JERUSALEM (Reuters) - The head of Israel's main Holocaust memorial centre has welcomed criticism levelled at three top U.S. university presidents over their comments on campus antisemitism but said an anti-Jewish climate in parts of academia remained a profound threat.
Dani Dayan, chairman of the Yad Vashem memorial centre in Jerusalem, said a surge in antisemitic incidents worldwide reflected trends that had been developing well before the start of the war in Gaza in October but that had taken on "a new magnitude" since.
"And the epicentre of that is in the academy," he told Reuters.
U.S. colleges have been rocked by bitter rows over differing views on free speech and the right to protest in support of the Palestinians and against the war in Gaza as well as accusations that universities have tolerated a climate in which Jewish students and faculty feel under threat.
"I think that in Western academies, stone by stone, piece by piece, article by article and book by book, a pseudo-academic theory is being developed that calls for, justifies and even advocates for the elimination of the Jewish state," he said.
Anti-discrimination groups have reported sharp rises in both antisemitic and Islamaphobic incidents in Western countries since the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas gunmen in southern Israel and the subsequent bombardment and invasion of Gaza by Israel.
The extreme sensitivity of the issue was highlighted by the row over the testimony from the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about a rise in antisemitism on college campuses.
More than 70 U.S. lawmakers signed onto a letter demanding that the governing boards of the three universities remove the presidents. All three declined to give a definite "yes" or "no" answer when asked whether calling for the genocide of Jews would violate their schools' codes of conduct, saying they had to find a balance with free speech protections.
Since then, University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill has resigned. Claudine Gay, the president of Harvard, apologised for the remarks but the university's board said she would remain in her post after the backlash.
Dayan said the backlash against the presidents' testimony had been encouraging but was not enough.
"Any antisemitic call, any antisemitic action should be off limits in campuses," he said.
(Reporting by James Mackenzie; Editing by Alison Williams)