Jewish groups confront new questions: What counts as calling for genocide? And how should it be punished?


((JEWISH REVIEW)) – Just days after the presidents of three elite universities testified before Congress, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul sent a letter to the heads of her state’s public universities over the weekend instructing them that “calling for the genocide of any group of people” should “lead to swift disciplinary action.”

Meanwhile, Stanford University released a statement saying that “calls for the genocide of Jews or any peoples… would clearly violate” the school’s code of conduct.

The letter and statement were both in response to the congressional hearing, in which the presidents of the University of Pennsylvania, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology declined to say outright that calling for the genocide of Jews would violate school rules. 

Swift and widespread outrage followed the hearing, leading to the resignation of Penn’s president and placing pressure on the other two leaders.

The hearing had another effect: Nationwide, explicit acknowledgement by public officials and university leadership alike that calling for genocide is, in fact, unacceptable. The question for Jewish and pro-Israel groups — especially those long concerned with antisemitism on campus — is what that means and how it will change their approach to the issue. 

What, exactly, counts as a call for genocide? Do popular pro-Palestinian chants that many Jews consider threatening — like calling for “intifada” — run afoul of the rules? And how should students be punished if those rules are broken?

One week after the hearing prompted those questions, some of the leading U.S. campus antisemitism watchdogs appeared reluctant to definitively answer them. They condemned chants such as “intifada” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” but demurred from explicitly calling them genocidal. 

Representatives of two groups suggested that students who call for genocide should be suspended. One pro-Israel activist who spoke to (JEWISH REVIEW) said the punishment should depend on “context,” acknowledging that he was using the very phrase that drove much of the backlash to the university presidents. A few others declined to state exactly how such students should be punished. 

“Chants like ‘from the river to the sea’ and ‘globalize the intifada’ are deeply offensive and antisemitic and are unquestionably contributing to hostile environments for Jewish and Israeli students on campuses across the country,” a spokesperson for the Anti-Defamation League told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency Tuesday. 

But the ADL stopped short of defining such chants as de facto calls for Jewish genocide, and its own website’s description of the phrases does not include the term “genocide.” The website does say that “intifada” refers to violence such as that of the second intifada two decades ago, when approximately 1,000 Israelis were killed in terror attacks.

Neither Hochul’s office nor Stanford’s public relations representatives responded to (JEWISH REVIEW)’s questions about whether they considered such phrases to meet the definition of calling for genocide of Jews, nor how they would discipline them.

Julia Jassey, a recent college graduate and the CEO of the campus antisemitism watchdog Jewish on Campus, called those phrases “antisemitic in impact” but would not say whether students who use them should be disciplined.

“Practically, the impact of saying ‘From the river to the sea’ calls into question the existence, the legitimacy, the lives of the folks who are living there who are Jewish,” Jassey said. When asked whether those phrases should be subject to disciplinary measures, Jassey, like other campus antisemitism activists who spoke to (JEWISH REVIEW), said it was largely up to the universities.

“I think that university administrations have an obligation to be clear,” she said, adding that they should “condemn” such language whether it comes from students or faculty. “It’s really important to prioritize the impact,” she said.

The ADL statement on the phrases further said universities had “clear legal obligations” to “respond” to such language. But beyond noting that the response should include some form of disciplinary action, the ADL did not clarify what such a response should be. 

The organization said it does push for universities to suspend any student group “that promotes calls for antisemitic violence.” That may be a reference to Students for Justice in Palestine, which defended Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel. The ADL and other Jewish groups called on campuses to withdraw recognition and funding from the group, and in recent weeks, several universities have suspended their SJP chapters.

While there have been a small number of reported incidents of swastikas and chants of “Gas the Jews,” along with others referencing Hitler on campuses this year, chants of “from the river to the sea” and “intifada” have been far more common. 

Responding to video of a recent event held by the Columbia University chapters of SJP and the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace at which protesters chanted “intifada,” the International Legal Forum, an Israel-based group, called the chant “a direct and unadulterated call for violence and genocide.” The group pushed Columbia to publicly condemn the activists and “ban these hate groups once and for all.” Columbia had suspended both groups for the remainder of the fall semester.

