Jerusalem — Eli Sanders, an incoming senior at Columbia University, never gave much thought to campus anti-Semitism — that is, until a fellow student submitted a controversial article to the Columbia Daily Spectator.
“It was an opinion piece, and it said that the hands of the Jews are stained in blood,” Sanders, the paper’s chief editor, recalls during a tour of the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem.
Describing the article, the 20-year-old Seattle native says, “it was very poorly written and equated the Israeli government to the Nazi regime. It seemed like borderline anti-Semitism.”
Realizing, almost too late, when the article was slated to run in the next day’s paper, Sanders, who is Jewish, made a snap decision. “I definitely had a dilemma, so I took it to a professor at the J-school [journalism program]. She read it and said that there was no reason to print it, that there would be no purpose to publish it.”
If it is up to the Anti-Defamation League, the New York-based organization that annually sponsors a tour of Poland and Israel for more than a dozen American college editors, students will stop viewing instances of Israel-bashing and Holocaust denial as “borderline” anti-Semitism.
By bringing the editors to the Auschwitz death camp, the remnants of Jewish communities of Warsaw and Krakow, and, finally, to Israel, the ADL has tried to sensitize student leaders to the evils of racism, bigotry and hate crimes, and to provide irrefutable proof that — despite claims by some professors and students to the contrary — the Holocaust actually happened.
This year’s trip, the sixth of its kind, was organized at a time when anti-Semitic incidents on American campuses are on the rise. After an encouraging two-year decline, there were 104 such incidents in 1997, compared to 90 in 1996. Even so, this number is far below the 143 cases reported in 1994.
Jeffrey Ross, director of the ADL’s Department of Campus Affairs, says that during the past year, more than 30 college newspapers published advertisements and opinion pieces denying the Holocaust, contributing to an atmosphere in which anti-Semitism is openly expressed.
“There’s a major campaign by Holocaust deniers to use campus newspapers as a means of expression,” he said. “By creating controversies on campuses, they attract the attention of the general media, which only increases the problem.”
Although it will not come as welcome news to the Jewish community, Ross says, “if anything, Jewish editors are even more likely to publish Holocaust denying materials than their non-Jewish counterparts.”
Ross, who says he can “only speculate on the reason why,” believes that “perhaps, on a subliminal level, students fear that they will publicly be labeled as Jewish. Perhaps they’re overcompensating. But the fact that Jewish campus journalists are apt to fall for this is noticeable to us.”
As proof, Ross recalls how editors at Brandeis University published a Holocaust denial ad in December 1993. “The same week, Southern Methodist University rejected it,” Ross says.
Regardless of their religion, “campus journalists act as the gatekeepers for ideas and they help set the tone,” Ross maintains. “Many, including several alumni of our past trips, have gone on to become professional journalists.”
Walking through the Avenue of the Righteous at Yad Vashem, where trees have been planted in honor of Oskar Schindler, Raoul Wallenberg and others who risked their lives to save Jews during the Holocaust, the editors reflect on their 10-day odyssey.
Hai Ly, the Asian-American editor of “The Scarlet,” a paper published at Clark University in Massachusetts, says that visiting Auschwitz was a sobering experience.
“I’d seen documentaries but had never imagined how big Auschwitz really is. It’s important to learn what happened in the past — its causes and mindsets — so that we can prevent a tragedy like that from ever happening again.”
While protective of her college’s reputation, Ly says that Clark has its share of social and racial problems. “Clark has a long way to go to achieve racial equality and understanding,” she says. Still, when someone painted a swastika in one of the academic buildings, “it was quickly painted over and the administration issued a statement that such incidents wouldn’t be tolerated.”
Sara Ladenheim, a student editor at the University of South Carolina, says that the trip taught her almost nothing new about the Holocaust, but strengthened her sense of Jewish identity.
“This is my first time in Israel and I love it,” says Ladenheim, a native of Sound Beach, N.Y., whose father is Jewish. “Growing up I’ve seen the Catholic point of view of the world but I needed to feel a Jewish perspective to help me decide who I am, what I should be.”
Despite the fact that she is not considered Jewish according to Jewish law, Ladenheim says that she has been singled out by anti-Semites and evangelical Christians on campus, who have labeled her a bigot and an infidel.
“The University of Southern Carolina is very divided racially. There’s a lot of infighting between blacks and whites,” she says.
“There are a lot of born-again Christians who say if you’re not saved by Jesus, you’ll go to hell. It’s not like people are wearing swastikas, but it’s not easy.”
Nor has it been easy for Brian Stoler, an editor at Rice University in Houston. In 1997, before Stoler became editor of the Rice Thresher, the paper published a Holocaust denial ad. The incident made national headlines and caused the university a great deal of embarrassment.
Unwilling to discuss the ad and its repercussions, Stoler, who is Jewish, says only that “it was certainly meaningful to walk around the concentration camps, to see how few Jews are left in Poland and how many there were before the Holocaust. I can’t imagine how this trip could not be meaningful to everyone.”
Get The Jewish Week Newsletter
The Jewish Week feels comments create a valuable conversation and wants to feature your thoughts on our website. To make everyone feel welcome, we won't publish comments that are profane, irrelevant, promotional or make personal attacks.