Monday, May 27, 2024
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Colleges Must Support Their Jewish Students Without Equivocation

The heinous terrorist attacks by Hamas on Israeli civilians have been devastating. We can’t even begin to express the pain being felt across the Jewish community as we watch the endless and mounting stories of the more than 1,300 children, teenagers, parents, grandparents, and entire families who have been murdered, kidnapped, and held hostage simply for being Jewish. Depending on the moment, we feel simultaneously caught between anguish and anger, horror and despair.

It’s the same complex and debilitating swirl of emotions being felt by hundreds of thousands of Jewish students on college and university campuses across the country, and around the world. Students who for years have been marginalized and ostracized because they expressed their authentic connection to and love for Israel, even as antisemitism in the U.S. has risen to historic levels. Students who have, far too often, not received enough support and leadership from their campus administrations.

Faced with the news that Hamas intentionally targeted civilians in such vile and brutal ways, committing numerous crimes against humanity, Jewish students need—and deserve—to have their university leaders and others on campus recognize the trauma that’s been inflicted on them, and provide them with the space and support to process and to grieve for their Israeli families, friends, and loved ones. Instead, they have too often heard from those university leaders misplaced platitudes about cycles of violence and the need for unity and understanding, effectively gaslighting one of the most heinous acts of terrorism against civilians that the world has ever seen.

Let us be clear: There is no way to justify Hamas’ war crimes and unconscionable atrocities. These Israeli civilians were not collateral damage caught in the crossfire. They were the direct target of a regime designated by the United States, the European Union, and dozens of other nations as an international terrorist organization. A regime whose charter calls for the annihilation of the Jewish state. We need you to unequivocally support our students and to take urgent action to eliminate and prevent the increasingly hostile environment for Jewish students on campuses today. To suggest otherwise insults the memories of those who were murdered, and the plight of 150 hostages whose lives continue to hang in the balance.

Some campuses are getting this right. Emory President Gregory Fenves denounced the war crimes committed by Hamas, and wrote, “The reality of Jews being senselessly murdered and taken as hostages will not soon leave my mind, and must be condemned in the strongest possible terms.” President Ben Sasse at the University of Florida said, “I will not tiptoe around this simple fact: What Hamas did is evil and there is no defense for terrorism. This shouldn’t be hard.” And University of Miami President Julio Frenk noted the community’s deep ties to Israel, and offered the full mental health support resources of the university to support all students experiencing anxiety or stress, including Jewish students. Condemning terrorist atrocities and showing compassion for Jewish students in a statement as these universities have done should be the lowest common denominator for supporting the Jewish community.

So, what do our Jewish students need from you?

First, they need to hear their campus leaders like you speak upand unequivocally condemn this heinous terrorist attack against Israeli civilians. Equivocating statements bemoaning the “cycle of violence” inherently blame the victims and fail both Jewish students and the wider campus community. This is too important a moment to fall back on platitudes and false moral equivalencies. Your Jewish students deserve better.

Second, campus leaders like you need to show up for your students and be a visible presence at vigils and other solidarity events bringing together Jewish students and their allies on campus. Let Jewish students know they are not alone, that they are not being asked to hide who they are, and that they are not in danger when they express their connections to and support for Israel—the Jewish homeland and the largest Jewish community in the world.

Third, campus leaders must take concrete steps to protect Jewish students and Jewish student organizations who are already being subjected to increasing incidents of harassment, intimidation, and vandalism. At a time when other students and student groups on campuses across the country are actively demonizing and blaming Israel for the wanton violence that has been inflicted upon Israeli civilians and celebrating Hamas’ violence as justified acts of “resistance,” campuses have both a moral and a legal obligation to act. Universities need to work with Hillels and other Jewish student groups to ensure their safety in the face of these threats before an antisemitic incident or attack occurs on your campus.

While the above steps are critical in this moment, they are not sufficient for the future. Administrations must also take steps consistent with the U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism to root out the underlying issues that contributed to the antisemitic rhetoric we are seeing on many campuses the past few days.

That means developing clear and transparent non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies that protect against the harassment or exclusion of “Zionists”; promoting clear and transparent mechanisms for students to report hate incidents and acts of antisemitism to campus administrators; and ensuring clear and transparent communication from campus leadership regarding steps taken in response to reported incidents.

It will also require the urgent creation of cross-disciplinary task forces or advisory councils, in consultation with Hillel and other Jewish campus partners, to review, address, and improve Jewish student life on campus. Participating in programs like Hillel International’s Campus Climate Initiative, which works directly with university administrators to educate them on the history and modern manifestations of antisemitism, is critical.

And it will require university leadership to remain nimble and proactive in responding to and preventing antisemitism, to keep open lines of communication with Jewish organizations on campus to respond to needs in real time, and to regularly evaluate whether additional proactive steps are needed to ensure a safe, inclusive, and equitable learning environment for all students, including Jewish students.

We remain steadfast in our commitment to serve as a resource and partner to you in this critically important and urgent work. And we are watching for and counting on your leadership in this challenging moment.

Adam Lehman, the President and CEO of Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world. Jonathan Greenblatt, the CEO and National Director of ADL, the leading anti-hate organization in the world.

The views expressed in this article are the writers’ own.

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