The Double Bind of Israelis on Campus

Studying in America has long been seen as a pinnacle of academic achievement for Israelis, but some have faced doxxing, harassment and administrative indifference
By | Jun 04, 2024
Pro-Palestine protesters hold up keffiyehs and a Palestinian flag.
Pro-palestine flyers posted on a door, including one that says "long live the Intifada."

“Long live the intifada” poster, among others

When Nattaly, an Israeli post-doc in the Faculty of Science at the University of Michigan, noticed the poster on her colleague’s door stating “Long live the intifada,” she figured he might not understand that most Israelis viewed this as a call for Palestinian armed resistance. But even after Nattaly, who asked to use her first name only for safety, tried to discuss it directly with her colleague, the sign stayed up.

In fact, she would arrive every day  to the sight of new posters that  she interpreted as justifying the October 7 massacre and calling for the elimination of the Jewish state. She and Dan, an Israeli colleague who asked to remain anonymous, were both directly affected by the October 7 massacre, with family members who were abducted and murdered. When they tried to explain this to those in their department who were leaders in the pro-Palestinian campus protest movement, they were rebuffed. When they tried to talk to the head of the department, they were told the posters were protected speech under the First Amendment.

“If you compare it to other wars around the world, people on campus may have supported different sides, but they didn’t dehumanize the other side” or call for the other side’s elimination, Nattaly says, citing the conflict between Russia and Ukraine as an example. With the current conflict in Gaza, she points out, chants such as “globalize the intifada” reflect a more broadly malevolent attitude. “So now you want to kill us here, too?” Nattaly says in tears.

Each year, approximately 2,000 Israelis pursue higher education in America. For many Israeli academics, it’s thought to be the pinnacle of academic achievement. However, since October 7, Israelis on U.S. campuses are questioning if this dream is still feasible.

The campus protests have roiled American Jews, but Jewish Israelis say they feel particularly under attack. As an Israeli journalist now studying as a journalism fellow at the University of Michigan, I’ve experienced firsthand the heightened scrutiny and hostility directed at Israelis on U.S. college campuses. Many Israelis say they have discovered that no matter what their political views, they are being held responsible for their government’s actions. And while non-Israeli Jewish students can disavow their connection to Israel and declare themselves “anti-Zionist,” Israelis are held accountable by pro-Palestinian activists and must deal with the consequences of being outcasts on campus. Dozens of Israelis I spoke with have reported being ostracized and threatened—all while grappling with the painful reality back home and grieving and worrying about family and friends. 

It was a couple of days after the establishment of the encampment at the University of Michigan, and like many other journalists, I wanted to go and report about it. But after only a few minutes at the “Diag,” the main plaza at U-M Ann Arbor, Palestinian flags were shoved in my face, intentionally blocking the lens of my phone’s camera. A speakerphone blaring songs in Arabic was pressed next to my ear to prevent me from conducting interviews. A protester, who was older than me and very likely not a University of Michigan student, screamed through a microphone: “This journalist is a Zionist! Cover your faces!”

Woman stands outside of pro-Palestine encampment and protesters wave a Palestinian flag in front of her.

Efrat Lachter was unable to interview any pro-Palestinian protesters.

“I’m a journalist; I can convey your message,” I said to the protesters. “You are obviously very passionate about your cause. Don’t you want people to understand what it is?”

“We don’t talk to Zionists,” they replied.

As a war correspondent for a television news channel in Israel for the past ten years, I’ve reported stories from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Saudi Arabia—all countries that don’t have diplomatic relations with Israel and some of which are considered outright enemies. But never, in any of those places, did people refuse to speak with me based on my nationality. So it was a shock to be treated like this by students in the United States—a country of which I’m also a citizen—simply because I was born in Israel. 

The protesters knew I was Israeli because I was doxxed earlier in the semester by a group called “UofM alumni for Palestine.” The campaign against me began after I interviewed Jewish students from Jewish Voices for Peace. The director of my program was threatened by anti-Israel activists who demanded she rescind my fellowship, “or else.” The local police got involved to make sure my family and I were safe. After a month, the group moved on to their next target. 

Eilon Permsan had a similar experience 2,200 miles away at the “Palestinian Solidarity Encampment” at UCLA. The 20-year-old junior, who hopes to become a filmmaker, recalls going to the encampment and saying, “Hey, listen, I have friends from the West Bank. I know people not far from Ramallah, and we play video games online.” He spoke about “a future where all the people in that region live as one civilization. Israelis are not going anywhere; Palestinians are not going anywhere. We might as well create conversations that are actually pro-peace.”

After he said this, the protesters called him a Zionist, and that was the end of the conversation. “The protesters linked arms—they made a human chain—and then people in front of them went and put the keffiyeh scarf up to block my view,” Permsan says. “Every step that I took back, they took one step forward,” thus blocking any possibility of him moving forward into the encampment.

Permsan’s family moved to California from Israel eight years ago, when he was 12 years old. He looks like a California surfer boy, but his English has hints of an Israeli accent. Permsan was never worried about saying he was from Israel. On the contrary, he says he feels it’s his “obligation to educate people about different views within Israeli society.” 

