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Colleges face pressure to curb antisemitism and Islamophobia

Posters hung around the New York University campus in Greenwich Village, showing people kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7 in Israel, are seen torn up and covered with pro-Palestinian graffiti.
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Posters hung around the New York University campus in Greenwich Village, showing people kidnapped by Hamas on Oct. 7 in Israel, are seen torn up and covered with pro-Palestinian graffiti.

It didn't take long after the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre in Israel for demonstrations on U.S. campuses that began as vigils to devolve into vitriol and violence.

At Cornell University, a student was arrested for allegedly threatening to slit Jews' throats. At Drexel University, a Jewish student's dorm room door was set on fire. At the Cooper Union in New York, pro-Palestinian demonstrators banged on windows and doors of a library where Jewish students were holed up inside. And at Tulane University, protesters assaulted a Jewish student, breaking his nose.

"There was blood pouring down my nose. It was all over the sidewalk," recalls freshman Dylan Mann, who says he is still recuperating, physically and mentally.

"It was scary," he adds. "And I think what we're seeing right now is a lot of shouting at each other. And at the end of the day, it's not going to change anyone's mind. It's just going to add fuel to the fire."

Hard numbers for incidents specifically on campuses are hard to come by, but overall, the Anti-Defamation League says the number of verified antisemitic incidents across the U.S. in the first two weeks following Oct. 7 are nearly quadruple what they were at the same time last year.

A New York State police cruiser is parked in front of Cornell University's Center for Jewish Living, in Ithaca, N.Y., on Oct 30. Threatening statements about Jews on an internet discussion board have unnerved students.
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AP
A New York State police cruiser is parked in front of Cornell University's Center for Jewish Living, in Ithaca, N.Y., on Oct 30. Threatening statements about Jews on an internet discussion board have unnerved students.

"Things have intensified in ways we have never seen before," says Jonathan Greenblatt, the organization's CEO. "We're talking about assaults, vandalism, harassment, bullying, and a dizzying array of activities."

Pro-Palestinian students complain they're also being targeted. Many have been harassed, and doxxed, and have lost jobs because of it. Some have also suffered physical assaults, including a Stanford student who was hospitalized after a hit-and-run on campus that's now being investigated as a hate crime.

Here, too, concrete numbers for campus incidents are difficult to pin down. But the wave of attacks and intimidation was enough for the Biden administration this week to inform colleges they must unequivocally condemn antisemitic and Islamophobic incidents on campus, and take aggressive action to curb it. If they don't, officials warn, they could lose federal funding.

"The universities, generally, are failing the test. I would give the vast majority of university administrators an F," Greenblatt says, noting not only schools' sluggishness in condemning the October 7th Hamas attacks, but also in addressing students' security concerns in the days following.

Greenblatt says when it comes to antisemitism, colleges have traditionally had something of a blind spot, treating anti-Jewish hate differently than anti-LGBTQ hate, for example, or racism.

"Universities for far too long have been permissive about [antisemitic] actions they would never countenance if directed at any other community, Greenblatt says. "I'm talking about hateful speakers who come to campus and incite anti-Semitism and bigotry against Jewish students. I'm talking about classes that regularly slander and delegitimize Jews and Israel. It creates the conditions in which crazy people feel impelled to take action. And I worry it could get worse."

A man holds up an Israeli flag as Columbia University students participate in a rally in support of Palestine at the university on Oct. 12.
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A man holds up an Israeli flag as Columbia University students participate in a rally in support of Palestine at the university on Oct. 12.

Schools across the nation have now begun beefing up security and setting up task forces to deal with antisemitism. At the University of Pennsylvania, for example, where there have been many incidents of antisemitic harassment, vandalism, and threatening emails that are now being investigated by the FBI, the university concedes it "has work to do" to root what it calls the "evil" of antisemitism.

But to many, it's not enough.

Some Jewish students are withdrawing applications from certain schools. Many donors — Jewish and non-Jewish — are pulling their giving, or threatening to, if universities don't do more to condemn – and curb – antisemitism. And a Jewish high school in New Jersey has told colleges they can't come recruit there unless they prove they've got a solid campus safety plan to protect Jewish students.

"We can't send students to a situation where they cannot be safe," says Rabbi Joshua Kahn, Head of School at Torah Academy of Bergen County. "This has to be dealt with urgently. Every single student on a college campus should feel safe."

A missed opportunity for a 'teachable moment'

Even on relatively calm campuses, Jewish students say they're rattled by acts like the destruction of pictures of Israeli hostages.

"Seeing the posters ripped down on my walk to class can really just clog my brain for the day, and make it hard to focus," says University of Michigan student Emma Jonas.

Students from Columbia University participate in a rally and vigil in support of Israel in response to a neighboring student rally in support of Palestine on Oct. 12, in New York City.
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Students from Columbia University participate in a rally and vigil in support of Israel in response to a neighboring student rally in support of Palestine on Oct. 12, in New York City.

What is equally upsetting, she says, is that so many colleges are failing to make this a teachable moment. Students are uninformed, Jonas says, as she saw recently at a campus demonstration where pictures of young children being held hostage were taped to baby strollers. A student came by and was shocked to learn that such young children and babies were among the hostages, Jonas says.

"This has been going on for three weeks. And for someone's first encounter with it to be [that day], I was totally shocked," Jonas says.

"I do believe this is very much driven by ignorance," says Maria Ayoub, a Palestinian student at the University of Maryland, College Park. She was among several others who recently had an encounter with a group of pro-Israel students on campus.

"We heard some Palestinians yelling at them, telling them to kill themselves 'and just to get out, you're not welcome' and all these things," Ayoub recalls.

