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Jewish students in New York say universities must figure out what comes next

“I don’t think the university should look away over the summer. I don’t think they should be passive just because students have gone home,” says Ellie Campbell Green at New York University.

An anti-Israel protest at New York University on May 3, 2024. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.
An anti-Israel protest at New York University on May 3, 2024. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.

It’s difficult to think about rebuilding while the fires are still smoldering across New York City’s college campuses.

But with the spring semester coming to a close, time is short for university administrators to come up with a game plan to deal with what is likely going to be ongoing anti-Israel protests, and for Jewish and Israeli students to decide whether they can return in the fall, given the threats to their safety and disruption to their studies and social lives.

“This idea of going virtual originally started because Jewish students were way too afraid to go to campus and to walk by the encampment and see everything happening,” Zackary Singerman, a freshman at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary, told JNS, referring to the unwelcoming and often threatening environment created by pro-Hamas and pro-Palestinian protesters who set up anti-Zionist zones on school grounds.

Classes are being held virtually there for the remainder of the semester following the clearance of protesters last week by the New York City Police Department. The NYPD was scheduled to remain on campus through graduation at the request of Columbia’s administration, with the campus only open to students living in dormitories and essential university personnel.

On Monday, however, graduation was officially canceled. It plans to hold smaller, in-person ceremonies for each of its schools.

“I don’t want to be afraid to go to my classes, to go to a dining hall and just to eat lunch or learn in peace,” said Singerman, who started carrying pepper spray the week before the protests were shut down.

“I think that safety has to be the No. 1 priority and making sure that these encampments and these unsanctioned protests don’t happen again,” he told JNS.

Zackary Singerman
Zackary Singerman, a freshman at Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City. Photo by Mike Wagenheim.

‘We’re just trying to get an education’

Ellie Campbell Green, a doctoral student at New York University focusing on Holocaust theology and religious Zionism, told JNS she believes that the campus protests there will continue into the next semester. At least 13 people were arrested by police at NYU on Friday morning during a clearing out of an encampment there.

“I believe that the leaders of these protests are completely committed to continuing this rhetoric into the next semester. And that’s going to be the challenge,” she said. “I don’t think that the university should look away over the summer. I don’t think they should stop acting. I don’t think they should be passive just because students have gone home.”

Singerman told JNS that the increased police presence on campus is a start. Following the police operation on April 30, the NYPD has kept a significant number of officers in and around the area.

“It makes me feel like I can walk confidently and proudly,” said Singerman, who dons a kippah and has a finger-ring grip on his cell phone emblazoned with the Israeli flag. While Singerman says he has not personally been attacked, a friend of his was “shoved into a wall for having an Israel flag” during the spring semester.

He said other Jewish friends have been accosted while walking around campus, with agitators telling them to “go back to Poland.”

“Jewish students should not have to feel that way on campus in New York at a place where we’re paying a lot of money to go to, especially when we’re just trying to get an education,” Singerman said.

Pro-Palestinian Protest at New York University
An anti-Israel protest at New York University (the sign refers to NYU president Linda Mills) on May 3, 2024. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.

‘These decisions have lasting impacts’

Campbell Green says that while NYU president Linda Mills has “been largely proactive” and recognizes “the antisemitism that has really taken root” there, the university’s open design—self-referred to as a campus without walls—has allowed outsiders to infect the environment and radicalize students during protests there.

“I’m hoping that (Mills) is going to continue to do as much as she can, and, if necessary, bring in the NYPD if things do escalate,” said Campbell Green. “But otherwise, to try and ensure that these protests stay within the bounds of what is free speech and remain peaceful.”

She said it is necessary to include Jewish and Israeli students in negotiations with protesters and in planning for any relevant policy changes. Academic institutions like Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., and Brown University in Providence, R.I., have come under heavy criticism for caving to protesters’ demands on issues like discussing divestment from Israel and the cancellation or other changes to joint programs in partnership with Israeli universities.

“These decisions have really lasting impacts. Even if some Jewish students feel like they need to tolerate what’s happening, for very different reasons, a lot of Israeli students are being completely ignored,” said Campbell Green.

“Free Gaza” near New York University
The words “Free Gaza” on a building near New York University. Photo by Carin M. Smilk.

She added that the protests are “being perceived as legitimate if it’s anti-Israeli, which I also think is just crazy because that’s also completely discriminatory, even if it’s against Israel and not against all Jews.”

Now those students need to stew over whether or not the situation will improve or if they need to find a new educational home. Yeshiva University in New York City and Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., have invited Jewish students affected by the protests to transfer to their institutions without the loss of accumulated credits or risk of delayed enrollment, as have some Christian colleges and universities in Israel.

While Campbell Green calls it a great offer by these other schools, she lamented that it’s come to this.

“I don’t want to be dramatic, but it’s a kind of self-ghettoization, where Jewish students can only go to Jewish institutions,” she said. “It’s great if those universities want to do that. But I don’t know if that’s something that we want the state of affairs to be.”

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