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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

For Jewish students, protests stir fear, anger, hope and questions

By Laura Meckler and Michelle Boorstein Washington Post

The protests outside her window at Columbia University were loud, and Dahlia Soussan lay awake all night, tossing in her dorm room bed, a little bit scared.

As a Jewish student, some of the chants felt threatening, like she was being targeted because she supports the existence of the state of Israel. But the next day, when more than 100 protesters were arrested, that was upsetting, too. She didn’t want students taken to jail or suspended from college. She, too, wants the bombing in Gaza to stop.

“Every value that I hold in my heart is in tension with another principle I hold deeply right now,” said Soussan, a junior at Barnard College, which is affiliated with Columbia.

In the days that followed, her anger and sadness would grow. So would her frustration, as she saw friends unwilling to take a stand against what she saw as antisemitism on campus. When she went home to Toronto for the Jewish holiday of Passover, part of her didn’t want to come back to New York. But she did.

“I can’t walk away from something that’s hard,” she said.

For Jewish college students, this is a moment of intense and sometimes conflicting emotions as many college campuses erupt in loud protests against Israel’s conduct in the war and, in some cases, its existence - all while the deadly war in Gaza presses on and Israeli hostages remain in captivity.

It adds up to profound questions over what it means to be a young Jew in America in 2024. For some, the overriding feeling is one of fear and pain. Others have joined with the protesters, seeing the opposition to the war in Gaza as an opportunity to live out Jewish values taught growing up about justice and the value of human life. And many others are conflicted, seeing nuance when it feels like so many around them see black and white.

“A lot of students I talk with in the last few months are genuinely torn and confused but don’t feel they can ask their questions,” said Rabbi Jill Jacobs, a human rights advocate who helps train rabbinical students and others.

It’s been that way since Oct. 7, she said, when the war began with an attack on Israel by Hamas, the militant group that runs Gaza, killing about 1,200, according to Israeli estimates, and taking more than 250 hostage. After that, Israel launched a counterattack that has killed over 34,000 Gazans, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

Jewish students are left pinballing between emotions: worry over Israel’s safety and the fate of the hostages, fear of rising antisemitism at home, empathy for Palestinians.

“They are horrified by what’s happening in Gaza and also by what happened on Oct. 7 and by antisemitism,” she said. They “don’t see enough models for how to hold it all.”

‘Everyone is a little scared’

Seeing a Columbia-like encampment spread to the University of Pittsburgh in recent days has been “terrifying” to Alitza Hochhauser, president of the Orthodox Jewish group Chabad on campus.

The junior said she saw a “rules” sign at the encampment that included, “Don’t talk to Zionists.” (The rules also said to “love each other,” which she found contradictory.) Someone inside the encampment told a friend of hers to “go back to Europe,” she said.

“I think people make uneducated assumptions. They look at Jewish students and assume what they believe. They assume [the Jewish students] want a certain group of people dead, which isn’t true at all, whatsoever. What everyone wants is peace,” she said.

Sometimes there is a productive dialogue on campus, Hochhauser said, but other times it’s difficult. Some people don’t really want to talk constructively, she said.

“Jewish students on campus are very involved right now, because, to put it bluntly, everyone is a little scared about where this is going.”

In a survey conducted in December and January by the University of Chicago’s Chicago Project On Security and Threats, 19% of college students reported feeling in “personal danger” due to their support of Israel or the Palestinians. But those feelings were far more widespread among Jewish and Muslim students, where more than half said they feel in danger.

The survey also found that 13% of college students agreed or neither agreed nor disagreed with the statement “when Jews are attacked, they deserve it” and 17% said the same about supporters of Israel.

Separately, Hillel International, a major network of campus Jewish groups, said its members have recorded more than 1,350 incidents considered antisemitic, including social media posts, vandalism, assaults and harassment since the Oct. 7 attack. That includes over 400 acts of vandalism, said Adam Lehman, president and CEO of the group.

“This year, and in particular the past week, has been very crystallizing for many young Jews,” he said.

At Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., senior Leo Spunt experienced what felt like hate firsthand last fall when someone pulled down the mezuzah - a small scroll with religious texts, inside a little case - that he had posted on the doorway of his room in his fraternity house. He thought it might have been an accident - “maybe someone was drunk” - and he replaced it. Then the second one was pulled down, too.

“I felt like I can’t trust the people I live with who are around me,” he said. He got a third mezuzah from Hillel but never put it up.

Protests and pro-Palestinian actions are common at the Claremont Colleges, a network of schools outside of Los Angeles. Ben Cohen, a junior at one of them, Pitzer College, tries to steer clear but said he can’t help feeling uncomfortable - even unsafe.

