Campus Protests in the Voices of the Students Who Experienced Them

With the school year at or coming to an end, five Jewish students reflect on the year.
By and | May 21, 2024
Israel-Hamas War, Latest

Young woman with curly dark hair, in a white dress, smiling.

NOA FAY

Age: 23

Barnard College – Columbia University 

I was raised mostly in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. My father’s parents are both Ashkenazi, second and third generation on both sides. They came from Russia, Poland and Austria—a very generic Ashkenazi situation. My mother is a French Jew, born in Paris, as was her mother. My grandmother’s family came from Eastern Europe escaping the pogroms in the early-to-mid 1800s, and then they set up a life in Paris. I still have family in France but we lost relatives on my mother’s side in the Holocaust. Many of those who survived went to Israel. We still have family members there. My mother’s father was African-American and Native-American, a GI in the U.S. Army. So I am a Jew of color.

I was given an especially Jewish upbringing. I understood that I had multiple communities that I could become a part of and call to and rely on. Yet in my life, I was raised with the underlying notion that the Jewish community is really my foundational community,

I graduated from Barnard in May. I was president of the Jews of Color Caucus at Columbia for my first three years of college—that was definitely my most important role there.

Initially, as a senior, I decided to lay a bit low and concentrate on academics, and I intentionally did not engage with the encampment at Columbia. I did my best to basically ignore it and not get involved or to go anywhere near it. Was this tactic rooted in a little bit of delusion? I do believe it was. In any case, the situation on campus got to a point where that was just no longer sustainable.

I never had an official role among student counter-protesters, but I was interviewed a lot by the media. I was just someone in the Jewish community, a senior. So I was looked upon as a leader type, which is probably part of what empowered me to talk to reporters. That’s what catapulted me into a more visible light during the protests.

When I first arrived at Barnard, people advised me not to go anywhere near Columbia because, they told me, it was the most antisemitic school in the country. Prior to October 7, I would definitely categorize antisemitism at Columbia as a low simmer. If you were to graph it, it would look like a sideways hockey stick. All of a sudden, after Oct. 7, it shoots up.

One element is calling Israel a white supremacist state. As soon as I heard “Israel is a white supremacist state, and the Jews are all white supremacists,” that’s when I thought, “something has gone seriously wrong here.” I’ve heard this with my own ears countless times on campus. I felt like I could identify where the misunderstanding was happening, and I felt at first I could try to start the process of untangling that. But unfortunately the logic that these people are using is not penetrable by reason. And people shouting, ‘Go back to Poland!’ It’s horrendous and ironic on so many levels. When we were in Poland, we were told we were another race and to go back to where we came from!

Right after October 7, I was waiting in line to go into one of my classes, and I heard a group of students next to me talking, and one of them said, “I don’t want to say all Jews are white supremacists, but,” and then another student cut her off and said, “No, absolutely, they are, every single one of them is a white supremacist, settler, colonialist.”

It was crazy. And then one of them said, ‘Yeah, you know, if you haven’t been on your land in centuries, it’s just not as much your land anymore.” That’s a direct quote! And I’m standing there, not only indigenous to the land of Israel but also indigenous to this nation, which these students are not! I was flabbergasted. I had no idea that there is a statute of limitations on one’s ability to have their own home. And especially from a Native American perspective, it was quite jarring to hear all this.

This was right after October 7, so what would I even say to this group of people? I was very upset about the Hamas attack and months away from being anywhere near an emotional state that would allow for me to engage in something as upsetting as this.

My direct experience with antisemitism, which is to say this whole year, was very unpleasant.  I was a resident adviser in a dorm, so I got a lot of hate and backlash and harassment. People were banging on my door in the middle of the night, vandalizing the whiteboard on my door, vandalizing the bulletin boards I’d set up. Normally, I had interactive questions on my whiteboard, like “what’s your favorite bagel?” Or “what’s your favorite season?” I did not display anything about Israel and Gaza, but once I started speaking out about it, people really had a lot of hate for me. People were on social media talking about how I was supporting genocide. This was just blatant hate. But it’s important to keep in mind my experience was mild compared to what a lot other Jews at school have gone through. I am now studying for my master’s at the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia, so I will be staying at Columbia through 2025. 

