When I was a student at Bennington College, I was screamed at in the dining hall by a fellow student who told everyone around us that I spent my time in Israel killing Palestinian babies. Another student told me he hoped my entire family was murdered by Palestinian terrorists. I had a classmate show up for a Halloween party dressed as a suicide bomber, and my roommates were puzzled when I threw him out of the party. While attending another party, I mentioned I was heading to Israel to do academic research. Someone around me actually booed. Still, I had supportive friends, colleagues, and professors, who ensured I never felt unsafe and was able to do work that sparked calm and civil discussions on campus about the conflict.
That was 10 years ago. Those experiences seem quaint now.
Let’s start with Israel Apartheid Week, which just came to a close. IAW—which now takes place on approximately 37 campuses around the country—is an annual event of protests, rallies, film screenings, lectures, and actions designed to promote BDS and the idea that Israel is a colonialist apartheid regime. It is increasingly funded by the schools themselves: This year at Harvard, funding for IAW came from the Undergraduate Council’s Grant for an Open Harvard College, which subsidizes student-led initiatives that address “mental health, race, culture, and faith relations, sexual assault and harassment prevention, social spaces, and financial accessibility.” Harvard provided the Palestinian Solidarity Committee with $2,050 to host Israel Apartheid Week.
But IAW is not designed to foster dialogue; it is designed as an expression of rage for the Palestinian cause and an attempt to enrage others into action. The Israeli government and its policies are out of the reach of these student activists, but Jewish students and other campus community members are right there—and boy do they make a convenient target. As a result, we are now watching as students who are members of a group of historically oppressed minority people—who were the primary targets of the largest genocide of the 20th century—are harassed across American universities. There is plenty of space to discuss policy and philosophy on campus, but there should be no quarter given to events designed to harass, intimidate, and ultimately silence any minority group. There are ways to discuss disagreement civilly. IAW does not seek discussion, only disruption and intimidation.
Universities are treating IAW as a political event, which allows them to ignore the clear and well-publicized ramifications on the emotional well-being of a minority group on campus. Yes, universities should encourage vigorous and civil debate. A student’s politics may change as they are exposed to new ideas—mine certainly did. But Israel Apartheid Week is sponsored intimidation. It isn’t about learning or debating; it’s entirely about attacking Jews because of their Jewishness is not a consequence; it’s the goal. Think about it: Could you imagine any other school-sanctioned event, in today’s climate, in which a minority is deliberately singled out for harassment? If Jewish students were standing outside halal meals and Muslim cultural centers harassing students, with their classmates taunting them with chants and slogans erasing Palestinian identity, I would advocate the university censure the students. Erasing a minority student group’s cultural heritage isn’t activism—it’s oppressive behavior that’s inappropriate in an educational setting.
At a time of rising anti-Semitism globally and at home, the idea that we’re letting these events occur—and that universities are covering for them under the guise of academic freedom—is not just immoral; it’s dangerous. I’m writing this piece in part to draw a clear line in the sand: From this point forward, no administration of any American college or university can plead ignorance. You are all allowing these activists to turn your campuses into tinderboxes—and you are allowing them to throw matches on them, year after year, hoping one will eventually catch.
I spoke to several Jewish students and faculty over the past couple of days. They describe feeling fear, intimidation, and deep anxiety.
“On Tuesday morning I awoke to texts from friends letting me know that Students for Justice in Palestine had been putting up fake eviction notices with language such as ethnic cleansing and Judaization. I opened my door and there it was. I was devastated, angry, and I felt like my personal space and my home was violated,” Melissa Harari, a student at Emory, told me. “This has been one of the most anxiety ridden weeks of my life. I went to an SJP event and introduced myself and said I’d love to have coffee and speak with them. The students dismissed me, rolled their eyes and laughed.”
“Israel Apartheid Week changes my day. It changes how I walk to class. It changes how I act. It makes me more insular,” said Leora Einleger, a senior at Barnard College. “I can be very critical of Israel—in fact I transferred to Barnard because I wanted a school with more Israel conversations and took a gap year to study both Hebrew and Arabic. But those conversations aren’t happening. I don’t think the Barnard or Columbia administration is focusing on the well-being of Jewish students—at all. The question on campus is always how does this make Muslim or Palestinian students feel marginalized. When Jewish students and faculty explain that they feel marginalized, they aren’t taken seriously. I’d like to see us find a way to make all communities feel included, and not one at the expense of the others.”
“I was often assigned to work events during that week,” I was told by a Jewish researcher at a Boston-area university. “During that week, the demonstrations centered on Marsh Plaza which was right outside my office door. I genuinely felt fear when I could hear the speakers’ voices amplified and reverberating and hear the crowd reaction. Sitting in a concrete box with an angry, riled-up crowd attacking the place I had been taught from childhood was a safe place for me to escape was one of the more terrible feelings. My union even got in on the act—with my president refusing to hear my concerns about being forced to work events where I felt unsafe because he, too, was of the opinion that Jews had stolen Israel and that I shouldn’t feel unsafe at such a caring event. I eventually—and I’m not proud of this—resorted to canceling the work order to get it off my plate.
“It’s been especially hard as a Jewish activist of color seeing a bunch of my friends condemn a ‘white settler colonial state’ and completely whitening my culture and erasing my family’s story,” said a student at Duke. “Especially when I feel so passionately about the work I’ve done with these people on domestic issues.”
“Even as a 35-year-old professional, my heart beats fast and I’m scared to see the shouting and anger that comes with IAW,” said a faculty member at Columbia. “I avoid the main campus as much as I can during IAW for my own mental health. I am scared as a Jew—not as a Zionist.”