But what could have gone really bad, actually went the other way.

"We were like 'That's not okay, you can't say that to anybody,'" Ayoub says. "So we did apologize [to the pro-Israel students] on that person's behalf."

Two hours later, the pro-Palestinian and pro-Israeli students were still talking, — about the suffering on both sides, for example, and what certain slogans like "From the river to the sea" do and don't mean to them.

Aleena Hassen-Friess, one of the pro-Palestinian students there, says she also heard things she never had before, like the fact that the Israeli military dropped leaflets warning people in northern Gaza to evacuate to evade upcoming strikes.

Supporters of Palestine rally at Harvard University on Oct. 14.
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Supporters of Palestine rally at Harvard University on Oct. 14.

Keren Binyamin, a Jewish student, says it was just the first clue of their vastly different realities. For example, while Binyamin and her friends believe official Israeli reports that women were raped by Hamas, she was stunned to learn that some pro-Palestinian students believe that didn't happen.

"I was beyond shocked at the disparities in our information," says Binyamin. "We were just operating in such different bases of fact."

As the students spoke, passers-by stared and snapped pictures of the students in kippahs talking to those wearing keffiyehs. Before it was all over, Ayoub and Binyamin even shared a laugh.

"She said that me and her looked very similar, like we could practically be sisters," Ayoub recalls.

"She looked a lot like me, we had the same eyes and hair," says Binyamin, who is of Iranian descent. "We stood next to each other like 'Look, isn't this so funny,' and there was a chuckle."

"It definitely made us laugh," says Ayoub.

Before leaving, the two shook hands and traded phone numbers.

But those kinds of encounters are more the exception than the rule.

Things didn't go nearly as well, when Morgan Marietta, a professor at the University of Texas, Arlington, organized a Q&A for students with the school's resident Middle East expert. Pro-Palestinian students balked, insisting the single expert would be one-sided and unfair.

Students protested outside, Marietta says, and disrupted the event from within, shouting questions like "What's the difference between Zionists and Nazis?" and "Why don't you care about Palestinians?"

"These were not questions seeking actual information or discussion. They were assaults," Marietta says. And things went downhill from there.

NYU students participate in a walkout at Washington Square park in New York on Oct. 25.
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NYU students participate in a walkout at Washington Square park in New York on Oct. 25.

"There was a student shouting, 'F*** all of you, f*** Israel, f*** the United States!' " Marrietta says. "How she thought that would persuade anyone that she was taking a reasonable position is beyond me. Universities have failed these students, deeply failed them."

Marietta says schools could begin to correct the problem with a mandatory training during freshman orientation on how to have a robust — but respectful, and intellectually honest — academic debate.

But for his efforts, Marietta ended up rebuked by the university, and he resigned from his job as department chair, rather than comply with new restrictions imposed by the university on any future events.

In his resignation letter, Marietta called the new policies "transparent attempts to [...] curtail the academic freedom of scholars" and he wrote that "universities must not cower away from the truth in order to pacify protesters."

The University of Texas, Arlington, through a spokesperson, declined to comment.

Fears of harassment, doxxing

To many, it's simply too soon for calm conversation.

An Arab-American student leader at the University of Maryland says he is skeptical that the kind of empathetic conversation that happened on the College Park campus could happen more broadly right now.

"It's hard to have these conversations," he says. Personally, he's "willing to converse with Jewish students, but I will say that generally, the person has to have a level of understanding of our position," and "cannot be coming at us with the idea that Palestinians are all terrorists. I refuse to have conversations with people who harbor those beliefs."

The student asked that his name not be used, noting the many pro-Palestinian students who are getting harassed and doxxed. "I don't want to have to face backlash, especially when it's often blatant smearing and libel, because of employers not wanting to hire someone who is allegedly antisemitic or allegedly a terrorist sympathizer."

A student protest about the war in Israel and Gaza takes place at Sather Gate at the University of California, Berkeley, on Oct. 16.
Michael Liedtke / AP
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AP
A student protest about the war in Israel and Gaza takes place at Sather Gate at the University of California, Berkeley, on Oct. 16.

As this student and many others see it, universities are leaning too pro-Israel, and are not doing enough to prevent harassment of pro-Palestinian students.

Patty Perillo, University of Maryland vice president of student affairs, says official statements since Oct. 7 were vetted by both the rabbi and imam on campus.

"They helped us consider different words and they helped us consider a different statement," she says. But she concedes, "you just know that you're not always going to win."

Some blowback is inevitable, she adds, from one side, the other, or both. "It's tough. There's no doubt about it, you can get slammed either way."

'You can't stand in neutrality'

Some schools are taking a cue from the Kalven Report, a 1967 University of Chicago paper that implores universities to stay neutral on political and social issues. Schools should be the home — and sponsor — of critics, the case goes, not the critics themselves.

But Perillo calls that untenable.

"You can't stand in neutrality," she says. "We're an institution that says we're deeply invested in inclusive community. You can't say that and then stand on the sidelines."

Kaiser Aslam, the Muslim chaplain at Rutgers University-New Brunswick, agrees that schools need to play a role. His campus has a large population of Muslims and Jews, and he says when emotions run high, it's not the time to run away; rather, he says, that can be the most teachable moment.

"Meaning, in that moment in which we feel very sensitive and raw, oftentimes that's where, if there was some inert Islamophobia or anti-semitism, those come to the surface," Aslam says. "And that's a great opportune moment to correct it rather than to try to ignore it or excuse it."

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tovia Smith is an award-winning NPR National Correspondent based in Boston, who's spent more than three decades covering news around New England and beyond.