The topic was justice and righteousness. I was sitting in my Contemporary Civilization class at Columbia University last month debating free will, when I received an email with the subject line “You are disgusting.”
“I hope you fucking get what you deserve … you racist freak,” the email read.
The night before, as a senior staff writer for the Columbia Daily Spectator, I broke the news about an Israeli student who was allegedly assaulted on campus in broad daylight. Like the dozens of other news articles I have written, I thoroughly investigated before publishing the news. I interviewed the New York Police Department Deputy Commissioner of Public Information twice, the student who had reported the assault, and a friend of that student who was with him minutes after the altercation. We reached out to the alleged attacker for comment, and I reviewed video evidence of the incident.
This email was not the only consequence for my publishing this story. Sidechat, an anonymous social media platform open to those with a Columbia email address, blew up with claims against me, my article, and the Spectator, calling the reporting racist and defamatory. The most glaring comments focused on my Jewishness and claimed that my identity compromised my writing, including assertions that the story was written with a “religious agenda.”
In addition to writing for the Spectator, I am an active member of the Jewish community on campus. I chose to attend Columbia for college because I was told by many students and advisers that here I would feel welcomed and comfortable to participate in the broad, diverse campus community while being fully accepted as a Jew. The question of my safety on campus due to my Jewish identity never crossed my mind.
This was the first time that I felt unsafe and unwelcome at Columbia. Following the online comments and the harassing emails about my story, I left campus out of safety concerns and only returned after Columbia Public Safety and the Public Safety interim director confirmed that being on campus would not pose a physical risk.
My experience at Columbia is not an isolated case. During my reporting about the impact of the conflict on the Columbia community, I had spoken with 54 Jewish students about safety on campus, 33 of whom said they have felt unsafe or targeted, 13 of whom were personally harassed, either in person or online, and 12 of whom have tried to hide their Jewish identity when walking around campus. Most of the 54 students I spoke to felt uncomfortable with their full names being published because they were concerned for their physical safety. This problem extends beyond Columbia. According to a poll published by Hillel International on Nov. 20, more than half of the 300 Jewish college students surveyed reported feeling unsafe on their college campuses and 37 percent said they have felt the need to hide their Jewish identity.
The increase in hatred since the start of the Israel-Hamas war is taking many forms. And it is also affecting Muslim, Palestinian, and Arab students, who have reported incidents on Columbia’s campus of hijabs being pulled off of Muslim women, harassment, and stalking. Students told the Spectator that Islamophobia has been occurring on campus as some students have been spat at or called a “terrorist.” Students also face doxxing and having their personal information leaked and spread online. “Our students started to coordinate to walk in like two or three because some of them would be harassed or scared of wearing keffiyeh on their shoulder,” one student told the Spectator.
And, it’s not just a problem at Columbia. On Nov. 18, around noon, roughly 20 members of a neo-Nazi group began a march near the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus and moved toward the State Capitol, according to an email UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin wrote to the campus community denouncing the march. Men dressed in red, covering their faces, marched carrying large black swastika flags, according to videos posted online. “There will be blood,” the members of the neo-Nazi group chanted.
David Skad, a UW-Madison sophomore who serves on the student board of its Rohr Chabad House, told me that on the morning of Nov. 18, he woke up, went on a run to the Madison Zoo, and while resting for a moment on a bench, received an influx of texts with the videos of the march.
Skad said that he had traveled to Poland four and a half years ago and “walked the roads that lead to Auschwitz.” It was one of the reasons he felt compelled to post the videos on Instagram. “Antisemitism is not a concept. It is real,” Skad wrote in the caption. “The test is not whether there will be antisemitism, but rather if the Jews will be alone to face it.”
For the first time, Skad had to consider whether it would be safe for him to return to his room on campus. “There’s literal Nazis walking through my city. Think about how surreal that sentence is,” he said.
Skad said that in the past weeks, he has been warning others about rising antisemitism, but found that other students did not take him seriously. He said that the night after the neo-Nazi march, he was in a conversation with a student and explained how recent slogans being used on college campuses “normalize dangerous things.” Yet, the student responded that the march was “likely Zionist propaganda” and paid for by the Zionists.
“Already in our society, there’s started to be a normalization of hatred. And when that happens, it’s not surprising that the Nazis would feel comfortable walking through,” Skad said. He explained that while free speech gives people the right to march for the death of Jews, it also means that people need to speak up in support of them.
Sophie Genshaft, a UW-Madison freshman, says that the rally walked past her dorm room. Coming from a small town with only a few Jewish people, Genshaft said she has never faced antisemitism before and was shocked to see neo-Nazis in her college hometown. “I definitely didn’t think that this was something that I was gonna have to deal with as a freshman in college,” she said. “I genuinely do not understand how Jewish kids can be made [to] feel so unsafe.” Genshaft explained that the march was “just hate,” which was a “really scary” experience. While she is not sure how the university could have taken stronger action against the march, “I have a hard time understanding how it happened in the first place,” she said.
