Noa Fay is a Jewish student leader at Columbia University, the epicenter of the anti-Israel protest movement that has unfolded on American college campuses in recent weeks. Pro-Hamas, antisemitic, and anti-Israel demonstrators have occupied academic buildings, set up overnight tent encampments, and staged demonstrations, while Jewish students have faced increasing threats, antisemitism, and violence. Noa shares her first-hand perspective on what it's like to be Jewish on campus right now.

At AJC Global Forum 2024, Fay accepted the Sharon Greene Award for Campus Advocacy. Watch her remarks about being Jewish and proud on campus.

*The views and opinions expressed by guests do not necessarily reflect the views or position of AJC.

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  • (0:40) Noa Fay

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Episode Transcript:

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Nearly seven months since the Hamas-led massacre on Israel that ignited Israel's current war with Hamas, chaos has unfolded on the campuses of Columbia University, Barnard College and other universities across the nation. Most recently, student demonstrators have built tent encampments on university quads and occupied academic buildings. 

They also have targeted Jewish students with antisemitic signs, slogans and in some cases, physical assaults to protest the war. But that's not all they're protesting. With us to discuss her perspective as a Jewish student leader on campus is Barnard College senior Noa Fay. 

Noa, welcome to People of the Pod. 

Noa Fay: 

Hi, thanks so much for having me.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Well, thank you for joining us. And I'm sorry that you have been experiencing this on campus in recent weeks. We've seen plenty of images from the chaos there. But can you describe it from your vantage point, kind of walking through the crowds and seeing it up close? What do you see? What do you hear?

Noa Fay: 

It’s important to understand not only the amount of antisemitism, and that sort of violence that we're seeing–which has been incredibly painful, really, for every Jewish student at this point, I really believe I mean, it's just been absolutely horrifying. 

You know, I mean, it's pogrom style stuff that we're seeing. It has felt like now that everybody is affected, people are taking this seriously. But in reality, the Jewish students, we've been dealing with this literally since October 7, and it's taken up until now to even seem to get somebody's attention. 

So I think it's important to understand that, when I talk about this chaos, what I'm really thinking of is– there is, first of all, just so much press everywhere, which is just a bunch of people that are really swarming everyone and, you know, up and down Broadway, it's very disorienting. 

But more importantly, on top of that, we have a very significant police presence. I mean, it really is a police state. I can't even get to certain dining halls. I can't study in certain libraries. I can't get to my own gym. I mean, it's a really, really chaotic situation.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Are they protesting the war? Is that the message that you're that you're hearing? Or are they protesting something else? 

Noa Fay: 

No. No, no, no. They sprinkle in a few things, I think, dedicated to the war. But by and large, these are anti-Israel demonstrations. And at this point, anti-Jewish demonstrations. So they are using the war to, I think, gain credibility. And the war is definitely fueling their ire, I guess you could say, but this is not about the war. And it's never been about the war.

There was a very strong anti-Israel community on campus. And that was way before October 7, this was during ceasefires that were already taking place between Hamas and Israel. And still, we had this exact same rhetoric. The only difference now is that it's gained a lot of traction. So, no, it's not about the war at all.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

I was going to ask you, you headed to Barnard three years ago, you're a senior now. Did you get warnings? Did people prepare you for Jewish life on campus? And was it helpful advice?

Noa Fay: 

Yeah, so people did advise me. I did have people tell me not to go anywhere near there. But I just didn't think that it was that serious. And honestly, I did take this anti-Israel movement seriously, obviously, I had dealt with it in high school, and I had come to learn that this was somewhat of a popular ideology within my generation. And so I was aware of this. 

But I basically wasn't daunted, I was honestly happy to debate these students, to basically point out why they're wrong. So I wasn't nervous about it at all. 

Of course, we could never have predicted that this would be the situation. But that's just to say, I did have somewhat of an idea, but I didn't take it seriously. And I'm clearly, I'm not the only one, none of us took it seriously, and here we are. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

You mentioned before we started recording that before you started at Barnard, your parents similarly did not think that antisemitism was going to be an issue for you on campus. 

