I am part of this community myself, having attended the University of Pennsylvania (affectionately known as “Penn”) and completed my master’s degree (in computer science, somehow) at Columbia. Both are part of the so-called Ivy League – eight venerable institutions that produced close to half the presidents of the United States. This experience was formative: we considered ourselves privileged (when that was still a good thing) and were taught to assume the pedigree would open doors for decades (which indeed it did).
I’m now involved with the Penn alumni group in Israel, which I volunteered for out of appreciation and nostalgia. This organization decided to sever ties with the university a few weeks ago – around the same time major Penn donors like the billionaires Mark Rowan and Ron Lauder announced they would halt donations. Penn’s endowment is over 20 billion dollars, Columbia’s is almost as high, and most of it comes from people like them.
Why is all this happening, at Penn and across the Ivies? Because the feeling is widespread among Jews that the university leaderships were either silent about the massacre of 1,400 Israelis or somehow equivocal, insisting on evenhanded denunciations of “all violence.” Moreover, the rift was deepened by the general refusal of many universities to condemn or prevent pro-Palestinian rallies on campus that featured support for Hamas and at times physical threats against Jews.
These demonstrations, where students chant “from the river to the sea” and wave Hamas flags, are attended by a mix of students of Arab background or “progressive” inclination. This has brought ridicule upon clueless members of the LGBTQ community who seem unaware that in the type of caliphate Hamas and its fellow jihadists would establish in the place of tolerant Israel and indeed of the West, “the other” would be strung up from rafters, hung from trees or shot in the street.
The general assumption is that they are ignorant, and doubtless many are, or that there is antisemitism, and that is surely there as well. But I don’t think either is the main thing. The main thing is that a huge proportion of young Americans (like young Europeans) despise Israel because of their wider generational commitment to fight oppression and promote multiculturalism – while Israel is seen as “white” and oppressing the Palestinians. It’s not that they do not know Hamas are terrorists; a recent poll showed half of the 18 to 24-year-olds in the U.S. do know, and indeed support terrorism against Israel because of the “context.”
This young generation in general holds opinions that astound all others, even people who are not that much older. Studies suggest a majority prefer “socialism” to “capitalism” in the U.S. Their widespread indifference to free speech, hostility to biting humor and innovative art, insistence on avoiding offense and support for “cancellations” all define them as illiberal.
Why it happened is an open question. Perhaps social media; perhaps the failings of the boomer generation and the roasting of the Earth. Either way, it creates a clear division on the political left between liberals and progressives.
The Jews are overwhelmingly liberal. Polls have shown that only 16% of them define themselves as conservative (almost all religious). Only 8% define themselves as progressive. The rest are liberals or moderates, and overall some three-quarters reliably support the Democrats.
These liberals observe the young generation’s obsession with identity and paradigms of oppressed and oppressor, its propensity toward often nonsensical narratives of “decolonization,” and they are shocked. And when they see major universities, media organizations and corporations succumbing to it, and furthering narratives such as the idea that everything comes from institutionalism racism, they are disappointed and start to think of fighting back. The gun was waiting to be fired; the past month’s events have been the trigger.
Of course, not everyone’s the same. Over 100 university leaders issued a statement standing with Israel in recent days – but the Ivy League was absent. These school’s divorce from Jews specifically has been happening at a slow burn already, largely because they started to diversify the student body. And it was reasonable enough. When I went to Penn and Columbia in the 1980s both were about 40% Jewish – an absurd disproportion considering Jews are 2% of the US population. Now perhaps a sixth of the students are Jews, and that figure will surely plummet further still.
Some think Arab donations will replace those of the Jews. Indeed, in the past two decades, Qatar has poured some $5 billion into elite American schools. The Islamists and the progressives would be strange bedfellows indeed; no one can say where this will go.
The Penn alumni in Israel are discussing what to do next. Some want no further connection to the school (much of the anger is due to a September conference on campus called Palestine Writes which featured supposedly anti-Semitic and certainly rabidly anti-Zionist speakers). Others, myself among them, prefer to keep the door open and issue clear demands coupled with threats: For example, that they must henceforth treat support for Hamas like support for ISIS or the Nazis. They don’t care about free speech? Fine, restrict this particular form of speech.
A large group of Harvard alumni calling themselves the Harvard College Jewish Alumni Association have organized to do something similar in response to silence from the leadership after dozens of student groups came out in favor of Hamas. They are urging that until the university mends its ways donations be limited to $1.
The Jewish alumni may be angry at the institutions, but they are terrified of the youth these institutions are succumbing to. Israel should be terrified as well. In 20 years’ time these progressives, the useful idiots of global jihad, will be running the United States. Good luck with the West Bank occupation then.
- Dan Perry is the former Cairo-based Middle East editor and London-based Europe/Africa editor of the Associated Press. He served as chairman of the Foreign Press Association in Jerusalem and is the author of two books about Israel. Follow him at danperry.substack.com.