Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images
‘Angry,’ hurt,’ ‘betrayed’: Jewish students grapple with lack of support on campuses
The Hamas terrorist attacks are testing universities’ willingness to weigh in on matters related to Israel
Within hours of the start of Hamas’ terrorist attacks on Israel last Saturday, Jewish students at American universities began to look to fellow students and university administrators for words of comfort and support. But in the days since, many have expressed frustration at official university statements viewed as weak or halting — and anger and sadness at pro-Palestine student groups and faculty who have outright celebrated Hamas’ attacks.
On Thursday, “Day of Resistance” events to celebrate the attack on Israel are planned by local chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine at more than a dozen universities, including the University of Virginia, the University of Arizona and the University of California Los Angeles. Some of the groups, at schools including Georgetown University and University of California San Diego, are describing their events as vigils for the Palestinian “martyrs” killed during the raid on Israel.
A seven-page “Day of Resistance” toolkit written by National SJP states, “Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea, our people have broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity, taking with it the facade of an impenetrable settler colony and reminding each of us that total return and liberation to Palestine is near. As the Palestinian student movement, we have an unshakable responsibility to join the call for mass mobilization. National liberation is near- glory to our resistance, to our martyrs, and to our steadfast people.”
Mark Yudof, the former president of the University of California and a law professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, said, “It is very widespread. It is not isolated incidents. And I would say, in my opinion, that this is the time for moral leadership from university presidents. They need to understand that Jewish students and faculty — that it tears at their feelings of belonging on campus.”
A letter calling “for moral accountability and official punishment for SJP and its chapters for their campaign to glorify the Hamas attacks” received more than 150 signatures from organizations ranging from major national groups such as the Anti-Defamation League and the American Jewish Committee to local campus Hillel and Chabad houses and Jewish fraternities and sororities.
“University leaders need to do more than express sympathy. They need to condemn and confront anyone who glorifies or minimizes the deaths or celebrates Hamas,” said Jacob Baime, CEO of the Israel on Campus Coalition, which organized the letter.
University administrators have faced pressure from Jewish students and alumni to condemn the atrocities overseas and to make clear that student groups who are expressing sympathy for Hamas do not speak for the university as a whole. Some universities at first offered more tepid statements before responding a day or two later with additional messages more directly focused on condemning terrorism.
On Tuesday, the dean of New York University School of Law sent an email to the campus community condemning terrorism after the president of the Student Bar Association wrote to law students that Israel bears responsibility for the attack. But even that follow-up has faced pushback for not going far enough; former Anti-Defamation League head Abe Foxman and his daughter Michelle, both NYU Law graduates, wrote to Dean Troy McKenzie that they “expected better from the dean of our beloved alma mater” and questioned why he did not reference Hamas.
“Unfortunately there are some universities that have failed to speak out clearly. They have fallen into the trap of references to cycles of violence and both sides-ism,” said Adam Lehman, CEO of Hillel International. “We have called on them to improve the way they are communicating on these issues and we will continue to call upon every university leader to speak clearly and forcefully around what there is really no excuse not to name, in terms of the evil that was perpetrated by terrorists in Israel over the weekend.”
At Yale, the first message sent by a top administrator said that university leaders “deeply mourn the loss of life” in Israel and Gaza without mentioning the cause of that bloodshed. A day later, Yale President Peter Salovey followed up with an email decrying Hamas’ “full-scale attack on Israel.” A Change.org petition calling for the firing of Yale professor Zareena Grewal, who in a series of tweets offered justifications for Hamas’ kidnapping of Israeli civilians, garnered more than 16,000 signatures. A Yale spokesperson pointed to Salovey’s comments about Hamas and told JI that the university “is committed to freedom of expression, and the comments posted on Professor Grewal’s personal accounts represent her own views.”
“Jewish students are afraid to go to class and sit next to peers who have been posting hateful things online,” said Julia Jassey, CEO of Jewish on Campus, a student advocacy group. “A lot of Jewish students are starting to feel nervous coming to campus because of things like Thursday’s National Day of Resistance.”
Ella Messler, a junior at Brandeis and Jewish on Campus’ social media manager, told JI, “As a Jew, I am scared for the future of the State of Israel, for the safety of my family and for the security of my people. But more than that I am angry. I am angry that my non-Jewish peers don’t share my feelings, and don’t understand my fear. I am angry that I have seen the murder of Jews be justified on social media and across campuses. And I am angry that as a Jew, I have to constantly explain myself for my peers to care.”
Jewish students involved with progressive activism are particularly alarmed by the rhetoric from some whom they believed to be allies. For students connected to J Street U, the student arm of the organization that advocates for a two-state solution, the onslaught of statements and online posts praising Hamas has been jarring.
“They’re so hurt about what happened in Israel. They’re just devastated and sad. And then they’re also hurt by what they’re seeing online from groups that they at certain points looked to as partners,” said J Street U’s director, Erin Beiner. “A lot of Jews are feeling very betrayed.”
