Caught In The Middle In New Campus Wars

On Monday, 200 Columbia students gathered on the library steps to protest racial injustice and other issues. Michael Datikash/JW

In early November, Michael Stephenson, a Jewish sophomore at the University of Missouri, spent a night sleeping in the middle of campus alongside graduate student Jonathan Butler. Butler was on a hunger strike demanding the resignation of university President Tim Wolfe over how he handled a series of racist incidents on campus.

“I grew up with a strong focus on social justice — it was natural for me to get involved,” said the 19-year-old education major from Chicago. He is one of about 900 Jewish students on the Columbia, Mo., campus, 2 percent of the total student body. Of the 900, only about 100 are active in Jewish life, according to the director of the campus Hillel.

Stephenson, one of the engaged few and a “devout” Reform Jew, organized a social justice seder last Passover, with modern-day human rights issues standing in for each of the Ten Plagues.

Still, as a proudly Jewish student, fellow student activists question his authenticity. A strong alignment between progressive student groups and pro-Palestinian student groups on college campuses leave many Jewish students caught between the cross-currents buffeting college campuses this fall, as they struggle to navigate their feelings towards Israel with a largely dissenting popular opinion.

“I don’t know where I belong,” said Stephenson, who described several incidents he experienced while involved in activist work that “bordered on anti-Semitism.” In one exchange while working an information table for his Jewish fraternity, an Arab student accosted him by calling Jews “Nazis” and “kikes.” In another, he witnessed a prominent rabbi from St. Louis listed as a “true terrorist” at a Black Lives Matter meeting — the rabbi’s crime was sending money to Israel. In November, a swastika drawn in feces was found on the wall of a campus bathroom stall.

“It’s hard to be a Jewish student and support these groups when harsh criticism of Israel sometimes turns into criticism of the Jews,” he said. Still, he remains a strong ally of the Black Lives Matter movement. “I just try and keep my identities separate,” he said.

Sometimes that’s impossible. While participating in a recent social justice committee meeting, he heard a group of African-American students defending the recent spate of Palestinian stabbings targeting Jews in Israel. “It’s started to feel like Jewish lives don’t matter,” he said.

College campuses across the nation were quick to echo the discontent brought to the fore by Butler and his supporters, spurred by the neighboring unrest in Ferguson, Mo. On the East Coast, elite universities including Yale, Columbia and Princeton made headlines as student activists conducted sit-ins, occupied buildings and held rallies to protest racial injustice. On these campuses and others, the traditional fall semester was transformed into a period of intense focus on racial injustice and the adjoining question — can activism stifle free speech.

At both Yale and Princeton, there have been accusations that protesters, many of them black, have tried to suppress the speech of those who disagree with them. Others welcomed the counterprotests as part of what they called a healthy debate.

Jewish students, who overwhelmingly align with black student groups in the fight for racial justice, often find themselves trapped in the crosshairs. “Intersectionality,” the new buzzword on college campuses for collaboration between diverse student groups to aid a common goal, exacerbates the dilemma, as groups having little to do with Israel stake a position on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

On Monday afternoon, more than 200 students gathered on the stone steps in front of Columbia University’s stately library. Set against a gray sky, students held cardboard signs with red and blue painted messages — “Columbia is Racist,” “We Won’t Support Oppression” and “CU is a Corporation”

“Mic check!” announced a student dramatically into a megaphone, before rattling off a list of student demands, including enhancing quality of life for black and other marginalized communities on Columbia’s campus and repairing the damage done to the black communities “occupied” by Columbia’s sprawling campus in Harlem and the Bronx.

The gathering, a coalition between several student groups — the Mobilized African Diaspora, Columbia Divest for Climate Justice, and No Red Tape, an anti-sexual assault activist group, among them — debuted the Barnard Columbia Solidarity Network; the network is a recently formed mega-coalition between student groups with overlapping interests. Columbia’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and Jewish Voice for Peace, a Jewish student group that supports divestment from Israel, collaborate closely with the network.

