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‘I’m afraid’: Jews on US campuses share scary reality amid Gaza war

"There's a sense of helplessness; we want to put out one fire after another, and it doesn't end," says Stanford professor Jonathan Levav.

Flags held at a prior “Day of Rage” attended by Students for Justice in Palestine and other anti-Israel organizations. Credit: A Katz/Shutterstock.
Flags held at a prior “Day of Rage” attended by Students for Justice in Palestine and other anti-Israel organizations. Credit: A Katz/Shutterstock.

“It’s only a matter of time before something tragic happens.” This refrain has come up over and over again in conversations with Jewish students in the United States following the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel on Oct. 7.

In recent days, with the intensification of Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, there has been a surge in pro-Palestinian activism on American campuses. While university presidents at prestigious institutions like Harvard and Columbia universities continue to refuse to unequivocally condemn Hamas’s terrorist attacks, there is growing legitimization for a handful of violent students on campuses to attack those who support Israel, further deepening the divide between the U.S. progressive movement and Israel.

Jewish students had no respite in the past week. In Washington Square Park, adjacent to New York University, a demonstrator held a sign that read: “Please keep the world clean,” alongside a drawing of a trash can with a Star of David inside.

At New York’s Columbia University, the head of a pro-BDS student organization published an invitation to a gay film festival that emphasized “It’s FREE PALESTINE over here. Zionists aren’t invited.” In an email circulated to organization members, she stated: “WHEN I SAY THE HOLOCAUST WASN’T SPECIAL, I MEAN THAT.”

A particularly disturbing incident occurred at Cooper Union College in New York: Jewish students were forced to barricade themselves in the library while an anti-Israel protest went on outside. The event only ended when police escorted the Jewish students out of the college.

“While students at Cooper Union have a right to peacefully protest, hate has no place in our city,” New York City Mayor Eric Adams said after the incident.

Anti-Israel sentiment also receives support from some faculty members. For example, at the University of California, Berkeley, a lecturer in the course “Asian American Communities and Race Relations” offered students extra credit for “attending the national student walkout tomorrow against the settler-colonial occupation of Gaza” at the university, or if they would watch “a short documentary on Palestine and call/email your local California representatives.” Students were required to submit a screenshot of their participation in one of these activities to receive the credit.

Hate speech is not confined to public spaces on campus, but has entered classrooms. The Middle East and Islamic Studies program at Columbia University is perhaps the most combustible place on campus. Some professors have asked students to read clearly pro-Palestinian material, including Rashid Khalidi, a professor of Modern Arab Studies known for his anti-Zionist views. 

Ella Cheezik, who is pursuing a master’s degree in the department, said that classes have become battlefields. “Students who study with me come to class after reading the incitement materials on the reading list, and in the end, they justify Hamas terrorism,” she said. “They say to me directly, ‘Why should we believe you and not Hamas? Show me pictures of decapitated children or raped women, but even if I show them, I’m not sure they’ll believe me. I feel that truth and facts no longer matter. It greatly troubles me that these students could be future influential leaders.”

She describes a growing sense of insecurity that she says Israeli students on campus share. “I choose to express my opinion in class, and I know I’ll pay a price for it. I’m afraid to leave the classroom because I don’t know who’s waiting for me outside or what they might do to me. But nothing will deter me: I won’t stop telling Israel’s story.”

“I’m afraid of being a target for an attack,” said Omer, an Israeli student pursuing an MBA at Stanford. “I’m not far from my residence, I make sure to look over my shoulder, and I’m debating whether I should put a mezuzah on my dorm room door. The university administration is just walking on eggshells: It’s afraid to condemn in a clear and unequivocal manner and doesn’t want to turn the campus into a political arena.” 

Omer notes that as the death toll in Gaza rises, anti-Israel sentiment on campus is strengthening. “All the toxicity is coming out these days, and it’s only getting worse. I saw a student waving a sign that read: “Why are Hamas terrorists and the IDF not terrorists?”

The students’ fears are also shared by faculty members from Israel.

“There’s a sense of helplessness; we want to put out one fire after another, and it doesn’t end,” says professor Jonathan Levav, who teaches marketing at the Stanford Graduate School of Business. “We are truly fighting for our lives here, with hate speech that I haven’t seen in 20 years in academia. The war in Gaza will end before the campus war. If we don’t win the battle here, the Jewish identity of the students will erode, and Jewish communities in the Diaspora will be harmed.”

‘Issue a clear condemnation of Hamas’

Meanwhile, across the United States, a movement of alumni and faculty members is forming to combat hate speech, and it is succeeding in bringing about change. More than 1,000 Stanford graduates sent a letter to university president Richard Saller demanding that he condemn Hamas’s terrorist acts and make it clear that hate speech and violence against Jewish students will not be tolerated.

“We write to you as appalled members of the Stanford community, with grave disappointment in your response to the atrocities committed by Hamas in southern Israel—the worst mass murder of Jews since the Holocaust—and the growing expressions of hate and persecution on campus that have followed,” they wrote.

However, according to Yasmin Lukatz, a Stanford alumna and donor, “the demand for an academic institution to condemn Hamas’s massacre is basic and necessary, but is hardly enough.”

She said that donations to the university should be used for activities to combat antisemitism on campus.

“Instead of stopping the donations, we believe that the university should establish a professional body to build a comprehensive program to fill the void when it comes to knowing about Israel, and that this would include subject matter dealing with combating antisemitism in all educational settings that deal with equality and social diversity. Later on, the university will need to conduct surveys to check if antisemitic incidents on campus are decreasing,” she said.

Another Stanford alumna, Sophia Shramko, said she has received mixed reactions to the Israel advocacy effort.

“Students privately thank me for speaking out because they are afraid to do so,” said Shramko, who is originally from northern Israel and rose to a high-ranking position in Amazon. “Others claim that I am on the payroll of the Israeli government.”

In one case, there was even a thinly veiled threat.

“After speaking on a panel days after the attack, seven Hamas supporters were waiting for me outside. I had to ask an Israeli on the spot to watch over me,” she said.

When Stanford turned to her to participate in a panel on career development, she refused.

“I won’t assist the university in any way until they issue a clear condemnation of Hamas,” she said.

In the meantime, Stanford alumni have seen some results for their efforts: The dean of the business school published a correction to a statement he had issued.

Meanwhile, U.S. politicians have also entered the fray. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has ordered that state universities immediately halt antisemitic expressions on their campuses, and has threatened to take punitive action against faculty members and students behind protests against Israel.

Like DeSantis, Republican presidential hopeful Nikki Haley called to pull federal funding for educational institutions that allow expressions of antisemitism within their domain.

The White House has also addressed the events, stating that “the actions on campuses turn the stomach and remind us of the saying ‘Never again,’ which we must not forget. De-legitimizing the State of Israel while praising the Hamas murderers who burned innocent lives, or harming Jewish students, is antisemitism by definition.”

In the statement, White House spokesperson Andrew Bates states that “amidst the rise in poisonous, antisemitic rhetoric and hate crimes that President [Joe] Biden has fought against for years, there is an extremely disturbing pattern of antisemitic messages being conveyed on college campuses.”

Bates continues: “Just over the past week, we’ve seen protests and statements on college campuses that call for the annihilation of the State of Israel; for genocide against the Jewish people. Jewish students have even had to barricade themselves inside buildings. These grotesque sentiments and actions shock the conscience and turn the stomach.” 

Biden, he said, “is proud to have been an enemy of antisemitism and hate his entire life, and he always will be.”

This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.

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