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For Israeli students, it’s fear and loathing on American campuses
‘There needs to be a reckoning’: How Israelis are handling life on U.S. college campuses
When choosing a college, Joseph Rasamat picked Indiana University in part because he wanted to avoid the politics of liberal arts schools in New England, where he grew up. Born in Tel Aviv, Rasamat and his family moved to Newton, Mass., when he was a child.
The events of the past two weeks have tested that theory. Rasamat, a senior, was stunned to read a bland statement from the Big Ten university’s leadership issued three days after the attack: “IU is heartbroken over the horrific violence that has occurred over the past few days,” the email said. The subject line said only, “IU statement regarding the Middle East.” Israel, Hamas or the Palestinians were not mentioned.
The headline “could be rinsed and repeated for tragedies in 40 countries,” Rasamat observed. Two days later, under pressure from Jewish students, IU president Pamela Whitten issued another statement condemning Hamas and standing with Jewish students.
Recently, Rasamat has taken to placing hundreds of miniature Israeli flags around the Bloomington, Ind., campus. Most of them are torn out of the ground within hours. One, hung up next to a “Free Palestine” poster in an academic building, was thrown in the trash.
“I grew up in a pretty left-wing community, and I myself feel very liberal,” Rasamat said. “I was surprised that it turns out that it’s actually pretty hard to be liberal and Israeli sometimes on a college campus.”
Israeli students, faculty and staff at American universities echoed Rasamat’s experiences in conversations with Jewish Insider this week. In the nearly two weeks since Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel, Israelis living and working on American college campuses expressed shock at the extent to which anti-Israel sentiment has grown among their campus communities.
Still, the Israeli students expressed gratitude for a warm and strong response from campus Jewish communities. Many also received private support from non-Jewish friends and professors, including some who allowed Israeli students, grappling with continued trauma, to postpone deadlines.
“This is a moment where Israelis are really feeling the sense of peoplehood and sensing that this is something that’s painful for for the Jewish community in general,” said Nati Szczupak, who oversees the Jewish Agency Israel Fellows program, which places Israeli emissaries on dozens of American campuses.
But the Israeli students interviewed by JI also bristled at the slow and often weak responses from university leaders in the face of the atrocities, and what many Israelis perceive as a lack of understanding on their campuses of the reality of what’s happening in Israel. More than 1,400 people were killed in the Hamas attack, with the death toll still climbing.
“There needs to be a reckoning,” said Barak Sella, an Israeli master’s degree student at the Harvard Kennedy School. “I think the anti-Israel sentiment has been prevalent for so long, that even in this moment, it was hard to just recognize the humanity needed. Very simple humanity.” Sella and some Israeli friends set up a memorial to the murdered Israelis, with Israeli flags and memorial candles, underneath a portrait of President John F. Kennedy, the school’s namesake.
Harvard faced intense scrutiny after more than 30 groups released a statement on the day of the Oct. 7 terrorist attack that held Israel responsible for the bloodshed because of its treatment of Palestinians. Their statement went viral, particularly given that it took more than two days for the university president, Claudine Gay, to respond. Her first statement was viewed by many Jewish students and alumni as weak; by the end of last week, under pressure from alumni and donors, Gay had sent out three different statements on the situation in Israel.
“Harvard is an internationally known and well-regarded institution that trains the leaders of the world, our schools and international community,” Sella said. “Harvard, in that sense, I think, like many Ivy League schools, has to be able to understand the difference between right and wrong, to understand and to uphold democracy, and has to be aware of the power and strength of its message.”
The hurt felt by Israeli students is coupled with a lingering sense of fear that they did not anticipate when they came to study in the United States. Many told JI that they did not go to their campuses last Friday due to concerns about Hamas’ calls for an international “day of rage” and the pro-Palestinian rallies that took place that day on some campuses. Others pointed to pro-Hamas and antisemitic posts by professors that have led them to feel unsafe in class.
Two Columbia University students mentioned an article published on Oct. 8 by Joseph Massad, a tenured professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history, in a pro-Hamas outlet.
“He was outwardly celebrating and wrote an article about how wonderful it is,” said Daniella, a freshman at Columbia who served in the Israeli army. (She asked to use only her first name out of fear for her safety.) “That’s really scary, and I personally don’t feel safe or proud to be part of an institution that is choosing to employ somebody like that, and not speak out against it.” Massad’s article called the Hamas attack a “major achievement.” A Columbia spokesperson declined to comment.
Much more widespread is the misinformation spreading on social media among college students. With two clicks, an Instagram user can repost an image or infographic shared by another account to their own feed.
“It’s trendy now to say something, even though there’s a lot of misinformation out there,” said Maya Sobel, a University of Vermont senior whose parents are Israeli. “There’s a lot of antisemitic rhetoric out there that they’re repeating, which is very frustrating as an individual who’s very involved all the time, and who this conflict directly affects.”
Guy Sela, a freshman at Columbia who returned to Israel to rejoin his old IDF unit as a reservist, described virtual attacks in a WhatsApp group for students in Columbia’s liberal arts school.
“Students from the Palestinian side [were] sending tweets about the genocide that they claim Israel is doing in Gaza,” Sela said in a phone call from Israel. “They were targeting me and some of them wrote that ‘The admin of the group is an officer in the IDF, and he is pushing his ideologies in the WhatsApp group.’” Sela said that he has not been posting in the group chat for exactly this reason.
Sela, a political science and economics double major, plans to rethink whether he will take any Middle Eastern studies classes next semester, as he had hoped to. “I’m kind of questioning this decision, just because I don’t want, from my end, to damage my GPA just for being Israeli,” he said.
The Israeli students interviewed by JI reiterated that they had not come to America to engage in political debates about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Many noted that they supported the Palestinians’ desire for a state but explained that supporting Hamas does not mean supporting Palestinians.
But the rhetoric attacking Israel has extended to even the academic departments that seem the most removed from the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. Nattalie Tamam, a postdoctoral assistant professor in the math department at the University of Michigan, has tried not to bring the politics of the issue to her classroom, beyond mentioning last Monday her sadness at the situation back home and explaining that she wasn’t operating at 100% that day.
“After I saw all the protests during the last week, and all the support that Hamas got in the U.S. — in Michigan, in Ann Arbor, in Dearborn, in places that I used to go without feeling afraid, now I feel like I wouldn’t visit there anytime soon,” Tammam told JI. “I feel like I saw the hatred in people’s eyes.” The University of Michigan is home to one of the largest Jewish student populations in the country.
Fliers from the graduate student union that called for the “liberation of Palestine” and attacking Israel were placed around the university, including in the math department.
A letter calling the loss of life in the region “the result of the decades-long Israeli occupation of Palestine” was signed by more than 900 University of Michigan affiliates, including prominent faculty members and university administrators, among them a development staffer at the Ross School of Business and a diversity, equity and inclusion strategist from the Ford School of Public Policy.
For Tamara Listenberg, a senior at American University, it became too hard to remain in America, thousands of miles from her brothers who got called to the reserves and from a friend who was killed in the attacks. She organized a rally on the National Mall before she left.
“It was very upsetting for me to see everything that my peers, the students, are going through ever since, them being called names and feeling isolated on campus is really heartbreaking and makes me think about not really wanting to go back to America or anywhere else,” said Listenberg, who also served in the IDF before going to the United States. “To live outside of Israel seems quite unfathomable right now.”