(JTA) — As Elizabeth Rand watched an unnerving number of incidents pile up at colleges where her son was considering applying, she felt she had to do something.
The longtime administrator of a Facebook group for people interested in discussing the Holocaust, Rand knows the power of online community. So, the New York City lawyer, who has a son in his senior year of high school, created a new Facebook group for mothers like her.
Within days after its Oct. 26 launch, Mothers Against College Antisemitism was exploding with posts from across the country expressing alarm about what was happening at colleges and universities in the wake of Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s ensuing war in Gaza.
Mothers exhorted each other to share reports from their children’s schools. They uploaded pictures taken by their children of activities and posters they found distressing. Some make pitches for their own children’s schools where, they say, nothing but support for Israel has been expressed. Several have offered to make their own homes available as safe havens for local Jewish college students who feel unsafe on their campuses.
Within one week, the group had more than 42,000 members, all pouring out their own anxieties at a time when even the White House has decried a surge in “grotesque” antisemitic incidents and has vowed to make a plan to curb them.
“I’m just stunned by this, and I have no idea what to do,” Rand says. “I’m getting these messages all day, every day. I have a day job — it’s not like I can just drop what I’m doing and do this.”
Rand has begun taking steps to turn the group’s members into a movement. She recruited a communications manager, appointed a team of administrators and moderators, and scheduled a meeting with members who possess legal and nonprofit know-how. For now, everyone involved is unpaid. Her goal, she says, is to form a legal entity, potentially to represent students who have been harmed by antisemitism on their campuses.
If Mothers Against College Antisemitism enters the legal sphere, it will have company. The Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law and the Lawfare Project each use litigation and federal complaints to pressure universities into responding more aggressively to antisemitism on their campuses. They have both announced their intention to sue over incidents that have taken place in the last month. Other pro-Israel advocacy groups have filed similar federal complaints.
“Do we join forces with a group that’s already doing it? Do we become sort of an add-on to them?” Rand says. “You know, I started this less than a week ago, so I don’t have all the answers.”
Multiple organizations already take responsibility for documenting and responding to antisemitism on college campuses. In addition to the legal advocacy groups, the Anti-Defamation League and Hillel International have partnered to catalog incidents, adopting a process that they say differentiates pro-Palestinian sentiment from anti-Zionist or antisemitic activity. On the ground, the Hillel chapters serving Jewish students on 850 campuses have been helping them cope with a challenging climate.
And Jewish on Campus, founded by a college student in the summer of 2020, harnesses student voices in the fight against campus antisemitism. That group bears certain similarities to Mothers Against College Antisemitism: It too was founded as a social media presence, was created to meet an anxious moment, and did not enlist the backing or expertise of an established organization until later.
Julia Jassey, Jewish on Campus’ founder and CEO, says she understands the rapid emergence of Mothers Against College Antisemitism. She has seen the anxiety among parents even in her own family, as her younger sister applies to college this year.
But Jassey cautions that Jewish students, not their parents, are best equipped to raise awareness about antisemitism on their campuses. She also emphasizes that parents making long-term decisions for their children about college enrollment based on what’s happening on a campus right now, as some in the group say they are doing, might not be helpful.
“The last thing that I would ever tell a parent or a student is not to go to a certain school because it’s antisemitic. All that will do is self-select ourselves out of spaces where we want to be able to offer our experience and perspective,” Jassey says. “It’s really more important that when students go to school, they’re educated about what antisemitism is, how to combat it and what to do when they experience it.”
The arrival onto the scene of Mothers Against College Antisemitism offers a window into how significantly the current moment, in which campus incidents are radiating into public view at a relentless pace, may have activated a new wave of warriors against antisemitism. While some group members are already affiliated with Jewish groups active on antisemitism issues, many others say they had never realized that antisemitism could be a challenge their college-aged children would encounter.
Rand is one of them. She says that before Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked Israel and kicked off a war along with an international backlash against Israel, she had never been active in efforts to fight antisemitism — though as someone steeped in Holocaust conversations, she was well aware of its potential consequences.
She says it was the pro-Palestinian messages projected onto the wall of a library at George Washington University, which included “Glory to the Martyrs,” that convinced her she had to do something. The pictures of student protesters carrying signs showing Israeli flags in trash cans that have pushed her to keep going.
“It just seems very simple that you don’t want your child going to a school and seeing the imagery of a Star of David in a garbage can,” Rand says. “And you certainly don’t want to pay for that. You don’t want to give somebody $60- or $80,000 a year and see that.”
Rand says she takes inspiration from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, formed in 1980 by a mother whose daughter was seriously injured by a drunk driver. (She later died from her injuries.) The group was instrumental in getting the drinking age in the United States lifted from 18 to 21, and drunk driving deaths fell sharply in the wake of its activism.
“They were just a group of ordinary mothers, and they really changed the world,” Rand says. “In addition to changing federal law, they made it completely and totally socially unacceptable to drink and drive. I’m old enough to remember when that was not the case. So, I want to make it socially unacceptable to display Jew hatred on college campuses.”
Posts in the group offer a view into how members aim to press for action. Some are posting pictures of their responses to alumni donation requests where they say they won’t give to a school they see as supporting antisemitism — a lower-budget version of the boycotts some prominent donors have announced. Others are exhorting fellow group members to sign petitions and open letters to demand that colleges condemn Hamas and provide additional security for Jewish students. An inchoate effort is underway to create an antisemitism rating system for colleges based on what gets reported inside the group.
Emma Law-Oppman, an Indiana mother who trained as an attorney, is one of four administrators hand-picked by Rand to monitor and manage the flurry of activity.
Law-Oppman is a member of a synagogue and active in Jewish organizations, including the Indianapolis Jewish community relations council and the Hillel at her alma mater, Butler University. She says she long believed that antisemitism on college campuses was a problem.
The administrators have been hammering out rules for the group and trying to harness its energy, each day suggesting a specific action for members to take, such as signing an ADL petition and texting their representatives to support a congressional condemnation of campus antisemitism that passed. “If 40,000 people call a state governor, or 40,000 people call a school administration, or 40,000 people read an email, or 40,000 people do anything, that’s hard to ignore,” Rand says.
“The big thing right now is we’re focused on concrete, positive social action,” Law-Oppman says. “We’ve made it very clear that you don’t tolerate any hatred, bigotry, or political infighting.”