We should all be very proud and grateful to Miriam Waghalter.
Miriam is a student at Rutgers University, home to Dr. Michael Chikindas, a professor of microbiology who recently and belatedly was demoted for his anti-Semitic social media postings. It also is home to an adjunct professor of international law, Dr. Mazen Adi, a Syrian who had been a spokesman for Bashar Assad when he accused Israeli officials of trafficking children’s organs. It also is home to Professor Jasbir Puar, whose latest book accuses the Israeli Defense Forces of strategically maiming Palestinians.
Miriam, a 19-year-old sophomore, was not intimidated as swastikas appeared on campus. Instead, she stood up to those people who were targeting the Jewish student body — a targeting that we have seen happen time and again on college campuses across the country. This brave young woman, along with a small group of her peers whom she recruited, started a petition to have Chikindas suspended pending an investigation.
She looked reporters in the eye and spoke directly to the camera, asking what the response would be from anyone in New Jersey if such vitriol were spewed against their own communities.
Miriam’s name should be known to us all, because she has sent a message to Jewish students, telling them not to be cowed in the face of the anti-Semitic and anti-Israel rhetoric on their campuses.
Just last year Hillel asked me to be the keynote speaker at the Yom Hashoah program at a major university. As is my custom, I arrived early to speak to both students and the director, so I could garner a better feel for the local Jewish student atmosphere. At this particular institution I was told that the campus, as far as they knew, had between 800 and 900 Jewish students, yet only 400 to 500 of them would admit that they were Jewish in any meaningful way. And only half of those students were comfortable being seen publicly as active in Jewish student life.
From colleges with historically significant Jewish student populations — within the CUNY system, that includes Brooklyn, and Queens colleges, as well as others both within and beyond that system — we see far too many Jewish students unprepared for the ferocity of such attacks, too often preferring to hide in the shadows when faced with the likes of Students for Justice for Palestine.
Young activists like Miriam Waghalter are living proof that standing up for your rights and dignity, that not becoming invisible is the best way for Jewish students to defend themselves.
There are other young leaders worth knowing about. Isabelle DeBrabanter and Justin Feldman both were participants in the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s Government Advocacy Internship Program last summer. While Justin wrote many editorials relating to anti-Semitism both at home and on campus, Isabelle led the charge to present an anti-BDS resolution from the center at her hometown, Caldwell; it passed there this fall. I listened to Isabelle’s testimony before the governing body as she said that knowing that her own town is on her side in voicing public opposition to BDS and to the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic rhetoric leveled against her and her peers on college campuses, allows her to feel proud and empowered to do even more.
To help empower the younger generation, we must support and educate them. My colleagues tell me about the reactions on university campuses that have hosted the Simon Wiesenthal exhibit, “Book, People, Land — the 3,500 Year Connection Between the Jewish People and the Land of Israel.” The exhibit ignites a sense of pride in our history and values and in all of the incredible feats accomplished in our ancestral homeland in the modern day State of Israel. I hear how such demonstrations of Jewish activism and pride in those very locations where our next generation is facing daily harassment is exactly what is needed to encourage students on campus to stand strong.
If we are to build such leadership, if we are to ask young Jews on campus to be proud of their heritage in public, we must embolden them not only by recognizing the intimidation they face but also by being there to push back alongside them.
So the next time we hear of another challenge or attack on our nation’s campuses, remember Miriam Waghalter, and encourage our kids to emulate her example. It will make them — and us — proud.