Since the Hamas terrorist attacks on Oct. 7, campus life in the United States has imploded into a daily trial of intimidation and insult for Jewish students. A hostile environment that began with statements from pro-Palestinian student organizations justifying Terrorism has now rapidly spiraled into death threats and physical attacks, leaving Jewish students alarmed and vulnerable.
On an online discussion forum last weekend, Jewish students at Cornell were called “excrement on the face of the earth,” threatened with rape and beheading and bombarded with demands like “eliminate Jews living from Cornell campus.” (TO 21-year-old junior at Cornell has been charged with posting violent threats.) This horror must end.
Free speech, open debate and heterodox views lie at the core of academic life. They are fundamental to educating future leaders to think and act morally. The reality on some college campuses today is the opposite: open intimidation of Jewish students. Mob harassment must not be confused with free speech.
Universities need to get back to first principles and understand that they have the rules on hand to end intimidation of Jewish students. We need to hold teachers and students to a higher standard.
The targeting of Jewish students didn’t stop at Cornell: Jewish students at Cooper Union huddled in the library to escape an angry crowd pounding on the doors; a protester at a rally near New York University carried a signs calling for the world to be kept “clean” of Jews; messages like “glory to our martyrs” were projected onto a George Washington University building.
This most recent wave of hate began with prejudiced comments obscured by seemingly righteous language. Following the Oct. 7 attacks, more than 30 student groups at Harvard signed on to a statements that read, “We, the undersigned student organizations, hold the Israeli regime entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.” There was no mention of Hamas. The university issued such a tepid responseit almost felt like an invitation.
Days later, at a pro-Palestinian rally, the Cornell associate professor Russell Rickford said he was “exhilarated” by Hamas’s terrorist attack. (I have later apologized and was granted a leave of absence.) In an article, a Columbia professor, Joseph Massad, seemed to relish the “awesome” scenes of “Palestinian resistance fighters” storming into Israel. Most recently, over 100 Columbia and Barnard professors signed a letters defending students who blamed Israel for Hamas’s attacks. To the best of our knowledge, none of these professors have received meaningful discipline, much less dismissal. Another green light.
Over these last few weeks, dozens of anti-Israel protests have been hosted on or near college campuses. Many of these demonstrations had threatening features: Masked students have been chanted slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which many view as a call for the destruction of Israel. Others have shouted, “There is only one solution, intifada revolution.” The word “intifada” has a thick history: During the Aqsa intifada of the early 2000s, hundreds of Israeli civilians were killed in attacks.
On at least one occasion, these student protests have even interrupted candlelight vigils for the victims of Oct. 7. And they haven’t been condemned by the leadership at enough universities. In recent days, some universities, including Cornell, have released statements denouncing antisemitism on campus. Harvard also announced the creation of an advisory group to combat antisemitism.
The terms “Zionist” and “colonizer” have evolved into epithets used against Jewish students like us. These labels have been spit at some of us and our friends in dining halls, dorm common rooms, outside classes and at parties.
Failure by any university to affirm that taunts and intimidation have no place on campus legitimizes more violent behaviors. We are seeing it play out before our eyes.
At Columbia, an Israeli student was physically assaulted on campus. Near Tulane, a Jewish student’s head was bashed with the pole of a Palestinian flag after he attempted to stop protesters from burning an Israeli flag. And students at Cornell live in fear that their peers will update anti-Semitic threats.
All students have sacred rights to hold events, teach-ins and protests. And university faculty members must present arguments that make students uncomfortable. University campuses are unique hubs of intellectual discovery and debate, designed to teach students how to act within a free society. But free inquiry is not possible in an environment of intimidation. Harassment and intimidation fly in the face of the purpose of a university.
The codes of ethics of universities across the country condemn intimidation and hold students and faculty to standards of dignity and respect for others. Campuses are at a crossroads: The leadership can either enforce these ethics or these places of learning will succumb to mob rule by their most radical voices, risking the continuation of current violence.
Simply stating that taunts and intimidation have no place on campus isn’t enough. Professors violating these rules should be disciplined or dismissed. Student groups that incite or justify violence should not be given university funds to conduct activity on campus.
Furthermore, in line with anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies, established university initiatives that protect minority groups must also include Jews. Universities should adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, as a mechanism for properly identifying and eliminating anti-Jewish hate.
Students should not be subject to discrimination, let alone outright threats and hostility, on the basis of their identity. This standard must be applied to Jewish students, too.
Finally, it is vital that individual campus community members — students, professors, alumni, staff members and parents — act against intimidation and incivility. Stand with your Jewish friends at peaceful assemblies. Call on universities via letters and petitions to restore civility on campus.
Although one may think antisemitism has an impact only on Jews, history shows it poisons society at large. Universities have a moral responsibility to counter hateful violence in all their forms. When they fail to do so, they fail us all.
Gabriel Diamond is a senior at Yale University studying political science. Talia Dror is a junior at Cornell University studying industrial and labor relations and business. Jillian Lederman is a senior at Brown University studying political science and economics.
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