Positive takeaways from all the turmoil are few and far between. It has strengthened the Jewish community at Columbia to a degree that could only be achieved by existential threats—I have certainly come through this year much stronger than before. The Jewish community itself has become stronger in terms of how we feel about each other. We were forced into this situation, and we had to adapt, like in any uncomfortable or dangerous situation. You have to do what you have to do. That gave us, among other things, a new skill set. We’ve added to our many layers of resiliency.

 

 

Young woman with long dark hair, smiling

MEIRAV SOLOMON

Age: 21

Tufts University

The encampment at Tufts started early, before many of the others. It was more focused on issues like achieving a cease-fire, divestiture, a boycott of Israeli-made goods. I have my own feelings on the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement (BDS), but I don’t believe boycotting as a form of protest is inherently antisemitic. Neither is a call for a cease-fire.

At the end of April, we had the “Spring Fling” weekend musical festival. That was around the time when things went off the rails at Columbia. Every day I could see the protests at Tufts growing bigger. I saw people I had never seen before on campus. The marches got tense in a way they hadn’t been before. I personally did not feel unsafe on campus until I saw the police brutality happening on other campuses. I estimate that 30 percent of the people camping out were Jewish. A lot of the people in the encampment were people I knew from classes or other extracurricular activities. But overall it didn’t seem well organized. I asked some of the people who the leaders were, and they all said “I don’t know.” Each person was there for their own reasons, it seemed. 

“I guess I’m a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable than a lot of other Jewish students.”

Although a lot of foreign students protesting were worried about losing their student visas, I felt good about the university protecting free speech—at least until the administration issued a trespass order to close down the encampment. It was that plus the threat of police removal that brought it down. They were fearful of harsh police treatment.

I guess I’m a little more comfortable with being uncomfortable than a lot of the other Jewish students. I don’t fear people wearing keffiyehs; I don’t fear mention of the word “Palestine.” I have best friends who are Palestinians and Israeli friends who hate the government but have been forced into the IDF. At the end of the day, I’m on the side of humanity. I don’t think there was as much hostility to Jews in the encampments as some people think, at least on my campus. Maybe I’m in the minority….or the “silent majority!”

As the J Street chapter president, I am really proud that I was able to gather people together in really meaningful ways this semester. My biggest takeaway was that the mainstream media missed a lot. Reporters were talking to the extremes, not the students in the middle. They were only focused on Jewish student safety, and not Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian bias. We need a focus on student safety for all. 

In the end, the demonstrators fumbled an opportunity to build a coalition to include students like me. We could all have fought for a cease-fire and release of hostages. They could have made it a movement that included more than it excluded. No one on mainstream television was even talking about Gaza anymore because of the encampments, and that is devastating.

I think something good that resulted is that college students showed we can be articulate people. It was also reminiscent of the Vietnam era in that it revealed that one of the crises of our generation and our time is preserving the right to free speech. The protests and the response of administrations and police, that’s the real crisis of free speech. Not the culture war of Tucker Carlson.

 

 

Young man wearing a kippah and blue plaid blazer smiling.

ZACK SINGERMAN

Columbia University & Jewish Theological Seminary

Age: 19

It’s been really scary to be a Jewish student at Columbia. And this is definitely the feeling of a lot of my classmates, especially those who have had things like “Go back to Poland!” yelled at them. And it’s gotten to a point where people are carrying pepper spray around. A lot of people had to leave school early and just go online for the last few weeks for classes and finals, specifically because they were not able to emotionally be on campus and feel safe and focus on their work.

Personally, I’ve been trying to stay away from everything. But, of course, being a kippah-wearing Jew, you’re going to get dirty looks every now and then. Since October 7 that’s been mostly what I’ve encountered. 

My takeaway is that right now the student body at Columbia is very divided. And I think it’s going to take a lot of time for these wounds to heal, for people to be accepting of one another again and to want to have open conversations. The protest of 1968 was something that Columbia now is very proud of. They’re happy that Columbia eventually did listen to the demands of those students. But none of the demands of this mob were met. So I don’t know what the future is necessarily going to hold. But it definitely seems like Columbia is not going to want outside people coming onto campus, and are going to update their policies to stop protests like this from happening again.

