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BRUNMAN: U.Va. administration, protect your Jewish students

With Jewish students feeling unsafe on Grounds, the University must work more diligently to respond to and quash antisemitism

<p>The University must better protect and support Jewish students.&nbsp;</p>

The University must better protect and support Jewish students. 

A slap, a push and a spat. This is not the start to some rhythmic nursery rhyme. Rather, it is the experience of one Jewish first-year student who no longer feels comfortable on Grounds because of the prevalent antisemitism that has only been exacerbated since the horrific Oct. 7 attack on Israel. Though the civilian casualties in Gaza are heart-breaking, they are no justification for antisemitism at the University. Despite this simple fact, the reaction to antisemitism on the part of University administration and leadership has been woefully inadequate — it has both failed to offer effective solutions to help protect its Jewish community and has also neglected to discuss the issue in an open and approachable manner that involves the wider University community. The University must better protect and support Jewish students. 

The experience of the Jewish first-year who was slapped, pushed and spat on is extreme, but not exceptional. It is extreme in the severity of the action but unexceptional in that it was but one of many instances of antisemitism that have recently occurred on Grounds. Since the start of this school year alone, 19 reports of antisemitism have been filed with the University. Even the United States Department of Education has opened an investigation of its own into the University's handling of antisemitism. This is an appalling number of potential instances of antisemitism. That a group who makes up almost six percent of the undergraduate student body feels so collectively and individually unsafe is an indicator both of current student intolerance and administrative inattention to discrimination. 

This is not the first time Jewish students on Grounds have felt unwelcome because of their beliefs — antisemitism at the University has been a consistent problem for Jewish students throughout our history. In 1927, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences declared that “some limit” must be placed on Jewish student acceptance. These so-called limits were quotas, aimed at reducing the presence and prominence of Jewish students at the University. More recently, events in Charlottesville and at the University, like the “Unite the Right” rally, have only added fuel to a fire of antisemitism still felt on Grounds by Jewish students. 

This is a fire that has only been further inflamed and increasingly prevalent since Oct. 7. For example, in a since-deleted statement, the University’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter labeled the Jews kidnapped as “occupation soldiers” and celebrated the “unprecedented feat” of the assault. By conflating all Jews as Israeli soldiers, and by celebrating targeted violence against Jews, SJP crossed the line, sliding from anti-Zionism into antisemitism. They have also, in their marches, broken state laws relating to mask-wearing — laws initially designed to prevent the discriminatory power and violence of the Ku Klux Klan, an organization historically associated with a host of violent exclusionary ideologies including white supremacy and antisemitism. In this way, the written and spoken words of SJP not only create a hostile space for Jewish students but also normalize antisemitism and inadvertently provide cover for individual students to act problematically. Stricter focus on antisemitism from student organizations and punishment of infractions are needed to discourage further antisemitism. 

Beyond their failure to curb antisemitic sentiments and actions, the University's transparency in responding to this crisis has also been deficient. When asked about their tangible responses to prevalent antisemitism, the University has frequently cited confidentiality as a justification. They have tried to keep antisemitism out of the public discourse — discussions with Jewish parents and the Board of Visitors’ dialogues on the matter are reserved for private sessions. To be clear, the issue is not that the University and its administration have had private conversations regarding antisemitism — it is that this is largely all they have had. 

Suggestions of a public forum have fallen on deaf ears, as have any public discussions with parents and students, creating a sense that the administration is hiding concerns of antisemitism from its Jewish community. By keeping discussions of antisemitism from the public most affected by it, the University neither fulfills its responsibilities to current students nor provides guarantees for future prospective applicants that they will be safe and respected at the University. This is concerningly reminiscent of an antisemitic history that has plagued the University, and it takes concerted and continual action to move away from this problematic past.

Though the University has condemned antisemitism and formed a Religious Diversity and Belonging taskforce, the continued perpetration of hate shows how radically insufficient this response has been. Denouncing antisemitism is a basic expectation, not an applaudable action, and the description of the taskforce sounds more like an academic exercise than a practical solution. Other universities have recognized similar problems on their campuses and responded through a mix of protection and support. Stanford, for example, has both increased campus police and also brought in outside counsel to review allegations of antisemitism. 

By following suit and being proactive both in preventing antisemitism from occurring and punishing it when it does occur, our university can produce a safer environment for Jewish students on Grounds. But the University should not merely follow suit. The University claims to be a leader in the field of higher education. Colleges and universities across the country have struggled to allow for transparent discourse about their rising antisemitism. The University should fulfill their promise of leadership and set the tone for transparency on antisemitism.  

When antisemitism is increasingly prevalent on Grounds and when Jewish students feel unsafe and unprotected, it is clear that the University must take active action to safeguard its Jewish students. Stricter reviews of antisemitism allegations, public forums, genuine punishment of antisemitism — these are just a few actions that the University can take to protect its Jewish population. The one thing that is entirely unacceptable, however, is continued inaction.  

Wylie Brunman is an opinion columnist who writes about politics for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at opinion@cavalierdaily.com

The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the author alone. 

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