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After Antisemitic Attacks, Colleges Debate What Kind of Speech Is Out of Bounds

In the days after the Hamas attack on Israel, Max Strozenberg, a first-year student at Northwestern University, experienced a couple of jarring incidents.

Walking into his dorm, he was startled to see a poster calling Gaza a “modern-day concentration camp” pinned to a bulletin board next to Halloween ghosts and pumpkins.

At a pro-Palestinian rally, he heard students shouting, “Hey, Schill, what do you say, how many kids did you kill today,” an echo of a chant from the anti-Vietnam War movement, now directed at Northwestern’s president, Michael H. Schill, who is Jewish.

Mr. Strozenberg’s paternal grandparents escaped the Nazis just before other family members were taken to the concentration camps. Now, he finds himself in an eerie time warp, resisting his grandmother’s pleas to take off the small star of David that he wears around his neck.

It’s not that he is feeling safe — just defiant. The mood on campus these days, he said, “is not pro-Palestinian, it’s antisemitic.”

A switch has flipped on American college campuses since Oct. 7, when Hamas killed more than 1,400 people in Israel. A long simmering tension is now openly and unrelentingly hostile, with several protests devolving into physical altercations. Both Jewish and Muslim groups have reported a dramatic increase in bias attacks.

The meaning of many demonstrations — like the ones that rattled Mr. Strozenberg — is bitterly contested. Pro-Palestinian students say that they are speaking up for a marginalized, oppressed people living in Gaza. But critics say that many of the slogans and protests have careered into support for terrorism and antisemitism.

There seems to be little agreement on what is acceptable language, which may help explain why the debate has hardened, and why university officials are having difficulty tempering the rolling anger.

Jewish students cite a litany of attention-grabbing antisemitic incidents. Pro-Palestinian students at George Washington University used a library facade to project giant slogans like “Glory to Our Martyrs.” Next to a Jewish fraternity at the University of Pennsylvania, someone scrawled “The Jews R Nazis.”

At the Cooper Union, a private college in New York City, frightened Jewish students huddled behind locked doors at a library, while demonstrators shouted “Free Palestine” and banged on the doors and windows. And at Cornell, a computer science major was arrested, accused of making online threats to shoot up a kosher dining hall and rape and murder Jewish students.

“I’m scared to walk outside,” said Simone Shteingart, a senior and vice president of Cornell Hillel, the Jewish campus group. “I’m scared that my name is out there as a leader of the Jewish community, and I’m scared for all my peers.”

“I can’t believe this is happening on my college campus in 2023.”

Many Jewish students say that while these attacks are alarming enough, they are also pained by the slogans that harness the horrors of the Holocaust and turn them against Jews or Israel — like accusing Israelis of “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing.” In this telling, Jews are not victims but “Nazis” and “fascist” oppressors.

To many Jews who believe Israel had a right to self-defense and retaliation after the Hamas attack, accusing Israel of such atrocities against Palestinians is an insidious form of antisemitism.

Jason Rubenstein, the senior rabbi of the Joseph Slifka Center for Jewish Life at Yale, wrote in an open letter that he was “no defender of many of Israel’s policies.”

But when it came to the Hamas attack, he said, “nothing could be more beside the point: No one is inevitably forced to kidnap babies, or massacre wheelchair-bound revelers at a rave.”

“Antisemitism isn’t primarily about hurting or killing Jews, and it’s not based on some theory of racial inferiority (or superiority),” he wrote. “Instead, antisemitism is a fear, and hatred, of Jewish power — expressed primarily as a readiness to believe that Jews, when organized and acting together on large scales, are dangerous, the very essence of evil.”

Pro-Palestinian supporters are quick to push back, asking whether any criticism of Israel and Zionism is acceptable.

They say that the cries of antisemitism are an attempt to stifle speech and divert attention from a 16-year blockade of Gaza by Israel, backed by Egypt, that has devastated the lives of Palestinians. They point to the uprooting of 700,000 people during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. And they rail against Israel’s current invasion of Gaza, which has killed more than 10,000 people, according to the Gazan health ministry.

“We stand staunchly against all forms of racism and bigotry,” said Anna Babboni, a senior at Scripps College in Claremont, Calif., and one of the leaders of the local chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine.

Ms. Babboni said her group is not antisemitic, but it is anti-Zionist. “We are fighting against a root cause, which is white supremacy, and trying to build a world which is beyond Zionism, beyond racism, beyond white supremacy,” she said.

Pro-Palestinian students like Ms. Babboni see their movement as connected to others that have stood up for an oppressed people. And they have adopted a potent vocabulary, rooted in the hothouse jargon of academia, that grafts the history of the Israeli and Palestinian peoples onto the more familiar terms of social justice movements at home.

Referencing resistance movements, the pro-Palestinian cause is “anticolonial.” Echoing the struggle against institutionalized racism in South Africa, Israel is an “apartheid regime.” Resonating with the concern for Native American land rights, the Palestinians are “Indigenous peoples.” Gaza is a form of mass incarceration, “Israel’s open-air prison.”

Each and every term is contested by pro-Israel students and activists.

They argue that many Jews are themselves refugees who fled pogroms and the Holocaust to return to their ancestral homeland, where they rebelled against British colonial rule to create their own state. They also argue that charges of racism betray a misunderstanding of the region, because it is estimated that half of Israelis are of Middle Eastern or North African descent.

Since the crisis began, statements and counterstatements have volleyed back and forth among college administrators, students, faculty and alumni. Every letter seems to beget another opposing it. Each takes issue with the language used by the others, and helps explain why the gyre of recriminations only widens with every new statement offered up by students or faculty.

