November 9, 2023 — Evanston, Illinois
This column, by Lily Cohen, a vice president of AJC's Campus Global Board, originally appeared in USA Today.
As I scroll through Instagram, I am repeatedly told that Hamas’ terror attacks on Israel were justified by the “undeniable right to resist.” Worse than the sentiment itself is where it’s coming from – the same people who sit behind me in lecture halls, who were in my dance company or who I might see at a campus party.
The proximity of the vitriol has engulfed me in panic for the past month.
Many Jewish students have grown numb in recent years to the demonization of Israel on our campuses and in our social media feeds. But seeing students I engage with every day applaud the Hamas terrorists who slaughtered more than 1,400 people in Israel is sickening.
As I watched in horror the news from Israel on Oct. 7, I assumed that because the violent attack on innocent civilians felt so obviously wrong to my family, my Jewish friends and me, everybody else I knew would agree. Needless to say, I was caught off guard when classmates began declaring the attacks a victory for Palestinian “resistance.”
College campuses should be incubators of critical thinking and intellectual discourse. Yet, conversations have become increasingly stifled and cancel culture lauded, sometimes even by professors themselves.
And the events of the past two weeks suggest that the situation will only get worse unless something drastically changes.
Last year, I wrote an article for the campus newspaper declaring my pride in my Jewish identity and my love for Israel, and calling out antisemitism on campus. In response, pro-Palestinian activists turned 42 copies of my article into a banner hung in front of the library and painted atop it “From the River to the Sea” – a phrase widely interpreted as a call for the erasure of the state of Israel and its Jewish inhabitants.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the Northwestern University club dedicated to “global human rights” referred to “Palestinian freedom fighters” while criticizing Israel for abusing human rights.
Or when the group disabled comments after Jewish students pointed out its hypocrisy. The NU Community for Human Rights made its stance clear: Human rights only matter if the humans aren’t Jews.
But what really struck a nerve was that Northwestern Students for Justice in Palestine pushed the narrative that Israeli babies were not actually beheaded in Hamas’ “justified resistance,” despite evidence and confirmations by both a group of Israeli and international forensic pathologists and Haaretz’s own reporting.
I used to believe everyone would agree that all human life is valuable. I was wrong.
This is all part of an all too familiar pattern. Jewish students are demonized for having any connection to Israel and believing the Jewish state should exist, even if they also express concern for the plight of Palestinians. Yet, without hesitation, anti-Israel activists justify the murder of innocent Israelis for what they see as valid political ends and direct their anger at the Israeli government toward Jewish students. They say we are oppressors, that we support genocide, that “zionists are f---ing evil.”
In an online environment saturated with misinformation and flat-out antisemitism, our universities have a responsibility to protect students and guide all of us toward truth. Free speech is not meant to and cannot be allowed to protect harassment or incitement.
My Jewish friends and I are scared and feel increasingly isolated. We have been waiting for allies to stand up and condemn terrorism in the strongest of terms without hesitation or, even worse, justification. To stand with Israel and the Jewish people as we mourn the loss of more than 1,400 who were brutally killed. To stand with the families, including those here in the United States, who are praying for the release of hostages and their safe return home. We are still waiting.
My experience at Northwestern is not an outlier. Every day, I hear from the other members of the American Jewish Committee’s Global Campus Board who are also dealing with professors calling Hamas’ attacks "exhilarating” and students chanting, "There is only one solution," a phrase that evokes the Nazi’s "final solution."
Fortunately, the antisemitism at Northwestern is mostly online. I can delete social media and disconnect from the noise. I can mourn the loss of innocent lives with my Jewish community. We can wrap our arms around one another, just as we did at a vigil last month, when we sang the Israeli national anthem, "Hatikvah," Hebrew for “the hope.”
My hope is that university leaders will realize they need to reset the dynamic on campus. As the threat of a protracted war looms, now is the time to put in the hard work to build academic environments that value truth and reject hatred.
Lily Cohen is a student at Northwestern University and a vice president of the American Jewish Committee Campus Global Board.