We’ve all seen the news on American college campuses these past few weeks.
Jewish students at Cornell faced threats of rape and murder. Jewish Harvard students harassed and accosted on campus. One unidentified student told Jewish students they should all die. At the University of Massachusetts, a Jewish student was punched at a vigil held for the Israeli hostages. Swastikas were painted on several campuses in at least six states.
All told, anti-Jewish activity is up well over 1,000% on US campuses since Israel began bombing Gaza.
Things have gotten so bad that President Joe Biden announced new actions aimed at combatting anti-Jewish hate on college campuses.
While it’s not on Jewish news feeds, Muslim students have also experienced harassment and abuse. One Arab Muslim student at Stanford was the victim of a hit and run. Muslim students at Vanderbilt University were intimidated by fellow students since Hamas’ brutal attack. At St. John’s, a flyer of one of the Israeli hostages was posted outside a Muslim prayer room.
As a result, it’s the first time that a US president has added Muslims and Jews to the list of groups protected by the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights likewise updated its intake to now include complaints based on Islamophobia and Antisemitism.
I’m not here to assess who endures more hate speech or threats on American campuses. Wherever you fall on the spectrum of opinions on the Israel-Palestine conflict or Israel’s military response to Hamas, colleges must absolutely create safe spaces for all their students and have zero tolerance for anyone intimidating, harassing or harming others.
One school figured out how to create these safe spaces long ago, and it’s paying off today.
For over two decades, Dartmouth University has offered classes on the Israel-Palestine conflict as a cross-discipline class in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies.
Muslim students sign up for the classes under their Middle Eastern Studies major. Jewish students sign up under their Jewish Studies section.
Jewish Dartmouth Professor Susannah Heschel says the goal was to create a space for discussion and learning for all students.
Muslim professor Omar Dajani agreed and concluded:
We don’t have identical views about everything, but we have near identical values.
The classrooms are united in academic study without using polarization to teach.
One class, Politics of Israel and Palestine, has been taught by an Arab professor for seven years, but more recently he now co-teaches the class with a widely published scholar and commentator on Israeli politics.
The idea of these classes was to educate students about the motivations of the players in the conflict and their unique national aspirations so that they could better understand the complex dynamics of the conflict rather than settle into positions on who owns the truth.
Year in and year out professors observe Jewish, Muslim and other students feeling safe together to open up.
It goes beyond just the classroom. The Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies departments have also held community gatherings to provide additional safe spaces for more personal contact.
When Hamas went on their killing spree, Arab Professor Tarek El-Ariss immediately contacted his Jewish colleague at Dartmouth to discuss how to address the issues. Both knew they needed to immediately create a forum for students to reflect, ask questions and understand.
We know that it’s much harder to demonize one another when we know each other. It’s harder to name call and scream when we’re colleagues and friends.
Heschel echoed this important idea:
Because of that relationship for so many years, we were able to jump right in immediately and bring the campus together and make sure we would not become polarized. So we wanted students of a range of political views—Jewish students, Arab students, Palestinian students, Christian students—to come together and talk together with faculty in an academic setting.
El-Ariss and Heschel teach a course together called “The Arab, The Jew and the Construction of Modernity.” The class includes students of Palestinian, Arab and Jewish backgrounds.
When the Israel-Hamas war broke out, those students went to their professors. Many were upset, angry and scared. But because of the safe space already built, students were able to express their anger, sorrow and fears in a thoughtful and civil way.
This paradigm of bringing people together is really the recipe for all of societies to better deal with racial and ethnic strife of all kinds. Whether Jewish/Muslim discord or Black/white.
When we trust, know and care about one another outside of a traumatic event, and then when such an event occurs, we can confront the issues with respect and civility rather than collective blame and abuse.