Early last month, Vanderbilt University made news when Vanderbilt Football’s defensive backs coach, Dan Jackson, posted to his Facebook page comments defending Ye’s, formerly known as Kanye West, antisemitic comments on Twitter. Jackson’s post was to his personal Facebook page but was captured by Stop Antisemitism, an organization that monitors and exposes antisemitism in the media. The post was reported in The Hustler, Vanderbilt University’s student newspaper, on November 4th. Later that evening, Jackson posted an apology on Twitter, taking “full responsibility.” The apology reads in part:
“I want to sincerely apologize for recent comments that I made on social media. While it was certainly not my intern to offend, my wording was careless, and it was in poor judgment to wade into such a discussion without the full context. My comments were in no way reflective of our program or university and I accept full responsibility for my words and will learn from this experience going forward. To be clear, antisemitism has no place in our society, and I reject all forms of hate. I’m embarrassed by my mistake but proud to work at a diverse institution where we can learn from each other’s cultures. I promise to be better moving forward for myself, our program, and our institution.”
The apology was followed shortly thereafter by a Twitter post by Vanderbilt Athletic Director Candice Lea and Head Coach Clark Lee. That post read:
“Although we have been assured these comments were not directed at any specific group, we are deeply disappointed by this situation and are handling it internally. The university and its athletics program are committed to creating and fostering a welcoming environment for all where differences are respected and all members of our community feel equal, valued, and included.”
A few days later, on November 8th, it was reported that Jackson would be stepping back from his official duties while the university conducts a review of the incident.
This incident comes amidst what students and campus Jewish leaders say is a change in the climate on campus. Recently, Dores in Solidarity for Palestine, a secular student-led group, marched on campus chanting, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will soon be free,” a known antisemitic chant that calls for the destruction of Israel and Jews. In the wake of the march, which occurred in late October, Hillel issued the following statement in response:
Many Jewish organizations, including the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League, consider this statement to be antisemitic, as it calls for the complete destruction of Israel and its people.
Hillel understands and supports the idea that students have the right to protest and march, and we know and embrace that there are ways to articulate criticism of Israel that are not antisemitic. We affirm that criticism of Israel when it is not hate speech against Jews, is vital to a healthy campus dialogue, and we are committed to creating space for all students to do so.
According to Ari Dubin, Executive Director of Vanderbilt Hillel marches like these are not intrinsically problematic. “College campuses are allowed to be filled with passion over issues that are important to students. The problem is when they become offensive. In this case, the students who marched expressed their anger at Israel in ways that are antisemitic. They should be able to get their message across without hate speech,” he says. Since then, he reports that these are difficult days for the students. “There is a lot of upset, confusion, and anger.”
When situations like the march occur on campus, questions arise about free speech versus hate speech. David Hoffman, Senior Associate Director of Leadership Development Programs for the Southeast Region of the ADL, says antisemitism across the country is at an all-time high, and college campuses provide a particular type of challenge. “Jewish students are being targeted because it is assumed they are pro-Israel,” he says, “These are places where there must be a balance between free speech and hate speech. Vanderbilt is a private university, so they don’t have to follow some of the same rules as public universities. This can put Jewish students in a scary spot.” He admonishes university administrations that are slow to respond to incidents that target any specific group of students and those that offer tacit condemnation without specific action plans. “It is important for the administration to listen to the students, make statements offering support, and demonstrate they are listening and taking the concerns to heart. In this case, the statement condemned antisemitism, but did not offer a definition of what it is.”
Hoffman says the biggest challenge he has seen recently is the multi-faceted nature of antisemitism. “Over the past few weeks, we have seen some of it focused on Israel, and some focused on the myth that Jews have a specific power,” he says. He adds that in the 2021-2022 school year, the ADL had reports of over 350 incidents of anti-Israel antisemitism on college campuses. At Vanderbilt, Senior Ester Teper recently shared her experiences in a Guest Editorial. In it, she reported being threatened with violence and isolation. She says every aspect of her Judaism was called into question. She says she had to address stereotypes coming from her roommate and other fellow students. Teper, who is President of Vanderbilt Chabad, recounts in her editorial writing a letter to the Chancellor, Dean of Students, Vice Chancellor of Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion, and other administration, citing concerns around the Jewish holidays. Specifically, the letter states, “Jewish students were not supported in their decision to celebrate the holidays that hundreds of generations before us have fought so hard to maintain. Why is it acceptable that Jewish students are taunted by professors and other students for requesting to celebrate a Holy Day? Or that these religious absences are not excused by professors?”