“Outside agitators and people not affiliated with Columbia only make it a lot more dangerous, especially for Jewish students who just want to live their lives and get an education.”

As Columbia students, we’re all still young, we’re kids coming to a college to be educated. And that means we’re very easily influenced. Especially when we don’t know a lot about the conflict and feel that whatever we say is right. And then some students might start to think, “I’m okay with taking it a little bit farther. Because these outside people, they agree with me, they’re just a little more aggressive about it.” But then it starts to spiral out of control when the professional agitators are taking advantage of these kids. Basically, these are young adults whose brains are not fully developed, who don’t know what they’re talking about, who cannot point Israel out on a map. These kids are being influenced by adults who do not have their best interests at heart, who are specifically there to cause trouble and violence. And it makes campus a really unsafe space. And it makes the area around campus really unsafe, and it’s not okay. Jewish students already don’t feel safe. Outside agitators and people not affiliated with Columbia only make it a lot more dangerous, especially for Jewish students who just want to live their lives and get an education.

I think it’s personal to every Jew, because Israel is our homeland. I had to quit a club, because I personally didn’t feel comfortable in that environment, which felt very much like they were not accepting of Zionists. It was a performing arts club. As a kippah-wearing Jew and a clear Zionist, I didn’t feel comfortable there. I’m actually very happy that I ended up quitting because on the actual days of the performances, there were signs everywhere urging “Donate to Gaza now,” and people were performing while wearing their keffiyehs. That would not have been a healthy environment for me. And it also would not have been safe. Most of my friend-group is Jewish. But I know some people who have lost lifelong friends or their best friend or roommate, specifically because they disagree on these issues. 

As far as the situation in Israel and Gaza goes, Israel should not back down in the war until the hostages are returned safely and soundly. Israel is actually doing the most they can possibly do and soldiers are losing their lives to maintain civilian lives. This war is not one that Israel wants to be in. But it’s one that Israel has to be in to maintain its safety, to try to get the hostages back and to destroy Hamas from ever being able to carry out anything like October 7 again.

 

 

Young women in glasses and a blazer stands in front of the U.S. capitol.

RACHEL BURNETT

Age: 21

University of California-Los Angeles

I believe the encampment was erected at UCLA on Thursday, April 25. At first, the administration was praised for not taking the approach that Columbia and the University of Southern California took, which was very heavy-handed. UCLA decided to step back. There were a few counter-protesters around on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, and while I had friends in the encampment, there was rhetoric inside that I very strongly disagreed with. I saw a sign that said, “Israelis Are Native to Hell.” Then counter-protesters had signs that were very Islamophobic, so that was totally unacceptable as well. Things escalated that Sunday when a pro-Israel rally brought thousands of people to campus.

I was there that Sunday, holding up a sign that said “Ceasefire and Hostage Deal Now.” The pro-Israel protesters insulted us. One of them spat on me, and told me I should have been slaughtered on October 7. They told us we weren’t really Jews, or to “go back to Gaza.”

People were pushing and shoving, and tensions definitely ramped up by Monday. On Tuesday night at around 11:30 p.m, a mob came to the encampment and attacked. They threw fireworks into the encampment, used pepper spray and even sprayed bear mace. They beat people with metal rods and wooden planks. The police didn’t come for, I think, two hours. I went out to CVS the next morning and bought some medical supplies and gave them to a friend to get to the people who were hurt. I know others went to the hospital.

I had political disagreements with the people in the encampment, but that kind of violence was utterly abhorrent.

I think it was important for me, as a student who doesn’t agree with the message of the encampments, to show up and say that this violence is totally unacceptable. That even though we disagree with you, you don’t deserve to be treated that way.

Clearly there was a culture that was brewing of such hostility that people thought this kind of violence was either necessary or acceptable. I know that some of the counter-protesters who attacked have been identified as having a far-right, pro-Israel ideology. I think there were multiple groups, but how the violence was organized, I’m not entirely sure. At least one person who was there was also at the pro-Israel rally on the previous Sunday. 