What are you hearing from your family now? How has this environment affected you personally?

Noa Fay: 

My family, they've been very concerned. They've been talking to me about transferring, because I'm in a plus one program with our School of International and Public Affairs. So I'll be here for one more year finishing up my master's degree. And my parents have a few times now really asked me about transferring and stuff. Which I will say, I don't really have an urge to do that at all. But they are very concerned. 

But more than that, I have family in Israel and my family in Israel–they are the ones who are asking me if I'm physically ok. Which is just…again, not the only one who's been having that very bizarre, sad experience. My friends have the same issues. They're their family and Israel, their family is calling them to say, Are you as a Jewish student doing okay, at Columbia University in the city of New York? 

So it's just, everybody's very concerned. And rightfully so. It is just, honestly, the more we all talk about it, the fewer words I have to really describe because it is just such an experience that it leaves you speechless. It really does because it is that disturbing. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

You are black, Native American, Jewish. How does that inform your perspective on the messages that you hear such as you Jews are not indigenous to the land of Israel?

Noa Fay: 

Right. Oh, my gosh, please. That's one of the worst ones. I'm just absolutely mind boggled by that. I will say that. I think that combination of identities for me, it gives me a bunch of different perspectives with which to use to understand a lot of political issues and social political issues. 

But I think for me, the number one I guess, benefit that all of these identities gives me in terms of analyzing antisemitism and just taking in everything that's going on right now, is that, and I've been trying to stress this to people but I think definitely the students who are demonstrating against Israel, they either ignore me or they don't take me seriously or whatever, but I am trying to stress that if only they would take me seriously because I am a person of color, from a few groups, which means: I know what it is like to be discriminated against. 

So please, because of that, if you can't hear me when I say I'm Jewish, so I know what it's like to be discriminated against, please hear me when I say I am black, and I am Native American, and I am a woman. Of course, I know what it feels like to be discriminated against. 

So please trust me when I say, I am Jewish, and I am now facing discrimination because I'm Jewish.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

I mean, are there people in these crowds, perhaps including your friends, that are holding multiple perspectives? 

In other words, they want the hostages released. They’re sad about the devastation in Gaza, and what's happening to the civilians there. In other words, they're not calling for a ceasefire or calling for death to the Jews. They're just holding all of this and spending the night in tents with their friends. 

Does that exist?

Noa Fay: 

So I have been told that it does. And in fact, a friend of mine, who has also been struggling with the same issue where her very close friends are participating in this and she's trying to understand it. She has told me, and so have other people, that the issue is that different people identify different parts of this movement to be significant to them, which is to say–apparently, this is the argument that's going around–is that everybody believes the movement means something different to everybody. That's what I'm being told. And I can understand that. 

My response, though, is that, I don't know that I need to know what it means to you. Because no matter what it means to you, you are putting aside the fact that this is a violently antisemitic movement, simply because I don't know, you want to protest police presence, which is necessary to begin with. So it's kind of a difficult argument for me to follow. 

You have forsaken all of these basic human rights issues, for something else that you have identified is more important. So that's why even if these students do have different explanations, which I know they do, it's ultimately, you can't get around the problem. That is, they're saying they don't care that it's antisemetic. That's what the message is.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

I'd like to take this back to the classroom, which is why you're getting at Barnard to begin with, I mean, have you gotten support from the faculty, from the staff, from the administration? Or have faculty members accused you of exaggerating the antisemitism you're experiencing? 

Noa Fay: 

So I have mostly not really opted to rely on faculty because I know that it's a bit of a gamble, shall we say? 

I've had one unfortunate experience with a professor. This is a course about slavery, American slavery. It was an amazing course up until this anti-Israel rhetoric made its way in here. But in this class, this professor has consistently communicated his anti-Israel sentiments and he's also done so by bringing in guest lecturers who have very outwardly demonstrated their anti-Israel nature. 