Teper’s experiences cut to the heart of Dubin’s reflection that Vanderbilt’s culture has evolved over the past 15 years. In the early 2000s, former Chancellor Gordon Gee was known to be actively recruiting Jewish students from around the country. Dubin says, “This is not simply about the Jewish community on campus. In the past, the university was more willing to make statements about all ‘isms,’ and now the administration doesn’t seem to want to do that.” Teper draws a line between the culture on campus today, and Gee’s efforts. “The former Chancellor may have created incentives for Jewish students, but something was missing in the execution of the long-term vision,” she says. Teper, who did not grow up particularly religious, found her support system at Chabad. “Rabbi Shlomo Rothstein and his wife Nechama have been so supportive.”
As antisemitic incidents continue to grow nationwide, there are specific concerns in the south. Hoffman believes smaller communities, like in Nashville, are victims of ignorance. “In the south, people are uneducated about Jews and uninformed. That ignorance leads to antisemitism,” he says, “And in the south Jewish students have been suffering all their lives because they’re from the South.” This ongoing history of discrimination can lead students to want to stay under the radar, leading to what Hoffman says is severe underreporting of antisemitic incidents. “The most important thing is to report incidents when they happen,” he says, “The data is important, so we know where to direct our resources.” He adds that this year, the ADL has dealt with four incidents in colleges across the south.
Meanwhile, at Vanderbilt, Dubin says the current climate is evolving, with particular concerns over online harassment and cyberbullying. “The situation has evolved the last few years because of COVID,” he says, “We’re not putting anything on social media because the students are concerned.” He says the last two years of virtual learning and social isolation have led to a divided college community. “Two years spent in the virtual world hurt our civil society and the entire planet has become radicalized and focused on extremes. This is not specific to us, and we all need to systemically address the problem.” Despite all the challenges, Dubin says Hillel remains committed to supporting all students on campus and making sure their needs are met. “We are working hard to support and empower those students on campus today, and those who will be on campus in the future.”
College campuses often reflect both society at large and the local community. Nashville’s Jewish community has also been the target of recent antisemitic literature showing up in residential neighborhoods surrounding synagogues and the Gordon JCC. Law enforcement officials are always called in to investigate. Local police are supported by the Secure Community Network, the official homeland security and safety initiative of the organized Jewish community, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation. These groups take reports of antisemitism very seriously. In a recent address to the ADL’s “Never is Now” Summit, FBI Director Christopher Wray said, "Antisemitism remains a pervasive and present fact. And we at the FBI see—up close, day in and day out—the actions that hatred drives. Jewish people continue to face repeated violence and very real threats, from all kinds of actors, simply for being who they are.” Locally, Richard Baer, Acting Special Agent in Charge, and his team remain similarly focused on antisemitism. “Hate crimes and civil rights threat is our top national priority,” he
says. There is, however, a legal difference between hate speech and hate crimes, and that can sometimes be a gray area. Still, Baer says, “We want people to know they should report anything they think might be a hate crime. We document everything because, at some point, it may become actionable.”
To date, Vanderbilt’s Jewish students feel the university is slow to respond and react to their concerns. Dubin believes the administration is playing a waiting game, slow walking plans until students graduate, and Teper agrees. But the ADL’s Hoffman says students are not the only ones affected by antisemitism. “The antisemitism targets all Jews on campus and allies, too.” And the other obvious group affected is alumni, something Teper will soon become. “The Jewish alumni we talk to are alarmed,” she says.
The Jewish Federation and Jewish Foundation of Nashville and Middle Tennessee, which represents and supports the local Jewish community, is also concerned about the changing climate on campus at Vanderbilt and what it means for the larger community. Leslie Kirby is the President of The Federation. She says, “There have been a string of incidents over the last few years that have gone unchecked, without adequate response from the university administration. There now appears to be an organized antisemitic presence on campus that is escalating this and is now affecting the broader Jewish community. In addition to the students’ request for a meeting, we have also asked to meet with the Chancellor.”
Although Ester Teper will be graduating soon, there are many other Jewish students who will remain, and a new class in 2023. And like college students through the ages, there will continue to be clashes between groups and demonstrations around social issues. But Hoffman says it is important to remain vigilant about protecting students who are targets. “Students typically have a liberal perspective, seeking social justice. But when Israel is demonized and held to a double standard, it puts a target on the back of Jewish students.” He adds that as society becomes increasingly polarized, students are leaving after their first year even more polarized. Teper says her college experience has not turned out exactly like she planned, since she never expected to become so involved in the Jewish community. “I found my Judaism on campus, and I wish I, and other Jewish students, were able to fully enjoy that.”
Note: The Jewish Federation is currently working to address antisemitism locally. Recently, the Jewish Community Relations Committee launched a student-to-student program to help Jewish students educate and build relationships in school with their non-Jewish peers. Additionally, a new initiative is launching this month in partnership with the American Jewish Committee to train Jewish community members to talk about antisemitism in local Christian churches.
If you wish to report an incident to the FBI, visit www.fbi.gov, for reports to the Anti-Defamation League, visit: www.adl.org. For any emergency, call 9-1-1. To report incidents of antisemitism in Nashville, please report that to the Jewish Federation at www.jewishnashville.org