The Stanford Daily, the student newspaper at Stanford, published an op-ed on Tuesday written by the leader of the campus Students for Justice in Palestine chapter that called Hamas’ actions “resistance” that is “legal under international law.” That same day, Jewish students held a vigil for lives lost in Israel — and hours after it concluded, graffiti that said “Israel is dead” appeared at the spot where the vigil was held.
Following pressure from Jewish groups, on Wednesday night Stanford administration released a statement. “As a moral matter, we condemn all terrorism and mass atrocities. This includes the deliberate attack on civilians this weekend by Hamas,” said the president and provost.
Lehman said Hillel has received reports about at least one of its buildings being vandalized with anti-Israel graffiti this week, at the University of Texas. “We’ve [also] already had many instances of Jewish students being subjected to harassment,” he said.
Much of the reaction to the mounting war in Israel has taken place online, even as protests and vigils are planned for campus quads. Some students are watching people they considered friends re-share posts to their Instagram accounts that deem the terrorist attacks a reasonable response to Israel’s treatment of Palestinians.
“However overwhelmed we all feel going onto social media, college students feel that tenfold,” said Beiner. “It’s so much more heightened too, because that is their world, that is their ecosystem and their reality. The shock of it is also really magnified because it’s people that they are sitting in classes with and doing group projects with.”
More than a dozen of the planned “Day of Resistance” gatherings at universities are expected to take place on campus, including at University of Colorado Boulder, Arizona State University, University of Arizona, University of Louisville, University of Binghamton, University of Virginia, Bard College, Georgetown University, George Mason University, Purdue University, University of California San Diego, University of Massachusetts, Kent State University and the University of North Carolina. JI requested comment from administration at all of these schools. Only three responded.
A UC Boulder spokesperson told JI that despite being “horrified and saddened by the Hamas terrorist attack on Israel that has sparked a war with the full breadth of consequences not yet known,” the institution “will continue to promote free, open and thoughtful dialogue and academic expertise on this decades-old conflict.”
A Purdue spokesperson said, “Thursday’s march [is] planned and registered with the proper university channels, with full consideration for the safety of those involved, and law enforcement is on alert against antisemitic threats, as observed in other cities. While the university refrains from extensive comments on sociopolitical matters as an institution so as to maximize freedom by individual members of the university to express their opinions, messages by student groups or by individuals associated with these groups do not represent the university.”
An ASU spokesperson said the university is “aware of a student-led demonstration planned for our Tempe campus on Thursday. Students have organized and promoted the event themselves. Arizona State University neither endorses nor restricts opinions voiced at campus demonstrations… the university wholeheartedly respects and protects the right to free speech – and free speech means everyone on all sides of an issue.”
Brooklyn College had a more hands-on response, demanding that an on-campus rally scheduled for Thursday be moved off-campus. “That rally has now been moved off-campus to the sidewalks of Bedford Ave., a public space that Brooklyn College does not control,” President Michelle Anderson wrote in a letter to students. Anderson said no student will be penalized for making a decision not to come to campus on Thursday.
New York City Council Members Kalman Yeger and Inna Vernikov called on Brooklyn College and other City University of New York (CUNY) schools with planned rallies to close campuses for the remainder of the week “so students do not have to attend school under the threats of violence,” they wrote in a joint statement on Wednesday.
“The [CUNY] chancellor refused… The groups backing these rallies have been clear: they believe Hamas is justifiable. People with this line of thinking represent a clear and present danger to civilized people everywhere… CUNY is not safe for Jews,” the statement continued.
At other schools, rallies had been planned for off-campus locations from the start. This was the case at The Ohio State University, where SJP organized an off-campus event in partnership with the school’s Muslim Students Association. “The event in question is scheduled to occur off campus and is not a university-sponsored event,” an OSU spokesperson told JI.
Some universities have opted for strong pro-Israel statements, even in the wake of likely pushback.
Ben Sasse, the president of the University of Florida and a former GOP senator, directly addressed the responses by others in “elite academia”: “I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn’t be hard,” Sasse wrote.
The chancellor of CUNY, which garnered national headlines earlier this year after an antisemitic graduation speech at its law school, wrote that the university system “is devastated by the scope of death and destruction in Israel, still being assessed in the aftermath of Saturday’s violent attacks by Hamas militants.” The University of California’s leadership decried the “act of terrorism launched on a major Jewish holiday.”
“Fortunately,” said Hillel’s Lehman, “many have spoken up in clear ways, naming the terrorism and atrocities while also recognizing the impact of these events on Jewish students on campuses.”
A Department of Education spokesperson told JI that “the Biden-Harris Administration remains deeply concerned about antisemitism and related forms of discrimination and hate at schools and on college campuses” but declined to comment on the experiences of Jewish students this week in the wake of the war in Israel.
The planned SJP rallies were raised at a Wednesday meeting of Jewish leaders at the White House, according to Sheila Katz, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women.
“They seem very interested in learning more about how that’s landing and how college students are feeling,” Katz said of the White House officials in the meeting. “There was a lot of wanting to show what we’re seeing on the ground so they could be our allies in bringing these examples up and helping to call it out, and to shifting the narrative.”
Gabby Deutch is Jewish Insider’s Washington correspondent; Haley Cohen is a news reporter at eJewishPhilanthropy.