One guest lecturer came in and denied the rape of Israeli women on October 7. I was shaking. I was shaking in my seat. Just because like, what do you say to something like that? I mean, it was just horrific.

And then another example is that another guest lecturer who came in celebrated Aaron Bushnell, the man who set himself on fire over all of this in front of the embassy, I believe it was, and she said he was a true patriot. That's a direct quote. 

And then obviously throughout all of this, everything that sprinkled in is, you know, Israel's, a genocidal state, it’s colonialist, settler, imperialist, oppressive, all of these things, these are all the exact words that were used. And this is being told to a group of, as we know, very impressionable students. And I mean, obviously, all of that is just problematic in itself. 

But we can also identify it being problematic because at the very least, we don't have an Israeli coming in saying the, the Jewish side of the story and the Israeli side of the story. So it's just a baseline, poorly done, in terms of in terms of attempting to, quote, educate students about this issue.

And because we have that lack of representation of perspectives. We know, it's indoctrination. It's indoctrination. And I and this is to say, I mean, this is I've had, honestly, my whole experience with all of this antisemitism stuff, including what I just described with this professor, that my experience has been mild compared to people who I mean, I've heard about really, really horrific things. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Where are these protesters going awry? What's the solution here that would allow them to have adequate free speech, but not cross the line into harassment?

Noa Fay: 

Yeah, I'm so glad you asked about this, because I am done with this freedom of speech debate. We know this is not an issue of freedom of speech. And we know that because we have students here who would be expelled in a second, if they're not black and say the N word, or if they celebrate the KKK, or anything like that.

In fact, pulling from my high school experience, which was a private institution, just like Columbia. And because of that, they were able to rightfully dismiss a student who called his black peer the N word, and told him to go back to the cotton fields. 

For some reason, we've forgotten about this, that no one is entitled to an Ivy League degree. In fact, that's the entire point. Is that it's the most exclusive, elitist selective thing ever. So if the Ivy League had previously selected you, out of literally thousands of applicants, and you come here, and then you show that you are not worthy of that selection, in whatever way, the University reserves the right to say, Oh, you are not one of us, and you don't abide by our rules. These are our rules. This is our society that we get to dictate. 

And if you're not fitting into it in the way that you said you would implicitly or explicitly via your application, then the university absolutely has the right to tell them you're not allowed here and actually we're going to select from the thousands of applicants who would give anything to be in your position. That is the ultimate element of remember to check your privilege. 

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

I will say an Ivy League education is very expensive. I'm still paying for my graduate education at Columbia. And that brings me to this question. Are you learning anything? Are you getting anything for your tuition this year? Or is this experience infringing on that?

Noa Fay: 

That's a great question. My friends and I literally just asked ourselves that the other day, and I responded by saying, Well, I've definitely learned that I'm surrounded by antisemites. So that's number one, which is, you know, for better or for worse, it's definitely good to know. 

But I mean, really, my answer is that I personally have learned so much at this institution. This, first of all, helps me realize why I feel so strongly about everything that I feel strongly about, which means that it is forcing me to think more deeply about my own values and why I have these values. And number two, is that it definitely has strengthened my debate skills, and just my ability to engage with people who are not only sitting across the table from me, in terms of, you know, arguments and ideology and stuff, but with people who are quite literally against my very existence. So I think that's a good way to look at it. 

But I think that as of right now, most of us, us being the Jewish community at Columbia, most of us are not at that point yet, because this is all happening right now. This is a very, very raw thing. And so I think it will be quite a while until we can all identify the potential positives from all of this. And I don't think we should have to identify the positives. This is a very negative and upsetting situation. But I think that it can be helpful to acknowledge at least the different ways in which this makes us stronger.

Manya Brachear Pashman: 

Well, Noa, thank you. Thank you so much for joining us and sharing your experience. I hope things calm down for you there, and that you're able to walk across campus at ease again soon.

Noa Fay: 

Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I appreciate it.