Columbia University, April 29, 2024

SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

Navigate to News section

The 500

A letter from 500 Jews at Columbia University may be a landmark in the struggle to escape a stifling regime of doublethink and ensure the American Jewish future through proud and open dissent

Natan Sharansky
May 28, 2024
Columbia University, April 29, 2024

SOPA Images Limited/Alamy

In the furor over America’s campuses, it was easy to miss the letter that 500 of Columbia University’s Jews penned and signed to present their position in their own voice. Yet it was this letter, quietly distributed and far less aggressive than some of the other events that overshadowed it, that may prove to be the turning point in the struggle for American Jewry’s future. This is why.

Twenty years ago, just after the second intifada, I went on a tour of American and Canadian campuses. Shaken by what I saw and heard, I told (then) Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that the major battle for the future of American Jewry will be fought on campuses. So disturbed was I by this visit, that I titled the article I wrote about it in the Hebrew press “a journey into occupied territory.”

The “occupiers” in my metaphor were the centers for Middle East studies that had sprouted like mushrooms in American universities to spread anti-Zionist propaganda. Their influence was palpable, not only in events they organized, but also in their effect on the Jewish students I met. While many expressed deep solidarity with Israel and support for its struggle against terror, a few young men and women told me that for them, as liberal Jews, it would be better if Israel didn’t exist. “Then,” they told me, “I won’t be perceived as responsible for such awful crimes.”

Such statements, which foreshadowed attempts by groups like Jewish Voice for Peace to dissociate themselves from Israel, didn’t concern me as much as yet another, and far more alarming, set of statements. People who wish to fully sever their association with Israel neither reflect nor sway the sentiments and opinions of the overwhelming majority of American Jews. No, the statements that concerned me and led me to speak of occupation and battlefields were the many variations I heard on one young woman’s quietly spoken and regretful admission that she would very much like to speak against divestment and other anti-Israel measures, but she couldn’t. Her professors won’t like it, she told me. It would harm her future career.

The ideological regime of antisemitism that has entrenched itself in America’s universities will only collapse when enough Jews stop being afraid and stop unwillingly aiding it by hiding and self-censoring.

Dear Lord, I thought, when I first heard these words. We are not in the Moscow of my youth, where one’s career depended on pretending to buy the Soviet credo hook, line and sinker! Yet the more students I met, the more I heard of similar, stifling concerns. Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I knew very well how catching and pervasive self-censorship can become. No one will need to “occupy” the campuses physically if the Jewish students will carry out their own occupation themselves by growing too afraid to speak their own truths.

Totalitarian societies survive by relying on a core of true believers to frighten even those who don’t buy the ideological party line into becoming “doublethinkers”—people who adhere to the party line in public regardless of their private thoughts—rather than outright dissidents. In the normal course of events, the percentage of doublethinkers is always on the rise, as more and more people grow disillusioned with the false promises of the regime yet continue to pledge allegiance to it out of fear instead of faith. The regime controls them not through their own convictions but through the power its institutions hold over their lives, livelihoods, and safety. In other words, it controls them by frightening them into censoring themselves on the regime’s behalf.

Of course America is a free country and not a totalitarian regime. However, it was impossible to miss the resemblance between the culture I encountered in the American academy 20 years ago and the Soviet worldview of my youth. Like the Communist party (following Marx), more and more people started dividing the world into oppressors (read: always bad, always in the wrong) and oppressed (read: always in the right), and claiming that whoever belonged to the first camp wasn’t worthy of the same rights, freedoms, and protections as the latter. Since Israel and successful “white” Jews elsewhere were a priori classified as oppressors, hating and indeed abusing them became less and less taboo.

In the past 20 years, the ideologues of this new antisemitism continued to pour their fervor into demonizing Israel, and to use every tool at their disposal to press the majority of American Jews who don’t believe their lies into becoming doublethinkers. They made it more and more difficult to get a public position in a student body for students who supported Israel or even visited it on a Birthright trip. They gaslighted Jewish students who spoke about their personal experiences of antisemitism by telling them that what they experienced was really “only” and “legitimate” anti-Zionism, putting them on the defensive for their so called “alarmism” and “rejection of legitimate criticism.” More and more Jewish students found that standing up for their beliefs marked them for discrimination and harassment. Jewish students found themselves unwilling doublethinkers in the very places that are supposed to be the bedrock and bastion of free society.

