November 15, 2023
This piece originally appeared in the Miami Herald
When the Hamas attack on Israel unfolded last month, I watched, as many of us did, in sheer horror as the full scope of the terrorists’ depravity and barbarism was revealed.
I would have thought that the slaughter of 1,400 men, women, children and babies–most of them unarmed civilians — would elicit strong, nearly universal public condemnation, empathy and support for Israelis. What we saw, however, within hours of the attack, was student leaders and groups on university campuses across the country posting statements of solidarity — with Hamas.
Columbia University’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) called the murders an “unprecedented historic moment for the Palestinians.” George Washington University’s SJP chapter called it “history in the making” and declared “Glory to our martyrs.”
At Harvard, more than 35 student groups issued a joint statement holding Israel “entirely responsible for all unfolding violence.”
What massacre were they watching?
Understandably, Jewish students feel isolated and unsafe amid their trauma and grief. Worse, as they turned to university administrators for help, some were met with silence or half-hearted statements about how we should mourn the loss of all life with nary a mention of the barbaric Hamas terrorists.
Let’s be clear: You either stand with Israel and the thousands who have been murdered, wounded, raped and kidnapped by Hamas or you stand on the side of terrorists. You either support the right to live in peace or stand with murderers who carried out a pogrom.
The climate on campus starts at the top, and targeting Jewish students must never be tolerated. Columbia University announced on Nov. 1 that it was forming an antisemitism task force. While this is a welcome step, we wait to see how these words translate into action. This effort comes after the publication of a letter signed by almost 170 faculty members that called the Hamas attack a “military action,” while dozens of Jewish Columbia students reported feeling unsafe. As one told the school newspaper, “We feel alone and we feel shame.”
Jewish students should not have to wait for hate to wash over campus for their school to take action. Hamas’ terror attack on Oct. 7 sparked a tsunami of anti-Israel protests and antisemitic support for Hamas’ slaughter of Jews. Organizations openly campaign for the end of Zionism and focus their anger on Jewish students.
This has led to Jewish students’ growing isolation; they fear acknowledging their Judaism or connection to Israel, especially in progressive spaces. American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) latest State of Antisemitism in America report, conducted before Oct. 7, found that 21% of American Jewish college students avoided carrying or wearing items that would identify them as Jewish; 18% felt unsafe or uncomfortable at a campus event because they were Jewish.
Even though many of these Jewish students feel deep concern for the plight of Palestinians, they are still targeted simply because they are Jewish and treated as proxies for the Israeli government.
University administrators have been loath to weigh in out of fear of infringing on academic freedom or appearing to unduly support only one group of students while neglecting others. But when students justify the murder of innocent civilians and call Hamas “resistance fighters,” these leaders need to speak up and take action.
For some colleges and universities, the impetus for action was not internal or an immediate concern for Jewish students, but when high-dollar donors threatened to cut off future funding or, in the case of Harvard University, after alumni asked for the identities of Hamas-sympathizing students so they could be sure not to extend job offers. AJC has created An Action Plan for University Administrators to help these leaders best respond to the needs of their Jewish students.
Anti-Israel students have complained, as they did at Columbia, that they are being intimidated into silence. Nothing is further from the truth. Nobody is stopping them from expressing their views. However, when they praise terrorists and provide a rationale for beheading babies and burning families alive, students can’t be surprised when they are held to account. Their schools should not be surprised, either.
More than three dozen of the nation’s top law firms warned schools in a recently released letter that unless they are more assertive about addressing antisemitism, it could affect recruitment. The letter urged schools to “provide your students with the tools and guidance to engage in the free exchange of ideas, even on emotionally charged issues, in a manner that affirms the values we all hold dear and rejects undeservedly that which is antithetical to those values.”
That sounds simple enough. Yet, it has been anything but.
Many universities have said this is a moment for learning. I couldn’t agree more. Let’s teach everyone that there is nothing complex about condemning terrorism and Hamas, the terror group responsible for the worst attack against Jews since the Holocaust.
Ted Deutch is CEO of American Jewish Committee.