I wrote about Jewish issues, so he challenged me to write a story about this.
“It doesn’t matter if the Protocols are fiction. Maybe they are, maybe they aren’t,” the head of the Muslim Student Association told me in an interview at the time. “But you cannot deny that many of the prophecies in this book have come true. Jews run the financial systems.”
This student became my nemesis. Every time I’d write anything in The South End, there he was to refute it. Not only that, but it became a campaign. The student organization began tracking everything I wrote. Once, I ran into one of them while shopping at Eastern Market. I heard him say, “Zionist,” as I walked by.
OK. Yes. That was, and is, true. I am a Zionist. So, how do you describe to non-Jews that, to “anti-Zionists, that is the equivalent of saying, ‘“Dirty Jew.’” How do you tell people that this was not “just criticizing Israel” when it’s part of a coordinated campaign to attack everything you write and, ultimately, prevent me from attaining the editor’s position?
I was alone in 1985, but today, Jewish students can find solace in online communities. Julia Jassey, a student at the University of Chicago, is emerging as a leader among young people on campus fighting back against antisemitism that masquerades as antizionism. She runs a group called Jewish on Campus, and you can find them on Twitter, Instagram or you can write to them at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Of course, none of those things were available to me in 1985, so I did the next best thing: I interned for the Detroit Jewish News, which also ran a version of my story about the Protocols. This unexpectedly led to my career as a “Jewish journalist” and, eventually, years later, as managing editor at JTA.
Today, my college experience is wrapped into a lifetime of experiences in recognizing the various shades of antisemitism. It is difficult, I know, for college students. But I am also optimistic that, even though it looks worse than it was “in my day,” young Jewish communities are being formed to help define and fight the problem of campus antisemitism.