Allison Lax, a New York University sophomore, has been posting Instagram stories in support of Israel since Oct. 7. She said that in response, she has received death threats and aggressively worded messages, including “Go die Zionist bitch” and “I bet you wish you were a hostage.” Her NYU email was hacked, she says, and someone tried to submit reports to the university’s Bias Response Line against the Jewish community in her name.
Lax says that at a Students for Justice in Palestine rally, an NYU student she knew from class looked at her and said, “Death to k*kes.” Following this incident, she dropped the class. “I can’t just sit next to someone and take a quiz who calls for the deaths of my people,” Lax said.
On campus, Lax, who has spoken on news channels about the rising antisemitism at NYU, said that she often hears her peers call her names under their breath. “I’m really scared walking around campus because people know who I am, they clearly don’t like me, they don’t like what I stand for, they don’t like that I’m Jewish,” Lax said. “But, at the same time, I’ve never been more proud to be Jewish.”
Daniel Kroll, a Columbia University junior, says that on Nov. 9, while he was wearing a yarmulke and getting food from the kosher dining section of a campus dining hall, a student entered the kosher area, stepped towards him, and shouted, “Fuck the Jews.” After the incident, Kroll sat down in shock to process what had occurred. He said he has never before felt scared or uncomfortable on campus expressing his Jewish identity. Unfortunately, Kroll noted, this is no longer the case.
“The idea that there are people that are sitting next to me in class who might feel comfortable enough in the environment on campus, where they don’t see anything wrong with doing that, that’s what scares me a little bit,” he said.
As my colleague Isabella Ramírez and I reported for the Spectator, LionLez, a queer club on campus, announced a “Black Lesbian Films” event with the caption “Zionists aren’t invited.” When someone emailed in response, LionLez president Lizzy George-Griffin, responded that “white Jewish people are today and always have been the oppressors of all brown people,” “WHEN I SAY THE HOLOCAUST WASN’T SPECIAL, I MEAN THAT,” and “Israelites are the Nazis.”
Following LionLez’s Instagram post advertising the event, which has since been deleted, Nava, a student at Columbia School of General Studies, commented, “I’m a black lesbian Jew and I found your flyer so aggressive and cringey.”
Nava had subscribed to LionLez because she supported their mission of gathering queer students and was looking forward to their upcoming events. She said she was excited to attend the movie night until she scrolled to the bottom of the email.
“I see that email essentially tells me that I’m not wanted here, that this is inclusive, but they exclude people,” she said. “It makes me think that these places, while they advertise themselves as progressive and inclusive, that comes with conditions.”
George-Griffin wrote a three-page-long statement to the Spectator explaining, “In 7th grade my PWI had me crying and throwing up over the Holocaust, thinking nothing so inhumane ever happened before. That is a failure of the education system.… It was extremely bad, and it is treated as if nothing comes close to how bad it was.” On her point regarding oppression of “all brown people,” George-Griffin stated, “The brown people in Israel are being used by white supremacists to uphold white supremacy.” Two LionLez board members wrote to the Spectator that George-Griffin acted alone and that her messages do not represent the entirety of the club leadership.
Antisemitic incidents on campus are not new. They have been bubbling for years, under the surface. A Columbia graduate student shared with me in a Spectator interview that on the first day of classes last year, when she mentioned that her family is Israeli, a professor said, “So you must know a lot about settler colonialism. How do you feel about that?” In a meeting with another professor, she says the professor told her, “It’s such a shame that your people survived just in order to perpetuate genocide.” Now, she avoids mentioning her Israeli connection, saying that her father is Iraqi and mother is Ukrainian, even though they were both born and raised in Israel. Other Columbia students have also told me that they refrain from mentioning that they are Israeli or took a gap year studying in Israel while in class or speaking to peers.
On Nov. 1, three and a half weeks after the war broke out and the rise in antisemitism began, University President Minouche Shafik, Barnard President Laura Rosenbury, and Teachers College President Thomas Bailey announced a new task force on antisemitism “to enhance our ability to address this ancient, but terribly resilient, form of hatred,” they wrote.
Despite actions taken and statements made by universities, students still report concerns both for their physical safety walking on campuses and for the Jewish student population at large on college campuses going forward.
Only hours after being allegedly assaulted, the Israeli Columbia student told me, “We were all kind of shocked that this stuff can happen on our own campus, which should be a safe haven.” Since that first week following the start of the Israel-Hamas War, the antisemitism and hatred of Jews on college campuses has only festered and grown. As that has occurred, many students have echoed a similar sentiment: College campuses are supposed to be a place of learning and growth, specifically in academia and higher thinking. Yet, students described how over the past month and a half, it has turned into a place where hatred and explicit acts of antisemitism are perceived as acceptable and even encouraged.
“Even as the most clear example of antisemitism is in front of us, people are still unwilling to look it in its face and see evil. And that’s why it’s going to take everybody to use their voice to call it out,” Skad said, a day after neo-Nazis marched through his college campus. “We’re pleading for allies, for people to stand with us and see that we too deserve humanity.”
Source link: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/antisemitism-college-campuses-1234891263/