I know that there were people who went to the hospital. (The counter-protesters) literally threw fireworks into the encampment. In terms of JVP (Jewish Voices for Peace), I obviously have a lot of political disagreements with them. I’m not an anti-Zionist. Their approach of BDS and isolating Israel is an intellectually bad approach. They sort of oscillate between tokenizing themselves and self-flagellation.

“If we want to build a more inclusive Jewish community, we need to stop having political litmus tests about Israel in Jewish spaces.”

Are they the majority of Jews on campus? No, but they’re a significant proportion, and when we’re in conversations about “Jewish safety,” Jews who are affiliated with JVP and part of the encampment absolutely deserve to be included. If we want to build a more inclusive Jewish community, we need to stop having political litmus tests about Israel in Jewish spaces.

I came from a very, very politically liberal Jewish community in Philadelphia—I didn’t even know that Jewish Republicans existed! I grew up Conservative, and went to Hebrew school a few times a week, and Quaker schools which had strong Jewish populations. I felt like so much of learning is experiential, so the idea of going to a big school in a totally new place was very attractive to me. But the more I got into Israel-Palestine things, the more I realized there was not really a place for me in the mainstream Jewish community at UCLA. 

The UCLA Hillel community is definitely more right-wing on Israel than your average Hillel. I was on the board of Hillel my sophomore year and quit. I couldn’t serve an institution that wouldn’t serve me back. I had to deal with various sorts of immaturity, I guess you could call it, from name-calling to people moving when I sat down next to them. People were talking about me behind my back. At parties and elsewhere in the Jewish community, people were saying I wasn’t allowed to be there. 

My freshman year, there was a big drama about a BDS resolution. And I remember not being comfortable with the resolution and disliking Hillel’s response. And I was like, you know, there must be something wrong with me. I’m not supposed to feel this way. But then there was this open letter that went around by Jewish leaders,criticizing the Hillel response. I saw the open letter, and I was like, Oh, my God, this is exactly how I feel!

There was an explosion of people talking on social media, and I realized how broken the discourse was. And so I felt very compelled to try and fix some of that brokenness. 

There was a lot of casual anti-Palestinian racism in Jewish spaces, and I would call it out, every time. People don’t really expect to be called out, but, yeah, I’m the kind of person who’s always gonna call that thing out. I’m not silent about my views, either on social media or in person.

I think that October 7 was absolutely horrific, the most horrific terrorist attack that Israeli people have experienced since the Holocaust. And like any other nation, Israel had the right to defend itself. But I don’t think self-defense is killing thousands of children. There was, in theory, a just way to wage the war. I just don’t know if that ever was possible, given the war cabinet, and who’s at the helm. Israel, with its current government, seems totally uninterested in diplomacy. Netanyahu seems determined to do anything to evade a corruption trial, including making Israel into a pariah state. There’s a great deal of humanitarian aid that needs to get into Gaza. There needs to be greater consideration of civilian casualties when making strikes. And the refusal to pursue a hostage deal has been particularly awful for the hostages’ families. The longer they go without a deal, the worse things get for the hostages in Gaza, and the worse things get for the million or two million civilians in Gaza as well.

I don’t fear for my personal safety. I think that’s not sort of the anxiety I have, I think it’s more about the moral rot of how we got to this point. It’s totally unacceptable for Israelis to dehumanize Palestinians, and vice versa. 

Here we have freedom of speech, we have freedom of movement, we have a university to attend. For us to take that privilege we have and say, “No, I’m not going to talk to you. I’m going to demonize you, I’m going to dehumanize you to the point where this kind of violence can happen”— that’s wrong. I’m just really fearful about what that does to the consciousness. And I think more generally, I’m fearful for the future of free speech and higher education and freedom from police violence in the university setting.

For my career, where I’m at right now is I want to go into the academia-research sphere of things. I want to work for a couple of years and then get a master’s and then a PhD. I’d also be interested in doing some form of writing or journalism, something like that. 

Where we’re at in the discourse shows me how necessary humanizing and productive understanding is. And so for me as a professional to one day be able to foster that kind of understanding, that’s something really needed right now. And so if anything, I think I’m more motivated rather than less.