“I’ve seen swastikas on campus. I’ve been called a ‘filthy Jew’ for wearing a Star of David on campus,” he said, “There is no voice for us, no conversation. I feel I’m just being yelled at, rather than being heard.”

Cohen, who grew up in Marin, Calif., said that in middle school, someone put a swastika in his backpack, and in high school, he saw Nazi salutes. “I’ve dealt with this since I was 13, and right now this is the most antisemitism I’ve ever experienced.”

Cohen says he still proudly wears his star, which hangs on a necklace.

“I feel like I hold a stronger bond now to Judaism,” he said. “The moment we break, I break, our people break, that’s when they win.”

Finding common cause

While some Pitzer students were feeling under attack, Ezra Levinson, a first-year student there from Hawaii, described a very different experience. Levinson is an organizer with Jewish Voice For Peace, which rejects the current state of Israel and the idea of a Jewish nation-state in which Jews have more rights than others. The group has staged several protests on campus in recent months.

“What’s critical right now is to take necessary steps to stop the loss of life and to address the fact that Palestinians are being killed and forced out of homes on a mass scale by Israel,” Levinson said. “And it’s being perpetrated in our name as Jews.”

Last week, Levinson attended a campus Passover seder run by the Orthodox Chasidic group Chabad. They wore a kaffiyeh, there was disagreement, “and it was beautiful.”

“There were people speaking in different ways about Israel and the violence, and we were able to coexist in that space as Jews,” they said. “A lot of it is about shared values and remembering the empathy and justice Judaism can give all of us.”

A Pew Research Center poll about the war conducted in February shows younger Americans, and younger American Jews, are more reticent about supporting Israel than their older counterparts. Twenty-six percent of Jews ages 18-34, for instance, said President Biden is favoring the Israelis too much, twice the percentage of American Jews overall, according to the poll.

And the Chicago Report survey showed how the same words can be interpreted differently by different people. For instance, 66% of Jewish students interpreted the phrase “from the river to the sea” to mean “Palestinians should replace Israelis in the territory, even if it means the expulsion or genocide of Israeli Jews.” Among all students, 26% interpreted it that way, with roughly the same share interpreting the phrase to be a call for two nations, side by side.

Across the country, at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., freshman Elijah Bacal, 19, was also feeling spiritually lifted by connecting with people in both camps of this debate. He is deeply involved in both mainstream Jewish life and pro-Palestinian protests on campus - as he puts it, “straddling two worlds.”

He prays every Shabbat at the main Jewish community center on campus, is associate editor of Yale’s undergraduate Jewish journal and joins a group on Mondays singing nigguns, or wordless Jewish spiritual melodies.

He is also a founder of Yale Jews for Ceasefire, which calls for a stop to fighting in Gaza, return of the hostages, and an end of the Israeli occupation and blockade of Gaza. He has been a regular presence on the campus encampment, running the Instagram feed.

“I don’t see a contradiction - in fact, they feed each other,” he said Wednesday. Work to create a “more just and equal world” is “part and parcel with my Judaism and my spirituality,” he said. Protesting the war, he said, has given him “a palpable spiritual connection for the first time” - deepening, not questioning, his faith.

Leaders at the Slifka Jewish Center had asked Bacal several weeks ago to deliver last week’s Shabbat talk on the question, “What does Judaism mean to you?” He worked hard on a piece about how important Jewish rituals, the center and the campus Jewish community are to him, and how the unity he feels there is forged “from our profound diversity.” His talk didn’t directly mention the war or politics.

On Thursday night, leaders at Slifka told Bacal that a staffer would give the talk instead.

Tensions had flared at Yale in the past week, including arrests after a demonstration on the campus. Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, Yale’s Jewish chaplain, told The Washington Post that leaders at Slifka felt “a need to speak in a broad way, with pastoral urgency.”

Bacal felt shaken and confused. He was torn between wanting to trust leadership about their reasons, and doubt over whether his pro-Palestinian activism might be playing a role. Rubenstein told the Post that it was not a factor.

Shortly before the Sabbath began, a student leader from the center shared Bacal’s talk with the community by email, calling it “beautiful.” But Bacal was still upset at the turn of events.

“Since Oct. 7, there’s been a lot of talk at Slifka about this word ‘pluralism,’ and me giving this talk feels like low-hanging fruit in terms of making that happen,” he said Friday night.

A search for nuance

Then there are those who feel out of place everywhere they go.

Lauren Haines, a junior at the University of Michigan, has long opposed the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As national president of J Street U, the student branch of a liberal advocacy group, she supports a two-state solution with Palestinians living in peace beside Israelis. She is horrified by the number of Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli bombs.

