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Editorial: Antisemitism impoverishes science education and research

Events in Gaza raise important questions in US labs about resilience and civility

by Nick Ishmael-Perkins , Mitch Jacoby
June 20, 2024


A photo of the Capitol building in Washington, DC.
Credit: Shutterstock
Capitol Hill, Washington, DC

On June 13, the US House Committee on Ways and Means held a hearing on Capitol Hill titled “The Crisis on Campus: Antisemitism, Radical Faculty, and the Failure of University Leadership” to address reports of the steep rise in anti-Jewish incidents on US college campuses.

Since Oct. 7, when Hamas operatives killed about 1,200 people in Israel and took roughly 250 hostages into the Gaza Strip, more than 1,800 antisemitic incidents were perpetrated on college campuses, according to Hillel International, a global Jewish campus organization. The surge in such incidents, which include physically attacking Jewish students, blocking Jewish students and faculty from moving freely on campus, and other acts of verbal and physical harassment and intimidation, amounts to an increase of 700% from the same period last year, according to Hillel.

At the hearing, committee members suggested potential actions against US universities that do not properly respond to campus antisemitism and thereby possibly commit Title VI civil rights violations. These actions include revoking their tax-exempt status as well as eliminating other tax-related privileges.

Rescinding a university’s tax exemption would severely harm its finances. Investment income, royalties, and other types of university income would be taxed at a higher rate than the current rate of around 1.4%. University endowments, which for some Ivy League institutions exceed $10 billion, would also be hard hit if congress enacted the tax increases discussed at the hearing.

Other threats might arise from such sanctions, including the possible loss of billions of dollars of direct federal funding. In 2021, US universities spent nearly $90 billion on R&D, of which 55% was financed by federal sources, according to a National Science Foundation report.

The reputational damage could also cause private donors to take their money elsewhere.

The cumulative impact of these actions would substantially reduce university operating budgets and their capacity to attract talent. Chemistry departments are particularly sensitive to changes in funding because of their dependence on costly instrumentation and research supplies.

These measures are drastic, yet in some cases they would be warranted.

Universities receiving public funds have a moral obligation to address hate speech and various forms of racism, targeted harassment, and bigotry. These institutions can—and should—address the right to free speech while cautioning university community members to act with respect and treat their colleagues with dignity.

Universities should apply such standards uniformly to students, faculty members, and university employees.

The challenge comes in how to enforce these standards. Perhaps an independent review board consisting of academic and nonacademic civil rights experts should be established to investigate universities accused of not enforcing campus policies and repeatedly failing to discipline students and faculty who violate university rules and codes of conduct. Universities judged to be guilty of these offenses would be warned to take immediate corrective action.

Such a process could allow space to consider the nuance of the ongoing debate about the rise in antisemitic incidents, for instance. Demonstrations on college campuses decrying the Israel Defense Forces’ military offensives in Gaza after the events of Oct. 7 have surged in response to the widespread bombing of infrastructure and Gaza authorities’ reports that Israel’s military has killed tens of thousands of people. There is some dispute about the way acts of antisemitism are counted. Some activists believe that categorizing certain demonstrations as antisemitism infringes on the right of students and staff to protest. Most demonstrators argue that their outrage at Israel’s actions and the support of its military allies is distinct from antisemitism.

But it is not hard to see that some angry members of the public express their frustration with Israeli policy in ways that can be troubling, even threatening, for Jewish communities around the world. And across any campus, universities and colleges have a duty of care for members of their communities, particularly when those members are at risk.

The point is, when tension is high, we need a process that privileges dialogue and empathy.

We cannot predict what will come out of these hearings in the US, but science communities everywhere can shape the legacy of Oct. 7. Research departments can become impoverished not only as a result of a lack of funding but also through a lack of civility and diversity of thought. Everyone deserves more thoughtful centers of learning and the scientific discovery that emerges from them.

This editorial is the result of collective deliberation in C&EN. For this week’s editorial, the lead contributors are Mitch Jacoby and Nick Ishmael-Perkins.

Views expressed on this page are not necessarily those of ACS. 



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