After Oct. 7, the campaign to vilify Israel and scare its potential supporters on campuses has exploded into the open. Explicit antisemitism became legitimate and accepted on many American campuses, as so-called “anti-Zionism” revealed itself to be a flimsy cover for unadorned antisemitism. At Drexel University, “anti-Zionist” protesters demanded that the university sever its association with Hillel and Chabad, eliminating Jewish life on campus. At the University of Toronto and other campuses, protesters proudly recite classic antisemitic canards about Jewish control of the banks and the press while calling for genocide and praising Hitler. At UCLA, the university administration reached an agreement with protesters allowing them to bar students with the “wrong” opinions—i.e., Jews—from campus. At Columbia, a leader of the student protests expressed his personal desire to kill Jews.

None of these are isolated incidents; they are in fact true expressions of what “anti-Zionism” means to its proponents, namely, to drive Jewish students and professors off campus or at the very least to force them to live in disguise. Jews are now routinely warned not to speak Hebrew or wear a kippa on campuses for their own protection, while their would-be harassers are lauded as heroes and are at best given slaps on the wrist which are revoked weeks or days later, when presumably fewer people are watching (imagine the outrage if female students were warned not to dress immodestly on campus for their own protection, while their would-be harassers were lauded as heroes!). A flat denial of Israel’s right to exist became an axiom that goes without saying. Surrounded by classmates and professors who celebrate the worst violations of human rights in recent history—Hamas’ horrific massacre on Oct. 7—as a legitimate step toward liberation, the Jewish students are left to fend for themselves, abandoned by the progressive allies that Jewish institutions and individuals supported unquestioningly in their own hours of need.

The occupation of the campuses, which 20 years ago was but a metaphor, has become a real movement with funding, leadership, and physical presence. Young Jews no longer face ostensible threats against their professional futures; they face daily threats against their physical safety and the core of their identities as Jews and as human beings.

It was into this foul atmosphere that Columbia’s Jewish students wrote their letter. Five hundred of Columbia’s Jewish students declared that they won’t be cowed by the haters, that they reject the attacks against their Jewish identity, and that Zionism is a part of Jewish identity. They called out their haters for the antisemites they are, and the administration of the university for downplaying and mishandling the attacks that target Jews. They flatly rejected attempts to victim-blame the Jews for the hatred that targets them. Most remarkably, they all signed the letter with their full names, proudly and openly, shedding the self-censorship and silence of the doublethinker for the proud stance of the dissident. In the days since then, more and more Jews added their names to this list.

When I was a dissident in the USSR, my friends and I knew well that a revolution can only start when a critical mass of doublethinkers stops being afraid and crosses the line into open dissent. Only when the masses lose their fear and drop the mask of pretense, can they lead their society into a different future. It was true in the USSR, and it is true today: The ideological regime of antisemitism that has entrenched itself in America’s universities for decades will only collapse when enough Jews stop being afraid. It will only collapse if they stop unwillingly aiding it by hiding and self-censoring, and instead speak their truths openly and loudly.

When we were fighting the USSR from within, we estimated that once approximately a fifth of the population will transform from doublethinkers into dissidents, the authorities will no longer be able to contain the spread of free thought. Heartwarmingly, more than a fifth of the Jews of Columbia University have already signed the letter that marks them as dissidents to the reigning ideological regime. I hope that our estimations decades ago about the tipping point from oppression to revolution will prove right in the case of this revolution as well.

The next year will likely be as tough for Jews on campus as this one. Of course, in democratic America there are many tools that can be used to fight antisemitism: going to court, encouraging hearings in Congress, using the press to unmask the dangerous actors who finance the new antisemitic waves, and so forth. But in order to defend your rights, you have to first define and claim them. Until America’s Jewish students publicly claim their right to their Jewish and Zionist identity, they will continue to fight at a disadvantage.

However, if the Jewish students of Cornell, Stanford, Harvard, and the other campuses will join Columbia’s Jews in their public statement, they stand a chance to do more than stand up for their own truths—they stand a real chance to revolutionize the campuses, defeat the antisemitic forces that have occupied them, and win the battle for American Jewry’s future.

Dear Jewish students of America, today, you are on the front line. The future of American Jewry, and maybe even America itself, is in your hands. Be brave.

Natan Sharansky is a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, former minister in Israeli governments, former Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Chair of the Advisory Board of ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy) and CAM (Combat Antisemitism Movement), and founder and Chair of the Adelson Shlihut Institute of the Jewish Agency.