The heart of anti-Semitism in America lies among the nation’s most educated. Elite university campuses hosted calls for the annihilation of Israel even before the IDF entered Gaza last October.

As investor Bill Ackman observed the day that Harvard president Claudine Gay resigned, anti-Semitism is the “canary in the coal mine,” a warning about larger issues. This “oldest hatred” is always a leading indicator of assorted underlying pathologies, from cancel culture and ideological indoctrination to intellectual corruption and moral decay. The core mission of universities—to seek truth—has been subverted, as classical liberal values like free speech, due process, and equality under the law fall by the wayside.

One aspect of that illiberal takeover of higher education is the prevalence of anti-Semitic student groups. For example, nine groups at Berkeley Law began the 2022–23 school year by amending their bylaws to ensure that they’ll never invite speakers who support Israel or Zionism. Dean Erwin Chemerinsky, a progressive Zionist, noted that he himself would be banned, as would 90 percent of Jewish students.

“Hate speech” is, and should be, constitutionally protected. And student groups shouldn’t be forced to express any particular messages. But discriminatory conduct isn’t kosher. Like many universities, Berkeley requires student groups to accept “all comers,” regardless of “status or beliefs.” More importantly, the school has adopted rules, aligned with federal and state law, banning discrimination based on such classifications as race, ethnicity, heritage, or religion.

Excluding Zionists is thus unlike excluding Republicans, objectionable as the latter may be. As former assistant secretary of education for civil rights Ken Marcus has observed, using “Zionist” as a euphemism for “Jewish” is a confidence trick. It wouldn’t be acceptable for student groups to adopt bylaws banning black or Chinese speakers, even if they made exceptions for speakers who criticize their own communities. That’s why the Education Department launched an investigation of Berkeley Law in December 2022 for failing to remedy a hostile environment for Jewish students, faculty, and staff.

But the biggest threat to Jews on campus doesn’t come from a motley assortment of identitarian affinity groups. Long before October 7, chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) were notorious among openly anti-Semitic pro-Palestinian groups, as described by the Washington Examiner’s Beth Bailey. During the 2022–23 academic year, SJP chapters were responsible for 423 of 665 documented campus anti-Israel incidents. The presence on campus of an SJP chapter is “one of the strongest predictors of perceiving a hostile climate toward Israel and Jews,” according to a 2016 study from Brandeis University’s Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies.

That’s why Brandeis banned SJP last fall. The school’s leadership didn’t take kindly to the national SJP’s call for the violent elimination of Israel and the Jewish people. Brandeis president Ronald Leibowitz published an op-ed saying that student groups that propagate anti-Semitism should “lose all privileges associated with affiliation at their schools.”

Threats, harassment, intimidation, and interference with educational programs are all lawful justifications for restricting students’ expressive activities. But can they justify disallowing student groups? While Brandeis and other private schools were taking action, Florida governor Ron DeSantis ordered his state’s public universities to disestablish their SJP chapters. (Around the same time, DeSantis appointed me to the board of Florida Polytechnic University, which has no SJP chapter.)

If DeSantis’s order had been based solely on the group’s pro-Hamas views, it wouldn’t have been defensible—or have gotten far in the courts. But he identified “material support for terrorism” as another reason, reflecting the Florida and U.S. criminal codes. Indeed, the Anti-Defamation League and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (unconnected to the college) sent a letter to nearly 200 university presidents describing how SJP “provides vocal and potentially material support to Hamas, a designated Foreign Terrorist Organization.” Notably, soon after Hamas’s massacre, national SJP released a Day of Resistance Tool Kit that boasted: “we as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.”

As the Supreme Court ruled in 2011, the government may prohibit even nonviolent “material support” for terrorist organizations, including legal support and other advice, without violating the First Amendment. Though the government must provide valid reasons for dissolving the chapters, that may not be hard here. Charles Small, executive director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy, has noted that SJP has ties to the American Muslim Association, which is “directly connected to the [Muslim] Brotherhood.” More dot-connecting is necessary—SJP itself isn’t registered as a 501(c)(3) organization but is a subsidiary of another nonprofit—but if SJP is, in effect, acting as Hamas’s PR agency on college campuses, governors can stop taxpayer support. Public officials, like Virginia attorney general Jason Miyares, are launching investigations.

What schools should do to avoid supporting nasty groups is adopt clear, neutral principles, requiring applicants to adhere to constitutions that ban discrimination based on ancestry, ethnicity, or religion, and they should apply the rules consistently. A low bar, perhaps, but that so many institutions fail to reach it further highlights the decay in higher education.

Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images


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