About 20 Jewish student activists were sprinkled throughout the crowd. Though Hillel encouraged students to attend, many who would have otherwise been interested opted out because of No Red Tape’s public alignment with SJP, said Nicole Felmus, one of the Jewish students at the rally and a Hillel representative. Felmus, 19, who identifies with the Reform movement, participates in a Judaism and activism seminar hosted weekly at Hillel.

“Building a coalition like this is such a great idea, there’s so much student power,” she said, referring to the new Solidarity Network. “But you have to ask which voices are eliminated and which ones are diluted.”

She described the growing “internal turmoil” she feels when issues she cares deeply about — including racial equality — are conflated with questions about Israel. Still, she decided to bench her concerns and join the rally. “I feel my presence is necessary here—I need to step away from their positions I don’t agree with and support their broader goals, like having a rape crisis center on campus.”

For Elle Wisnicki, a Columbia junior and student activist who also attended the rally, balancing racial justice and Jewish values is personal. The daughter of a black mother and Jewish father, she chose to convert to Judaism at age 12. The decision to “mark her own identity” also sparked her passion for social justice.

“I have Judaism to thank for my social justice roots,” said the Hollywood, Calif., native, quoting the biblical mandate to “love the stranger in your midst.”

Today, a human rights major and a social justice fellow for Hillel, she described the tension inherent in the role.

“Jewish students have a really hard time with this,” she said, a note of exasperation in her voice. “It’s hard to say I’m a Jewish student and I support Israel, but I’m also against all the injustice going on in America. Jewish students have a really hard time separating those two identities.”

A Hillel ambassador, she is familiar with the very negative way Hillel is perceived by other progressive groups on campus. “People just don’t want to work with us,” she said, discussing the challenge of changing Hillel’s image. Her “beautiful and complicated gift” of being a multiracial Jew is one way to shift public perception, she said.

“I’m Jewish, I fought to be Jewish, and I deserve to be a part of the Hillel community. No one in the super-left-wing, liberal realm can take that away from me. Because I’m half-black, I can fit into the other realms without being questioned. I need to utilize this gift appropriately — if not me then who?”

Belinda Cooper, an adjunct professor at Columbia and New York University and a scholar of human rights, believes discomfort is a critical part of the college experience. The daughter of a Holocaust survivor, she often makes Holocaust jokes in class.

“I don’t think students go to school to be in a family or to be coddled,” she said. “University is an intellectual experience. You obviously want to be happy, but that’s not the purpose.”

With a degree of disbelief, she’s watched students rally and picket against “offensive” language and behavior outside the classroom. A burgeoning focus on “microaggressions” — subtle forms of bigotry — poses harm to a culture of intellectual rigor, Cooper said. She called the now-infamous Yale letter in defense of certain Halloween costumes deemed insensitive because of their cultural appropriation a “flash point” in the debate. (The letter’s author, lecturer Erika Christakis resigned from her position at the university on Monday.)

“I don’t know any professor who feels comfortable with the wave of responses to free speech we’ve been seeing on campuses,” Cooper said.

Still, in her own classroom, she has not seen students change. In a particularly challenging exercise in her human rights seminar, she assigns students to argue opposite sides of a human rights issue. No student has declined the assignment because the task would entail arguing against his or her beliefs.

“Students have the tendency to be selectively outraged — they do not always recognize the offense they cause, but rather the offense being caused to them,” she said.

Michael Zanger-Tishler, a Jewish sophomore at Yale, said the heated conversation about free speech on campus furthered his commitment to inclusivity. Though he didn’t express a stance on the percolating question of free speech, he said the recent events have schooled him in “productive listening,” above all else.

