Surging anti-Semitism puts Jewish students on guard
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It’s Thursday, 9:30 a.m., and Sabrina Soffer is walking across George Washington University’s Kogan Plaza in downtown D.C. She’s an honors student, the punctual type. A brown leather tote bounces from one of her shoulders, while thick black hair sweeps across the other. Nearing the entrance of her classroom, Soffer stops and reaches for a silver chain encircling her neck. Her fingers find its centerpiece—a jeweled Star of David—and give it a tug. Suddenly the star’s edges unfold. The Jewish symbol disappears, leaving a simple strand of butterflies in its place.
Much has happened since Soffer, a dual citizen of the United States and Israel, purchased the necklace during a summer visit to Israel’s coastal plain. Then, the college junior considered the jewelry’s transforming trick a novelty. Now it’s a security measure.
That’s because Jewish identity is a liability on many American college campuses, including Soffer’s. Anti-Israel sentiment has been brewing for years, and now, because of the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, it’s boiled over. That message came through loud and clear at George Washington when the group Students for Justice in Palestine chose a Tuesday night to project provoking slogans on the exterior wall of Gelman Library—“Glory to our martyrs,” “Divestment from Zionist genocide now,” and “Free Palestine from the river to the sea.” The display lasted some two hours before campus police forced the group to take it down. A similar light show took place at the University of Pennsylvania.
All that seems tame compared with what’s happening at other schools. Federal agents on Oct. 31 arrested Cornell University junior Patrick Dai for making online threats against Jewish students. Dai allegedly posted that he would “bring an assault rifle to campus and shoot all you pig jews.” He also planned to “shoot up 104 west,” Cornell’s kosher and multicultural dining hall. In addition to Dai’s threats, a series of anti-Semitic posts to an online discussion board canceled classes at Cornell on Nov. 3.
At Columbia University, Maxwell Friedman reportedly beat a 24-year-old Israeli student with a stick outside Butler Library, and on Nov. 10, assailants assaulted a pair of Ohio State students while asking if they were Jewish. The day before, two women vandalized the Hillel Wexner Jewish Center at Ohio State.
But it’s Harvard’s problems that have probably gotten the most coverage. Reports of brutal attacks were still coming out of Israel when more than 30 student groups co-signed a statement that held “the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” Days later a billboard truck drove around campus displaying the names and photos of students involved with the groups. More doxxing incidents ensued.
As Harvard law student Mason Laney watched from the sidelines, he noted the administration’s response. A task force to assist doxxed students took shape days before University President Claudine Gay announced an advisory board for dismantling anti-Semitism. “So if you’re reading through the actions here, the first people that the university goes to defend are the people who are saying these egregious things,” Laney said. “That makes the Jewish students on campus feel like they don’t belong.”
THE TOPIC OF CAMPUS CULTURE surfaced during the Nov. 8 GOP presidential primary debate. Some candidates declared it’s time to revoke student visas and withhold federal funds. Vivek Ramaswamy denounced anti-Semitism as a scourge, but he said leadership, not censorship, is the way forward: “Fill that void with purpose and meaning. Dilute this wokeism and anti-Semitism to irrelevance.”
There’s a lot to dilute. According to the Anti-Defamation League, incidents of anti-Semitic harassment, vandalism, and assault in the United States have spiked by nearly 400 percent since the Hamas attacks. In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security Committee on Oct. 31, FBI Director Christopher Wray described the current level of anti-Semitism as “historic.”
“When you look at a group that makes up 2.4 percent, roughly, of the American population, it should be jarring to everyone that this same population accounts for something like 60 percent of all religious-based hate crimes.”
As Sabrina Soffer hears those figures, she nods knowingly. Her wake-up call came last year when vandals defaced George Washington’s Hillel building, a Jewish student center, with profanity-laden posters addressing “Zionists” and “Settlers.” A week later, an aggressive protest erupted in front of the building. After Soffer wrote an article about the incidents for the Times of Israel, a Jerusalem-based online newspaper, threats from readers kept her up at night.
The California native has blood kin in Israel—cousins in the army and grandparents with bomb shelters. While she insists her school’s administrators are supportive of Jewish students, she questions anti-Israel bias shown at two recent events.