Those who chant those phrases object to the notion that they are calls for genocide. A spokesperson for JVP said that the group does not consider “from the river to the sea” to be antisemitic. 

“JVP understands that to be an absolute right for anyone to be free from the river to the sea,” Sonya Meyerson-Knox, the group’s communications manager, told (JEWISH REVIEW) weeks prior to last week’s hearing. “So Palestine will be free, Israeli Jews will be free. One person’s freedom does not take away another person’s freedom. Unless, of course, it’s in a supremacist state, which is what the Israeli government has been doing for 75 years.” 

She likewise said after the hearing that the group also does not consider use of the term “intifada” to be equivalent to a call for violence, and does not believe students or university personnel should be penalized for using it. She added that her group does not endorse calls for violence and said, “No one on campuses is calling for the genocide of Jews and there is no evidence of this.” She repeated her group’s repeated accusation in the wake of Oct. 7 that Israel is committing “a genocide against Palestinians in Gaza.”

Meyerson-Knox said that JVP bases its guidelines on international law. “Resistance ‘by any means necessary,’ not so much. Popular resistance, absolutely,” she said. “There is a big difference there.”

When asked about the pro-Palestinian phrases, the general counsel for Hillel International, the umbrella group for campus Jewish centers, told (JEWISH REVIEW) that students who chant “from the river to the sea” “need to be educated” on the fact that the phrase appears in Hamas’ charter. 

“What’s relevant is whether it lands on Jewish students on the campus as an attack, a potentially genocidal attack, on the Jewish people, a plurality of whom now live in Israel,” the counsel, Mark Rotenberg, said.

Rotenberg added that a university “has a responsibility to not allow these kinds of endorsements of violence to be misunderstood,” comparing the chants to a student placing a noose in an area of campus “knowing that Black students will see it.” 

He did suggest what administrations might do to a student or staff member who took such an action. “Universities will discipline, suspend and terminate the employment of people in the university community who engage in that kind of speech activity,” he said.

Watchdog groups devoted to the issue of campus antisemitism — some of which have spent years filing federal civil rights complaints that included objecting to the use of of pro-Palestinian language on campus — were somewhat vague as to how schools should discipline students who use them.

“The consequences that would be appropriate would be those provided for by school regulations or by law,” Gerard Filitti, general counsel for the pro-Israel legal group the Lawfare Project, told (JEWISH REVIEW). The Lawfare Project has filed federal civil rights challenges to college campuses via the Department of Education, including one at Columbia University from 2019 that the department re-opened in the wake of Oct. 7.

Asked what kinds of consequences would be appropriate, Filitti offered a range of options without saying which would best fit the offense. 

“Whether that includes suspension, or a mandatory training about antisemitism, including anti-Zionism, or whether that includes expulsion, I think that is, to borrow a phrase that was spoken of last week, context-specific,” he said, referencing the university presidents’ answers to the question of whether calls for genocide of Jews violated their codes. He added that universities should consider “the whole range of remedies available as consequences under the codes of the schools.”

The Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, another pro-Israel legal group active in campus lawsuits, also did not offer thoughts on whether or how universities should discipline students who uttered those exact phrases. 

The group’s president Alyza Lewin told (JEWISH REVIEW) in a statement, “The very first step to ending the current harassment and preventing future harassment is for university administrators to understand Jewish identity so they can effectively recognize anti-Semitism.”

And a top figure at the Simon Wiesenthal Center, an antisemitism watchdog group that has called for all three presidents who participated in the hearing to resign, suggested that universities should “train the police” to respond to complaints of antisemitism.

When asked if students calling for “intifada” should be arrested, Rabbi Abraham Cooper didn’t rule it out.

“This is private property. Universities set their own rules for campus,” he told (JEWISH REVIEW). “They have protocols in place. It’s not for me to say right now what those protocols should be … But what it does mean is they’ve got a whole lot of discussing and a whole lot of reflecting to do, because whatever they have in place right now may be working for a lot of people but it’s not working for the Jewish students.”