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Antisemitism and DEI: Two Ways of Looking at the Current Crisis in Higher Education

Civic Engagement Equity, Inclusion and Social Justice Administrators in Graduate and Professional Student Services Campus Safety and Violence Prevention Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Division Spirituality and Religion in Higher Education Faculty Senior Level
February 23, 2024 Jenny L. Small Brandeis University

JCC Connexions, Vol. 10, No. 1, February 2024

Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education, a Series of Articles in JCC Connexions

This is the most difficult post that I will write for Connexions. The last time I wrote myself, instead of inviting a guest columnist, was during summer 2023. The world changed for me and so many others on October 7, beginning with the horrifying Hamas terrorist attack in Israel and continuing through the fallout in both Israel and Gaza of the ongoing hostage situation, war, and humanitarian crisis. That fallout was paralleled in many places around the world by antisemitic and Islamophobic violence and rhetoric, including on many American college campuses.

In this piece, I am trying to focus on one particular aspect of that parallel fallout: the conflict between diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) work and combatting antisemitism in higher education, a conflict which predated October 7 (Rossman-Benjamin, 2023) but has reached a new height during this high-stress time. This may seem like a more trivial topic when held alongside actual physical violence and threats against life and safety, but the overall theme of this column has been Critical Religious Studies in Higher Education. Higher education is grappling with how critical theory, a major undergirding framework of DEI, plays into the current exclusion of the Jewish community from conversations around marginalization and oppression—or the perception of that exclusion. As someone who has written frequently about how religion fits into critical theory (starting with my book, Small, 2020), it’s important to me personally to make some comments. To ignore rising antisemitism on college campuses, a pressing social issue on which I am ostensibly somewhat of an experienced thinker (even if I wouldn’t call myself an expert), would be ridiculous.

Unfortunately, I am not exactly sure what to say.

I considered and discarded several ideas to focus on within this post, getting caught on whether or not I can fully and accurately explain what’s been going on. I thought about describing the origin and nature of the conflict between DEI and combatting antisemitism, but Rossman-Benjamin (2023) does that better than I could in this blog format (although I don’t agree with all of her conclusions).

I thought about offering some teaching on what antisemitism is, making sure readers are aware that it’s not just “a set of hateful beliefs or feelings against Jews held and expressed consciously by individuals” (Power, 2023, p. 255), a definition that would mostly implicate behaviors from neo-Nazis and white supremacists. People who categorize only this type of behavior as antisemitism miss the fact that it functions through several recurring, historical themes, including the “framing trope that construes Jewishness as hyperpower and hyper-privilege [and] can be seen at work even in progressive, anti-racist thought and spaces” (p. 262). To that end, I drafted some text about the documenting of antisemitic incidents in higher education since October 7, but those details are best read in reports and testimony, such as Wright et al. (2023) or Lehman (2023).

I thought about promoting the research that has already been conducted on Jewish college students’ perception of safety and inclusion, but at the time that I am writing this entry, only four months have passed since the attacks, which is no time at all in terms of developing and actualizing empirical research. (A colleague and I have begun studying the university presidential statements that were released in a flurry after that day to better understand how institutions framed the events at the outset, but our results are not yet available.)

Truthfully, when I think about this issue, I feel like I have two separate minds: the one of the Jewish parent of a Jewish college student and the one of the higher education critical scholar and researcher. On the one hand, I want my daughter—and all Jewish college students—to be safe and feel included and heard on their campuses. On the other hand, I know that college administrators come to their work with both their best intentions and their own biases, cannot control everything on their campuses or certainly off-campus, and probably struggle to understand the vastly complex history of Israel and the varying ways Jewish students do and do not identify with it.

On the one hand, I am also frustrated, angry, upset, and exhausted over what feels like being let down by many of the progressive allies to whom I’ve given my support over many years. On the other hand, I still value the DEI framework and critical theories, but I am not sure if I feel good about that valuing. Does it pit me against other Jews? I simply do not feel ready to give up on ideas and principles that have undergirded so much of my work just because some of the people who also claim to abide by them aren’t living up to the moment in the way I want them to. I’m also very wary of the fact that conservative politicians have been using antisemitism on college campuses as a tool to aggressively try to block DEI efforts in more places throughout the country. I don’t want to align myself politically with people with whom I share almost no values or perspectives beyond the vague idea that antisemitism should be stopped.

In the end, this blog might not be saying much as all, to which I say: This is what happens when the world turns upside down. Those of us who thought we knew what we were talking about suddenly fear that we don’t. We wonder if we’re letting down our communities or saying things that are unhelpful or simply wrong. I’m not sure I know what I’m doing. I know I have to sort back through my perspectives and make sure I’m really, truly evaluating them based on the best knowledge of the world. When I started writing about critical theories of religion in 2020, I was one of very few people doing so. I won’t drop my research agenda because it has gotten incredibly difficult to actualize. But I do need to take a hard look at where I’m going next.


Lehman, A. (2023). From ivory towers to dark corners: Investigating the nexus between antisemitism, tax-exempt universities, and terror financing. Hillel International.

Power, C. R. (2023). Judeophobic tropes in political thought & discourses. In V. Stead (Ed.), Confronting antisemitism on campus (pp. 255-268).Peter Lang.

Rossman-Benjamin, T. (2023). Why DEI programs can’t address campus antisemitism. Sapir, 10(Summer), 1-8. https://sapirjournal.org/antisemitism/2023/08/why-dei-programs-cant-address-campus-antisemitism/

Small, J. L. (2020). Critical religious pluralism in higher education: A social justice framework to support religious diversity. Routledge.

Wright, G., Volodarsky, S., Hecht, S., & Saxe, L. (2023). In the shadow of war: Hotspots of antisemitism on US college campuses. Brandeis University.