“The biggest impact has not been feeling comfortable in cultural and social spaces that released pro-BDS statements,” said a first-year student at Swarthmore. “For example, I might have been otherwise interested in becoming more involved with the interfaith center, but given their interns’ support of BDS, I don’t feel welcome there. Also, I feel isolated away from organizations such as the Women’s Resource Center and the Intercultural Center. I think this was deliberate on the part of these organizations. Residence halls have “Diversity Peer Advisers” in addition to RAs, and my DPA is super involved in BDS—and very vocal about “Israel is an apartheid state”—and also campus-Twitter famous. It’s frustrating and ironic because it ends up feeling so especially isolating given his role to supposedly support inclusivity.”
“It’s exhausting for Jewish students mentally: constantly on guard, needing to know which classes or groups to avoid,” one Jewish professional on Columbia campus told me.
Jewish students deserve a learning environment where they can engage, debate, and attend classes and events on campus without having their heritage attacked. Campus faculty deserve a work environment where they feel safe. Any event on any campus that negatively affects the emotional well being of a historically oppressed group deserves to be reexamined and face censure. There are myriad ways that universities can encourage activism and debate around the conflict without hurting Jews on campus. Invite speakers from across the spectrum to debate, and bring in new viewpoints that may be unfamiliar to both sides, like Mizrahi and Ethiopian Israelis or Palestinians fighting for human rights in Gaza. Have Israeli-Palestinian conflict week and invite a variety of perspectives for learning and conversation. There should be cultural events for Israel, Palestinians, and any other group that cares to sponsor them without protests. Let there be celebrations of culture, debates over policy, and activism on all sides. But no student should be made to feel unsafe or unwell on campus, especially not in the name of inclusivity or academic freedom.
Universities are ultimately responsible for what happens on campus and must set some parameters around what is appropriate behavior. Universities must set some rules to govern these activities on campus, just as a moderator sets rules for a formal debate. Firstly, protesting and other actions outside of religious institutions and cultural centers should be banned. Students should protest policies—not identities, religions, and heritages. These centers should remain safe spaces for minority students. This is especially important now that Students for Justice in Palestine, a group that regularly organizes IAW events, is calling for a boycott of Hillel and Chabad of Emory. This is a precedent that cannot stand.
Second, let’s talk about “anti-normalization” policies. An anti-normalization policy posits that debating or dialoguing with pro-Israel students, professors, or visiting scholars only normalizes Israel, Zionism, and Israeli policy. It is therefore better to refuse to engage with the “oppressor” and to refuse to engage with those who disagree with their extreme views, and in some cases disrupt that point of view from being heard on campus at all. That includes protests that disrupt speaking events. Student groups with “anti-normalization policies” should not be allowed to operate on campus. There is nothing more antithetical to an academic institution than refusing to debate or discuss issues with an alternative viewpoint. Civil debate should be the model for an academic setting. Third, any student group that seeks to intimidate and harass fellow students under the guise of activism should be suspended from campus. Students should learn, debate, engage in activism and fight for policies they believe in—but they must do so in an environment that fosters learning, respect, and the well-being of all students.
In the meantime, the rest of us must ensure that Jewish students are safe—and that they feel heard, and understood. With that, I want to address these young people directly.
I understand that you’ve had a rough week and I wanted to talk to you about it.
You’ve had eviction notices put on your dorm rooms. You’ve seen posters with Israeli soldiers depicted with horns. You’ve heard people on campus justify terrorism and violence. You’ve been called a white colonialist and accused of ethnic cleansing and even genocide. You’ve been blamed for police violence against African Americans. You’ve been screamed at outside of Shabbat dinner. You’ve been told you have no ancestry, that you are from nowhere, that you are nothing, that you are not where you thought you were from. You’ve had your identity attacked.
I care more about you being OK than I care about whether you win a screaming match with your SJP chapter. I care more about you being OK than I care about winning the opinion war on Israel. It’s OK to take a break. It’s OK to go home for a few days. It’s OK to drop that class with the kid who won’t stop screaming at you. It’s OK to transfer if it’s just too much—if your school can’t protect and support you, they don’t deserve you.
I hope you don’t mind, but I feel protective of you. I admire your resilience, but I am worried about you. I worry because I know how hard college can be. Because I had friends and classmates commit suicide. Because I had friends stop eating. Because I had friends fall prey to drug addiction and never recover. I know that 1 in 5 college students is so stressed they have considered suicide. I know that 1 in 3 college freshmen will report a mental health disorder. I know that Hillel has noticed and is worried about you and trying to help. I know times are scary, with increased hate crimes and white nationalism rising on campuses. I know many feel traumatized by President Trump’s election. You are coming of age in an incredibly difficult moment in American history and it takes an enormous toll on you. It takes a toll on me, too. If it feels like too much, get help for yourself from a good doctor. I’ll tell you a secret: I have gotten help, too.
It’s OK to lean on the community and ask them to take some of this off your plate. Talk to your friends, your family, your Hillel, your community and let them know if you’re feeling overwhelmed, frightened, or are struggling emotionally or mentally. We have our whole lives to advocate for Israel and other causes we care about. Advocacy is a marathon, not a sprint, and it’s important to take care of yourself. Remember, there are people who aren’t students and advocate for Israel full time. Please don’t fail your finals. Please don’t give up on friendships that are meaningful to you. Please don’t lose yourself.
I want you to feel empowered and bold and to never, ever silence yourself, but I also want you to protect yourself. No matter what happened on campus last week, young Jews of America, I want you to know that I am so grateful to you—and I am not alone. You are the future of Judaism. Jewish continuity and Zionism depend on your well-being. You do not have to be a warrior for us 100% of the time. We need you to live. We need you to thrive. Promise to take care of yourself and look out for your friends, OK? I have your back.
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