 

 

Young man with short, curly hair and wearing a brown blazer smiling.

AHARON DARDIK

Age: 23

Head of Jews for Ceasefire at Columbia

I got involved in Jews for Ceasefire as a founder of our chapter, in the wake of both the October 7 attacks and the suspension of our campus Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP) chapter. We had a different vision, I think, from JVP about the way we were going about advocating for peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. There’s a level of respect I have for their strategy, which to the best of my understanding is to endorse and advocate exclusively on the terms of Palestinians and Palestinian activists. But Ceasefire is primarily made up of students who are more involved in our mainstream and establishment Jewish communities.

My family made aliyah and my connection to the conflict is personal. While I have a lot of respect for organizing, there are significant ways in which many student activists are either closely aligned with violent or militant groups that I cannot support, or just tone deaf to the Jewish-Israeli experience. I am a deep believer that if we want abiding peace and security for everyone in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and if we want to have just recompense and liberation for everyone, this has to be a two-way conversation, and it can’t be Israelis versus Palestinians or Jews versus Arabs. It has to be one of Israelis and Palestinians working together against the forces that cause conflict.  

And so there have been times where that has allowed Jews for Ceasefire to take a sort of unique de-escalatory role. We have transmitted ideas back and forth. We were able to talk with people in Hillel about the perspective of Palestinian activists and talk to the activists about Jewish perspectives. And both sides to some degree have a level of trust and fraternity with us, because we are members of Jews for a Ceasefire, who will march in the pro-Palestine rallies. We use these strategies because we don’t believe that this is a zero-sum conflict. We want a sort of deep and abiding peace where both nations continue to exist and are able to live in a place they call their homeland. That requires conciliation; that requires dialogue. 

There are a couple basic points that I feel the media consistently miss that are really important for the lived experience of people on campus. The first is that there was never any point at which Jews were not allowed on campus. That is just completely false. The only time that happened was when nobody was allowed on campus, because campus was shut down by the university in the wake of the occupation of Hamilton Hall on April 30. 

The second thing is that Jewish students have, in many ways, felt uncomfortable, especially with certain chants and whether they were antisemitic or not. I think the dividing line on our campus was around terms like “Intifada,” which is a word that has been applied broadly in the Arabic world, outside of Israel. The media has certainly covered the use of this term, however, for someone like myself who spent a lot of time in Israel growing up, it has a specific meaning for us and our experiences. We were all basically babies during the Second Intifada, which was incredibly violent during which a lot of Israelis died in terror attacks. And that really strikes a nerve. So there are questions about whether that is antisemitic or not. I think it’s pretty clear in the history of at least the way the United States tends to categorize hate speech, which is fairly liberal, that it wouldn’t be considered antisemitic. But if you earnestly look at the protest movement, you can see that when they say “Intifada,” they mean something different than what Jews hear. 

The third thing is that there have been nonstudent protestors outside the school. Almost all I would say, of the antisemitic incidents that happened around campus, happened as a result of those protesters. Those protestors said horrible things to my friends. For example, they called themselves Hamas or told us, “Go back to Poland.” The city of New York should be looking into it, although I don’t know what they can do about it. There’s a very big difference between the campus community, which has spent a long time culturing itself and building up standards, and a totally different movement outside the gates.

3 thoughts on “Campus Protests in the Voices of the Students Who Experienced Them

  1. hag says:

    to the Theological student… We may be Jews … but… Israel is NOT our homeland… We are Citizens of the United States…. If anything we jews are citizens of the world…. and as much as I personality detest , Hamas and what they have done… there looks to be a massive OVER reaction”’

    1. David Wasser says:

      Well that’s certainly a series of absurd statements that fly in the face of mountains of historical, scientific evidence underscoring the fact that Israel is most definitely the Jewish homeland. That is completely different from, and therefor not in conflict with, the idea of your US citizenship. “Jews are citizens of the world?” The whole world has repeatedly rejected and kicked out Jews over thousands of years of recorded history. This kind of empty-headed rhetoric only further endangers and alienates Jews.

      1. hag says:

        Thank you for your KIND words

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.