“As a Jew, it’s really hard to witness someone else’s upsetting experiences and not be called to action,” said the Cambridge, Mass., native. The institutional history of anti-Semitism at many universities — including a quota on Jewish students at Yale — spurred him to get involved. Along with 40 other Hillel students, he marched to downtown New Haven to join a massive rally of over 1,000 students demanding racial inclusivity on campus; the gathering was called the “March of Resiliency.” As the education chair of the Yale Hillel’s board, he’s also worked to make Hillel a more “welcoming and accessible” space to students of color on the Yale campus.

“All that’s gone on has provoked internal self-reflection on our campus,” he said, mentioning a new focus on how to welcome Jews of color. “Setting aside student demands, the way we treat one another matters.”

According to Aryeh Weinberg, director of research at Be’chol Lashon, a nonprofit that works to expand racial and ethnic inclusivity in the Jewish community, Jewish students generally don’t need much encouragement to get involved in the race conversation on campus.

“A lot of them identify with the struggle,” he said, speaking to the Jewish Week over the phone from California.

Still, in a not-yet-published study about experiences of anti-Semitism among students in the Bay Area, Weinberg found that Jewish students aligned with progressive values, including racial justice, often take a “hiatus” from their Jewish identity during college in order to avoid being questioned about Israel. The study consisted of 15 focus groups across the Bay Area and 50 personal interviews with Jewish professionals, lay leaders and community members.

“Many Jewish students have a serious problem reconciling devotion to progressive causes and the desire not to be defined by whether or not to be pro-Israel,” he said. Progressive Jewish students are subjected to an Israel “litmus” test, a hazing ritual of sorts, to determine their loyalties and positions, a prerequisite not asked of any other students trying to join. Weinberg added that most of the students interviewed were not passionately pro-Israel — rather, they defined themselves by progressive values. Many of the students interviewed who were “simply trying to get through college” were subjected to questions about their Israel stance nonetheless.

“The Israel question has morphed into an issue about race and identity rather than a conversation about policy,” said Weinberg. The most-problematic element of the 15-year-old vitriolic campus attitude towards Israel — Weinberg marked 2001 as the year the situation began to develop — is the “external defining of Jews.”

“We can’t assume this is a passing fad,” he finished, a note of gravity in his voice. “Jewish students from all different backgrounds are being increasingly marginalized by an over-focus on Israel.”

Thalia Sass, a senior at the University of Missouri originally from St. Louis, never had to explain the Jewish high holidays growing up. She attended a high school that was one-third Jewish, and her family was active in the local Reform temple, where her community was deeply engaged in the conversation about race; the rabbi of her synagogue was one of the central leaders of the local Black Lives Matter chapter. Her commitment to tikkun olam, Judaism and Israel were never in conflict — the three were intimately connected.

Arriving on campus was a culture shock. To many of her classmates, she was the “first Jew they’d ever met.”

“Sometimes it feels like everyone here is a Baptist,” she joked, a note of sobriety in her tone. “A lot of students here were never exposed to anything else than what they grew up with.”

As the president of the Jewish Student Organization, she and several other Jewish students successfully petitioned the university to change its religious observance policy — for the first time this semester, professors cannot decline student requests to miss class to observe religious holidays.

Her experience of feeling like an outsider led her naturally to relate to the struggle of black students on campus.

Still, like so many other Jewish students, her loyalties have been questioned. Vitriol towards Israel, and several anti-Semitic incidents, leave her feeling weary.

“It’s hard to combat it — it’s tiresome to combat it,” said the biology major and aspiring doctor.

Despite some backlash, she refuses to stop fighting the fight for racial justice. At a recent Friday solidarity campout, she spearheaded a campaign titled “spread cream cheese, not hate” and handed out bagels to student protestors.

“Dialogue starts small,” she said, reflecting on her childhood growing up near the “Delmar Divide,” a nickname for Delmar Boulevard, a racial dividing line in St. Louis. “But it has to start somewhere. Strangers are only strangers when you’re standing on the other side.”