Yet she supports the existence of the state of Israel and is deeply unsettled by vandalism on campus and hateful comments, including a call by a student leader for “death and more” for everyone who supports “the Zionist state.”

“Holding my point of view, which is one of nuance and complexity, is really difficult,” she said. “This past week and honestly the past six months have been hell.”

Haines, 21, who is from Athens, Ga., said she doesn’t think she should have to choose between innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians. She said people should stand up for Palestinians and call out antisemitism.

“I always tell people I stand on the side of humanity, which for some reason on college campuses is not a popular view,” she said. “There are people on both sides who are hurting right now.”

Campus politics make this even harder. She said she identifies with progressive politics on every other issue. Now there is a coalition of groups supporting university divestment from Israel, and J Street is one of the only liberal groups that has not signed on.

“It’s really hard feeling alienated from the left because in my mind, being a leftist or being a progressive means you stand for equal rights for everyone. You stand for justice for everyone,” she said.

Before enrolling at Barnard College last fall, Yakira Galler had spent a gap year studying in Israel about the shared future of Israelis and Palestinians. Once in New York, she planned to dive into dialogue with these communities, but she said she was met with “a complete wall” of resistance from anti-Israel students.

After Oct. 7, it got worse. She said that this month, as tensions over the encampment and the calling in of police soared, she began hearing antisemitic and even “pro-terrorism” rhetoric. She saw videos of people at Columbia holding a sign in front of Jewish students that said, “Al Qassam’s next targets,” referencing Hamas’ military wing, and heard chants at Columbia of “Hamas we love you, keep bombing Tel Aviv.”

Her first year of college, she said, has been “very painful and I’m filled with a lot of fear and anxiety, especially on campus,” she said.

“I completely disagree that these protests are peaceful. They are shouting for violence,” Galler, 20, said.

Through these months, she said, she has lost friends. When she registered for classes, she checked to see if professors have signed open letters against Israel. Lately, she has tried to stay off social media to avoid posts about Israel from her classmates.

She came to college hoping to be immersed in communities of Jews and non-Jews, but now that feels more complicated. Still, she said she remains “deeply committed to dialogue.”

Another sleepless night

For Dahlia Soussan, the sleepless night at Barnard, listening to protesters outside her window, was scary. But the most frustrating moments for her have been among friends, not strangers.

Soussan is a resident assistant in a Barnard residence hall and part of the union that represents RAs. After police cleared the encampment at Columbia, right next door, the RAs in the union pushed for a resolution condemning the action. Soussan and some other Jewish RAs worried about the message this would send to Jewish students who might feel like the statement was endorsing some of the hateful rhetoric espoused by the protesters.

“It is not our place to send out messages that are divisive,” one woman wrote in a group chat shared with the Post. Another suggested a statement simply recognizing how hard things have been for students of all views.

But others felt it was important to call out the police involvement, which one RA wrote is “making people feel unsafe.” A statement was quickly drafted, won majority approval and was posted online, noting that it was endorsed by “30+ members” of the union.

That weekend, Soussan went home to Toronto for Passover, and one rabbi serving Orthodox students at Columbia suggested it was not safe for Jews to be on campus. With tensions so high, Soussan texted the RA group chat and suggested a statement condemning antisemitism.

“Just as we stood up for students who were targeted by NYPD and the administration for protesting, I feel we also need to write a statement on behalf of the union assuring Jewish students that we stand with them in the face of antisemitism,” she wrote.

She agreed to a suggestion that the statement also condemn anti-Muslim hate. Still, late Monday, after her family’s Passover seder was over, she went online and learned that there were not enough votes to pass the statement.

“I am tremendously disheartened and disturbed that we couldn’t get enough votes. Our inability to join together in condemning hatred against Jews on our campus casts a stain of bigotry on this union and some of its leadership,” she wrote in the group chat.

That night, she again couldn’t sleep. Here were women she thought of as friends, unwilling to take this stand. She was staying with her grandmother and went into her room at 3 a.m. to find she was awake, too. She sat down on the bed next to her grandmother and let the whole story out. She left for the airport just a few hours later and kept crying thinking about what she would be returning to.

Back in New York, she kept pushing. When there was talk in the union of a new statement, Soussan offered to write it. The message voiced concern about an increase in surveillance on campus and its impact on Black, Brown and Muslim students but said the union was “equally concerned by the recent surge in antisemitic incidents on campus.”

Late Friday night, it passed. Union leaders, asked about the previous failure, pointed the Post to the new statement on Instagram.

The approval was heartening to Soussan, but it still bothered her that a stand-alone statement about antisemitism could not be approved.

“I’m feeling a little bit jaded about antisemitism on campus,” she said. “But I feel resolved to continue showing up and advocating.”