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Unpacking the truth of antisemitism on college campuses

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS #1: (Chanting) No peace on stolen land.

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Those are the sounds of some of the latest campus protests that have broken out across the U.S. over Israel's war in Gaza.

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

That includes the University of Texas and Austin, where protesters directed their message at the governor.

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UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS #2: (Chanting) Hey, Greg Abbott. You will see...

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTOR #1: (Chanting) Palestine will be free.

UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTORS #2: (Chanting) ...Palestine will be free.

CHANG: At least a dozen campuses have seen protests since last week. Many students and professors want their school administrators to call for a cease-fire. Now, these protests largely have been peaceful, and among the protesters are some Jewish students. One of them at the University of Southern California told CBS News this.

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UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: As an Israeli Jewish person, I feel that it is absolutely crucial for me to stand with Muslim friends and peers, especially when they are being accused of antisemitism simply for criticizing my government.

CHANG: But some protests have prompted in-person class cancellations and arrests. Early this morning, police arrested more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters outside Emerson College in Boston. And some students and alumni are worried about antisemitism. Former Columbia student Elise Mordos spoke to NPR earlier this week.

ELISE MORDOS: Jewish people deserve to be treated just like everybody else. We're a minority group, and we deserve to be treated equally and fairly.

DETROW: Leaders at the highest level of government are responding. Here's President Biden earlier this week.

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PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: I condemn antisemitic protests. That's why I've set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don't understand what's going on with the Palestinians.

CHANG: Yesterday House Speaker Mike Johnson visited Columbia University and spoke afterwards on Fox News.

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MIKE JOHNSON: We have to call this madness out for what it is. It was chaos on that campus. I mean, we were looking out to a sea of students' faces with rage. So many of them don't even know what the heck they're talking about.

DETROW: The Israel government has called the protesters terrorists on social media. Republican Congressmen have called for the National Guard to be brought in. Yet many, especially those on the campuses, say that these outside voices are not helping.

CHANG: All right, we're going to bring in now NPR's Lisa Hagen and extremism correspondent Odette Yousef to try to disentangle some of this for us. And, Odette, I want to start with you. Can you just help us get a handle on this current moment? Like, when we hear about this concerning rise in antisemitism on campuses, what is that looking like right now?

ODETTE YOUSEF, BYLINE: So Ailsa, speaking with people on college campuses, what we're hearing is a spectrum of activity that could be considered antisemitic. And in general, those have fallen into three categories. First, there's been speech - targeted hate speech, protest slogans that may make some Jewish students feel unsafe, even speech that endorses the violence of Hamas. This can be very unnerving. But in the U.S., it is protected by the First Amendment. The second category is more along the lines of discrimination and civil rights violations - so students being excluded from activities or groups, you know, perhaps even feeling targeted by faculty because of their religion or identity. And then there's a third category, which is violence and physical intimidation. And that's where extremism researchers pay very close attention.

CHANG: All right, so tell us more about that category.

YOUSEF: So here, I really think about two things. First is hate crimes and incidents, but I also think about conspiracy theories. And we're going to get to those in a bit, but let's start with hate crime data first. So we won't see 2024 hate crime data from the FBI until next year. So instead, you know, many people have been looking to outside organizations, especially the Anti-Defamation League, for numbers. The problem is that the ADL changed its methodology after October 7. After that conflict began, the ADL started to include specific speech expressions in its audit of antisemitism, including certain anti-Zionist phrases and phrases that express support for Hamas. And for extremism researchers, you know, this is not traditional.

CHANG: Interesting.

YOUSEF: I spoke with Brian Levin of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino about this.

BRIAN LEVIN: Creating this kind of category casts more heat than light. So let's stick to things where we already have well-established, yearslong acceptance and vetting of more acceptable things of looking at.

YOUSEF: You know, Levin points out, Ailsa, that this kind of new methodology could potentially dragnet Jewish voices who are proud of their religion and heritage but who oppose Israel's war in Gaza in its count of antisemitism. But regardless, you know, Levin's own data have also shown that antisemitism has been reaching a record level nationally.

CHANG: And you said, Odette, that there's this other component that you look at here, which is conspiracy theories. Can you just explain more about what those conspiracy theories are?

YOUSEF: Yeah. So antisemitic conspiracy theories are like the portal to hate-driven violence against all kinds of people, you know, including Black people and immigrants. In recent years, Ailsa, several major mass violence events in the U.S. have been motivated by belief in the great replacement. And that is a conspiracy theory that baselessly claims that powerful Jews are diluting the white Christian American population. The neo-Nazi rally in 2017 in Charlottesville is one example.

CHANG: Right.

YOUSEF: So it's surprising to hear figures like former President Trump and even Democratic Senator John Fetterman compare mostly peaceful campus protesters of today to those neo-Nazis. Amy Spitalnick is the CEO of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs. Previously, she helped spearhead a successful lawsuit against the organizers of the Charlottesville rally.

AMY SPITALNICK: This was an attempted mass murder that was planned meticulously for months and months in advance by avowed neo-Nazis who had shrines to Hitler. This doesn't mean that there aren't very real antisemites on the left who have done awful things on college campuses in the last 6 1/2 months. But to compare the complexity of what we're seeing at Columbia or on other college campuses to what happened in Charlottesville is deeply wrong.

YOUSEF: And something worth highlighting, Ailsa, about the campus protests today is that all the attention on them is providing an opportunity for another deeply antisemitic conspiracy theory to circulate.

CHANG: Let's talk about that. I want to turn to Lisa for that. Tell us more about what that antisemitic conspiracy theory is.

LISA HAGEN, BYLINE: So to answer that, here's a clip from Senator Ted Cruz from his podcast this week.

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TED CRUZ: Cultural Marxism has taken over our college campuses. It has become the dominant ideology.

HAGEN: That phrase, cultural Marxism, goes back to the 1960s. It was used to describe what some on the right saw as a threatening academic movement to destroy traditional Western values. They mischaracterized the work of a small group of intellectuals, many of whom were Jews who had fled from Nazi Germany. So this was a really complicated academic discourse that got flattened by right-wing political strategists into a familiar and false trope about a cabal of Jews destroying traditional values.

CHANG: So what's the impact of this idea of cultural Marxism on that academic discourse?

HAGEN: So this phrase is used by the same partisan figures who oppose diversity and inclusion efforts or teaching about the role of race in American history. And going back to Amy Spitalnick, she has her disagreements with some of the approaches and language used in today's campus protests. And she says Jews are rightfully concerned about antisemitism. But she also has serious concerns about characterizing campus protesters as broadly motivated by antisemitism or violence.

SPITALNICK: And so when loud voices are trying to exploit concerns around antisemitism to advance this broader reactionary, extremist agenda, we need to understand what's happening there. And I'm not sure that the vast majority of people actually see how this is a deliberate effort.

HAGEN: It's an effort she says she's seen crafted intentionally to tear apart Jewish communities and their coalitions with other marginalized people. And Spitalnick says none of that is going to make anyone safer.

CHANG: That was NPR's Lisa Hagen and Odette Yousef. Thank you both so much.

YOUSEF: Thank you.

HAGEN: Thanks. 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.

Odette Yousef
Odette Yousef is a National Security correspondent focusing on extremism.
Lisa Hagen
Lisa Hagen is a reporter at NPR, covering conspiracism and the mainstreaming of extreme or unconventional beliefs. She's interested in how people form and maintain deeply held worldviews, and decide who to trust.
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