To Jewish college students who are scared right now:
I recently had the privilege of speaking with some of you during visits to Hillels at campuses across the country. While news stories have focused on a handful of extreme incidents at colleges — Jewish students being assaulted or threatened by their classmates, professors celebrating violence against Jews — the stories you told me revealed that the problem is far more widespread, far more insidious.
You spoke about how, on some of your campuses, organizations devoted to social justice and inclusion — from clubs representing minority student communities to socialist and environmental groups — are allying themselves with Students for Justice in Palestine, which celebrated Hamas’s savage terrorist attacks on Israel as “resistance.” When I asked students on one campus which clubs are allying with Jewish students, there was an awful silence, and then one muttered, “None of them.”
Another student explained that if you go to a campus Hillel, even if just to attend a Shabbat dinner, or study Jewish texts with a rabbi, or cry in the office of a caring staff member, you may be ostracized for being a “Zionist.” On many campuses your classmates have twisted this word into an epithet, wrongly claiming it means supporting “colonialism” and “apartheid,” and they hurl it at you regardless of your views on Israel or how you actually define Zionism for yourself.
Many of you spoke about your fear and isolation — about classmates who you thought were friends posting hateful things on social media, roommates who’ve become increasingly hostile, professors who you worry will deny you letters of recommendation.
My heart ached as I listened to you. I wanted to beg the adults on your campuses who are supposed to be in charge to do more to protect you. And when our meetings ended, I did not want you to leave the safety of Hillel’s walls.
I know you already know this, but it’s still worth stating: This is antisemitism. Your classmates’ demands for “intifada” and chants of “from the river to the sea” are not critiques of the Israeli government and too often serve as calls for violence against Jews. Charging Jews with “genocide” is not an objection to occupation, but a lie that justifies opposing Jews “by any means necessary,” which apparently now includes killing parents in front of their children, raping women, kidnapping toddlers, and mutilating and murdering babies. And when your classmates demand that you disavow your ancestral homeland in order to be accepted, they are claiming the right to define your identity for you, an act of domination we would never tolerate against any other minority group.
I know the intensity of this Jew-hatred is new for most of you. It is for me as well. I went to college in the 1990s, and I cannot recall a single moment when I felt uncomfortable as a Jew. But what you are seeing on your campuses is actually a very old story, one that rests on the belief that Jews are overwhelmingly, terrifyingly, preternaturally powerful. That’s what the Germans claimed in the 1920s and 1930s. They were obsessed with Jewish power. They accused Jews of deliberately undermining Germany’s efforts in World War I, leading to their defeat; of causing a massive economic crisis; and of polluting Germany with their inferior race and perverse modern ideas. It did not matter that Jews were less than 1 percent of the German population, and it does not seem to matter today that there are only 16 million Jews on the entire planet — about the population of Istanbul. If anything, the massacres of October 7 and the explosion of antisemitism worldwide— like the pogroms, expulsions, inquisitions, and crusades stretching back through history— remind us just how limited our power is.
Despite these facts, on many college campuses — where critical thinking has been replaced by the simplistic idea that the world can be divided into oppressors and oppressed — Jewish students have somehow become the oppressors. As a result, I know some of you have been told you have no right to speak, and if you do, anything you say is suspect. When you try to express your grief and fear, you’re mocked and humiliated, your social-media feeds littered with nasty comments, as if you are not entitled to basic human emotions. It seems that you are seen as somehow less than human. Like I said, it’s a very old story.
And I know some of your Jewish classmates aren’t helping when they declare that Israel has no right to exist, and that it is the product of white European colonialism. It is an incredible privilege to hold such an opinion. Perhaps they do not realize that millions of Jews do not have this privilege. Perhaps they are unaware that more than half of Israeli Jews are Mizrahi–they and their ancestors lived in Middle Eastern and North African countries for centuries, even millennia, until they fled brutal antisemitic persecution in the second half of the 20th century. Israel was their refuge. They are not white. Erasing the bodies, lives, and experiences of these millions of people of color is not exactly consistent with being an antiracist. Also, for the record, Ashkenazi Jews in Europe were not considered white by the Europeans who murdered them during the Holocaust.
Jews who hold such opinions are part of this very old story, too. There have been plenty like them throughout history — Jews who proudly side with the majority around them and disdain their fellow Jews. Sadly, they’ve met the same fate as the rest of us when we are attacked. The only difference is that they were surprised.
As I listened to your stories, I felt both heartbroken and infuriated. But I also felt something else: amazement and overwhelming pride.
I have to admit, before I began my visits with you, my expectations were low. I figured you were part of a generation whose brains had been softened by social media, who think in hashtags and memes. I expected that you would shout over one another, shut one another down, and speak in slogans.
But what I found was the exact opposite. You spoke with nuance, care, and precision. You would express an opinion, and then immediately list arguments against it and then the counterarguments to those counterarguments. You listened respectfully to one another — even as you expressed wildly diverse opinions — and gently corrected classmates when they had gotten their facts wrong. And even though you’re angry and afraid, you’ve been holding dignified vigils where you mourn the lives of innocent Israelis and innocent Palestinians, and express anguish about hostages and about humanitarian concerns, and keep on singing and praying even in the face of classmates who try to disrupt you.
I couldn’t get over it — and I couldn’t figure it out. How had you turned out this way?
But I think I get it now. Because your feelings are often dismissed, you’ve learned to seek out facts and get them straight before posting on social media, and you understand that feelings are not a substitute for critical thought. Because you know your classmates will relentlessly question your arguments, you’ve learned to question them yourself. Because your stories are often decentered, you spend a lot of time listening to others’ thoughts, emotions, and opinions, and they inform your own. You have learned to hold these opposing viewpoints, to wrestle with them.
This is all so deeply Jewish. It’s the very process of Jewish tradition. As Amos Oz and his daughter Fania Oz Salzberger wrote, Jews are “not a bloodline but a textline.” For thousands of years, we have been questioning, debating, challenging, and wrestling with our sacred texts — agonizing about what it means to be a good person, live a worthy life, and serve something greater than ourselves. We’ve held fast to these texts, carrying them with us across the globe, living proudly by their wisdom, and enraging so many people for so many centuries with our stubborn refusal to disappear. The Ammonites, the Hittites, the Moabites — they’re all gone, but we are still here, still uttering the same prayers we offered in our ancient Temple in Jerusalem, still painting street signs in Tel Aviv and posters advertising Hillel events here in America, with the same letters we etched into parchment thousands of years ago.
You all have taken your place in that tradition, and I am so incredibly proud — in awe, really — of all of you. You fill me with hope about the future of our people.
With love and admiration,
This article was published on November 10, 2023.