On October 7, he was on the phone with his older brother, who was driving to the Nova festival near the border with Gaza when he heard gunfire, saw Hamas terrorists in pickup trucks on the road and was able to turn back and escape the massacre.

Young man in a black T-shirt sits and smiles.

Eilon Parmesen.

Shocked by the horrors of that day and his brother’s close escape, Permsan was stunned when pro-Palestinian protests started at UCLA and at other campuses across the country soon after—well before any ground invasion of Gaza began.

“Although being on the phone with my older brother for a few hours while he was escaping the slaughter was painful, what was more painful was going on campus at UCLA and basically seeing celebrations, seeing people praising what happened to innocent Israeli people,” he says.

Chen Pundak, a post-doctoral student in marketing at the New York University Stern School of Business, also was shocked by how fast she saw Israel go from victim of a massacre to being seen as the villain.

“The anti-Israel protests started on October 8 and escalated quickly,” says Pundak. “In October, the first week after the massacre, there was the ‘Global Day of Jihad,’ and I got a call from a friend at UNICEF telling me, ‘Please, don’t go outside today.’ I said, ‘What do you mean I’m not going to go outside today? This is not Berlin, 1933. This is New York City, 2023!’”

Pundak emailed the NYU president and approached professors, urging them to acknowledge that words such as “intifada” legitimize violence and should not be protected by freedom of speech. As an activist in Bonot Alternativa, a women’s movement active in pro-democracy demonstrations in Israel, Pundak was particularly upset seeing fliers with the inscriptions “Rape is resistance,” justifying Hamas raping Israeli women, children and men on October 7. Pundak also highlighted the vandalism against the hostage posters. “But people thought that we were overreacting,” she says in frustration. 

In March, I went to Miami, Florida, to give a talk about women in war zones, an issue I have covered for the last decade. There was an Israeli flag in front of my hotel. After I’d gotten so used to seeing Palestinian flags in Ann Arbor, I thought I must be dreaming—but I soon found pro-Israel sentiment to be the norm there. Yaheli Benjo, an 18-year-old Israeli freshman at the University of South Florida (USF) told me, while proudly wearing her hamsa necklace, that “there has been some protest, especially when the Columbia and UCLA encampments began a couple of months ago. We had our own version of that, but it was less intense and not as accepted as at Northern schools. 

Young woman with straight brown hair, in a black blazer.

Chen Pundak


Benjo explains that USF has a strong Republican population that is less accepting of protests. “There have been some anti-Israel chanting, which isn’t pleasant, but despite challenges, the Jewish community at USF and in Florida, more generally, remains strong, with support from Governor Ron DeSantis, who has expressed strong pro-Israel sentiments,” adds Benjo, who admits that after seeing what’s happening in other schools, she is grateful her parents chose to move to Florida when relocating to the United States.

While Benjo was able to concentrate on her studies in Florida, for Nattaly and Dan back in Michigan that soon became impossible. In fact, Nattaly—who has lived in the United States with her husband and two young children for the past five years since she came here for her PhD—soon found herself in the middle of a battle inside her department.  

Anti-Israel protesters tried to film Dan while others attempted (unsuccessfully) to provoke him into responding aggressively. Later, the photo of one of the posters calling for intifada on their pro-Palestinian colleague’s door was posted online. The colleague assumed it was Nattaly and Dan who posted it—which they both vehemently deny—and petitioned the university to release all of Dan’s emails. He also filed a complaint against Nattaly with the police. Ultimately, the issue was dropped, but  Nattaly remains frustrated that the reason they were under suspicion was their nationality.

One of the most eye-opening experiences for Nattaly has been to watch how universities have tried to manage the protests. After observing the effort put into DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) initiatives benefiting other minorities, it became clear to her that Jewish and Israeli students are considered a “privileged” group to whom DEI rules don’t apply.

“I never thought of us Israelis as white,” said  Nattaly, whose origins are in Iraq and Tunisia. “And although most Jews in the United States are Ashkenazi, they are still a minority—a targeted minority—even if it visibly seems like some are white. The way we are treated on campus is making us feel like we are not included; no one wants us Israelis on campus, no one is even respecting our right to exist on campus.”

I asked Pundak, Nattaly, Dan, Benjo, and Permsan if the past eight months had made them want to go back to Israel, where although the war is still going on and no part of the country is absolutely safe, at least you don’t have to hide who you are, or be blamed for actions not in your control. 

Young woman with long dark hair in a black blazer.

Yaheli Benjo


Pundak said she might not stay in the United States. Nattaly is moving to London, where she got a teaching position, but she is afraid the atmosphere there will be even worse. Benjo said she is feeling discouraged about going to law school in New York as she had originally planned and will stay in the south. Dan also is moving to a university in the south, where he hopes there will be less politics on campus. 

And Permsan? After debating with himself about whether he should return to Israel and join his friends in the IDF, he decided that he has a fight to win here. While “Israel will always feel like home to me, if I feel like I can’t live safely in the U.S., fleeing back to Israel would feel like conceding defeat,” he says, adding that he plans to stay in Los Angeles and create films with Jewish Israelis and Palestinian representation that will bring people together. “I believe it’s possible.”

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