After the Hamas attack, a student coalition of “Palestine Solidarity Groups” at Columbia University issued a statement lamenting “the tragic losses experienced by both Palestinians and Israelis.” But, it said, “the weight of responsibility for the war and casualties undeniably lies with the Israeli extremist government and other Western governments, including the U.S. government.”

After that letter created an uproar, more than 170 Columbia and Barnard faculty members fired off their own statement defending the letter against “those who label our students antisemitic.”

It described the earlier statement as an attempt to “recontextualize the events of Oct. 7,” which “represented a military response by a people who had endured crushing and unrelenting state violence from an occupying power over many years.”

The letter continued: “One could regard the events of Oct. 7 as just one salvo in an ongoing war between an occupying state and the people it occupies.”

Outraged Jewish and Israeli alumni weighed in with a letter warning of rising antisemitism and calling on Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, to take “a clear, unapologetic, decisive stance” rejecting antisemitism. Dr. Shafik has issued three statements, each more pointed than the one before.

And more than 480 faculty members signed another open letter, calling out the pro-Palestinian statements. Their letter condemned the Hamas attack as a war crime, and suggested that the other statements hid antisemitism behind “euphemisms and oblique references.”

“We doubt anyone would try to justify this sort of atrocity if it were directed against the residents of a nation other than Israel,” the letter said.

To some extent, the debate is inflamed by a generational divide surfacing on campuses.

In a recent Quinnipiac University poll that asked whether voters approved or disapproved of Israel’s response to the Hamas attack, those 35 and older tended to approve, with percentages rising as voters aged. But for 18- to 34-year-old voters, slightly more than half — 52 percent — disapproved.

“There is much less of a taboo in being very aggressively critical of Israel among the younger generation — and I think that is true among young liberal Jews as well,” said Angus Johnston, a historian who studies and supports student activism.

The current pro-Palestinian protests, he said, are “being supported by, and in many cases, led by young American Jews.”

Sarah Lawrence College, in Westchester County, N.Y., is ranked seventh on Hillel’s list of “Top 60 Schools Jews Choose,” because of its high percentage of Jewish students. But at the left-leaning college, students who support Israel say they can feel isolated.

“There was an active campaign on campus of saying that if you go to Hillel, you’re racist,” said Sammy Tweedy, a Jewish student from Chicago, who described himself as sympathetic to both sides in the conflict.

Mr. Tweedy said he began to feel particularly ostracized after attending a Birthright trip to Israel in 2020. “I did not have friends anymore,” he said. “And I would hear that people had heard I was a fascist or a Nazi or a racist. And I was like, ‘Where is this coming from?’”

The problems accelerated when the war broke out; he was studying in Tel Aviv. He shared Instagram screenshots with The New York Times in which students went so far as to tell him, “The blood of Gaza is on your hands.”

In October, the local chapter of Hillel wrote a letter to the college’s leadership threatening a federal complaint if it did not take steps to rectify “persistent and pervasive antisemitism.”

Sarah Lawrence’s president, Cristle Collins Judd, said the college stood in opposition to all forms of hate.

“Sarah Lawrence treats and fully investigates all reports of bias,” Dr. Judd said in a statement, adding, “We are actively engaged in direct conversations with students from our various Jewish student organizations, and have responded individually and collectively to concerns shared with us by students and families.”

Mr. Tweedy, who said his complaints to the university had not been addressed, has decided to finish his degree in a study-abroad program.

“I have a pact with myself that I will never, ever step a single foot on their campus again,” he said.

The demand for ideological conformity with the Palestinian cause — as a condition of participating in other aspects of campus life — is a form of antisemitism, said Bethany Slater, executive director of the Hillel chapter of the Claremont Colleges in California.

“I don’t feel Jewish students should feel socially threatened and have to give up their connection with their Jewish culture and community for the sake of something else that they care about,” she said.

But in a sign of the impasse, Bella Jacobs, a Jewish student at Pitzer, a Claremont college, said that as a pro-Palestinian supporter, she felt ostracized by Hillel.

“A lot of Jewish students feel excluded from Jewish spaces on campus that are run by Hillel,” said Ms. Jacobs, the campus leader of Jewish Voice for Peace, an anti-Zionist organization. “And they’re especially disappointed by the fact that Hillel has recently tried to speak on behalf of all Jewish students, just like the state of Israel tried to speak on behalf of all Jewish people.”

Columbia, Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania, facing open rebellion from donors and alumni, have formed committees to combat antisemitism, something several other universities — including George Washington, Indiana and San Diego State — had done before the Oct. 7 attack. And the Biden administration said it would make it easier for students who experience antisemitism or Islamophobia to file a civil-rights complaint.

Even though they may agree on little else, both Jewish and Muslim students say they are facing increased bias in the United States.

Hillel reported 309 antisemitic incidents at 129 campuses from Oct. 7 to Nov. 7, including hate speech, vandalism and harassment or assault. This compares with a more typical 50 incidents at 40 campuses for the same period last year.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations said it had received 1,283 requests for help and complaints of anti-Muslim or anti-Arab bias nationwide from Oct. 7 to Nov. 4 — a more than 200 percent rise over the equivalent period last year. And on campus, pro-Palestinian students have been doxxed and harassed.

“The hatred that inevitably starts against the Jewish community,” said Julie Rayman, senior director of policy for the American Jewish Committee, “does not ever end there.”

Miriam Jordan and Christopher Maag contributed reporting.

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