On Oct. 16, the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington gathered seven experts for a “substantive discussion” of the Israeli-Hamas conflict. Soffer expected a balance of perspectives, but only a phrase or two of the discussion condemned Hamas. Some panelists either subtly or overtly justified Hamas’ actions. “It should have been a balanced educational opportunity, especially for students unconnected to or not knowledgeable about the conflict. Instead, it was skewed,” Soffer says.
Two days later, the school’s Institute for Middle East Studies sponsored a screening of Israelism, a 2023 documentary about young American Jews who question what they’ve been taught about Israel. Soffer says the film demonizes and delegitimizes the state of Israel: “What are they thinking of, bringing this to campus? It’s basically propaganda. And why now?”
Jessica Rogers is asking similar questions about her school. “I don’t think Oct. 7 was the moment to engage on what a two-state solution should look like,” the Harvard Law student says. “It was a moment for the international community to recognize what happened and be there to support and comfort our Israeli and Jewish neighbors.”
Last year, Rogers (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) spent spring break in Israel with top graduate students from across the country. She came back with new views about the importance of Israel’s existence and had plans to lead a student group there next semester. She says watching some of her friends remove Jewish symbols from their homes and clothing because they’re afraid of being attacked has been hard. As a Christian, Rogers is determined to show she cares. “God is near to the brokenhearted, and we’re the hands and feet of Jesus on this campus. Our job is to stand in the gap and say, ‘We’ll walk you home from the library. We’ll sit by you in the lunchroom.’”
Even so, Rogers believes school leaders are in a difficult position. “I would not want to be a college administrator right now, because they’re trying to walk a line between maintaining an environment for learning and upholding free speech.”
But Harvard has policies that prescribe when and where students can protest. First-year law student David Frisch, who’s Jewish, says it’s time to enforce them. “The right to advocate politically is essential, but I need to be able to sit in class, and I need to be able to walk through my school knowing where I’m going to engage with protesters.” That’s hard when protesters come through the law school’s main building banging drums and chanting, “No justice, no peace.”
SOME OF THE TURMOIL at Harvard and other universities involves posters of Israeli hostages. After bicyclists in ski masks threatened worshippers at his synagogue, U.S. Rep. Jared Moskowitz, D-Fla., speculated TikTok videos of protesters tearing down the posters are fueling the increase in anti-Semitism. He described it as “electronic fentanyl in echo chambers of hate,” and said the effects are infusing college campuses. “Something is clearly wrong with the youth of America when they think it’s acceptable, when someone has been kidnapped, to try to erase that person. They can’t look at them. They must tear it down.”
Soffer agrees, but she thinks it goes beyond social media to the educational system. In class settings, when she’s open about her Jewish and Israeli background, students express misunderstandings about Israel. Soffer goes as far as calling it radicalization. “I think it occurs in high school, with this whole binary categorization, identity politics of ‘It’s you versus me,’ the oppressed and the oppressor.”
She says Israel is always looked at as the oppressor. Palestinians are the oppressed.
“Also, Israel is viewed as white, and the Palestinians are viewed as brown,” Soffer explains. “So students take the position of the underdog, and therefore, Israel is the villain. Palestinians can fight for their existence by any means necessary, even if it means doing what they’re doing now.”
Soffer believes there’s a better way to look at the world. And she’s encouraged to discover she has some unexpected allies—Palestinian friends who’ve asked her to grab coffee and talk about these issues.
“It’s very promising, whether it’s on or off campus, over Instagram, or in person,” she said. “The more that we build personal relationships with people and we see each other as human beings, not as militants and settlers and terrorists, we can come to terms with one another.”
Still, Soffer acknowledges the gulf is wide. And she’s adamant about Oct. 7: There’s no moral equivalence for what Hamas did.
“Once the Palestinian community and their followers can condemn Hamas and separate Hamas from the Palestinian cause, it’s going to help everybody. It’s going to help the Palestinian cause itself, and it will lower tensions with the Jewish community. That’s what I hope for in the future.”
—with reporting from Mary Muncy
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