A letter to Jewish college students in the States

Credit: Shutterstock

Jewish college students in the States: even in your silencing, your erasure, I see you, I hear you, I feel you. 

You, who are constantly being slapped in the face with Israel’s narrative flipped on its head through accusations of Israeli apartheid, ethnic cleansing, war crimes, colonialism. You, who are forced to walk past a monstrosity of an ‘apartheid wall’ on your way to the dining hall, to class, to your dormitory. In your mind, you are having the following conversation with the students standing by that apartheid wall: ‘This is all wrong, this is all backwards, you are turning an indigenous liberation movement into a colonialist project, you are turning self-determination into oppression, you are not seeing any nuance in the situation, refusing to have a conversation, so let’s have a dialogue, let’s see the humanity in one another, let’s find common ground, because I’m sure that at the end of the day, we both want the same thing: a better, kinder world.’ 

But in reality, you know from experience that attempting to engage with the students who so vehemently detest your people’s liberation would render you canceled, shut down, and demonized, and your emotions and fear are draining you, and you are late to class, so you keep on walking with your head cowering. 

I see you. You, who cannot exist with a Star of David, with a shirt with Hebrew letters, with a kippah without feeling like there is a target on your back.

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You, who have been called a baby killer, a Zionazi, an oppressor, simply for believing in the right to independence and autonomy of all peoples, including yours.

You, who have professors of Middle East Studies, of Gender Studies, of Economics, of ANYTHING, really, propagating hate and double standards against the world’s only Jewish state, while the rest of the class nods in agreement, and you shrink in your seat.

You, who have lost friends and made enemies simply for existing as a human being who celebrates the long-sought freedom and emancipation of your people, of your identity, of your religion. 

I see you. I hear you. I feel you.

And not too long ago, I was you. 

I was the one being forced to walk past the ‘apartheid wall’ on my campus, hearing the angry and hateful words of the individuals standing by it, poisoning the minds of students who simply wanted to learn about the situation, slandering the existence of Israel, the resolute proof of my people standing up and saying, ‘no more’. I was the one wanting to cry out that, no, you’ve got it all wrong, ALL wrong, you are doing an injustice to the Jewish people and to Palestinian-Arabs by skewing the truth…but I was late for class, and I was drained by emotion, and I wasn’t in the mood that day to defend my very right to exist.

Credit: Youtube screenshot

I was the one who was spit on for wearing a Star of David, who had a door slammed in my face for sporting a shirt with Hebrew letters on it, who had people turn stone cold when I told them that I was visiting Israel over winter break, who lost some of my closest friends and made a myriad of enemies because there was no sound more precious to me than the opening notes of ‘HaTikvah’.

I was the one who was forced to sit through countless classes while the right to my people’s freedom, safety, and self-determination in their indigenous and ancestral homeland was bashed and smeared by professors and students alike.

I was the one who was repeatedly called a Zionazi, a baby killer, a colonialist, a pink-washer, a green-washer, a blue-washer, an imperialist – you name it – simply for cherishing the long-awaited liberty of my people, a people who have been through some of humanity’s worst atrocities, but have still held onto the hope that they will one day return home to the land of their birth, of their roots; a love story between a people and their homeland.

And sometimes, I felt okay, understood, even accepted; I walked safely through campus, my Star of David strung proudly around my neck. On the occasional Friday night, I celebrated Shabbat in the middle of the dining hall, and non-Jewish students came over and asked if they could join me. Now and then, I hosted Israel-related events with the purpose of educating, connecting, and telling the story of the Jewish state, and students from a spectrum of backgrounds, religions, ethnicities, and cultures came to learn, to understand, to experience Israel with me. Those moments lifted me up. They gave me hope that perhaps the beauty of my people’s story was being received by others. I lived in this world somewhere between solidarity and animosity, between seen and unseen, between accepted and despised, the scales tipping one way or the other depending on the day; a perpetual and constant balancing act. I was never completely comfortable, but I was never totally alone, either. 

You, too, are not alone. You are under threat, your identity is under threat, but you are not the first Jewish person to experience this discrimination, and you certainly won’t be the last. There is a sad unity in this exclusion, this pain, this bigotry; it is the mark of being a Jew, and it is a part of the ever-repeating story of your people. You are a single thread in an expansive tapestry of Jewish history, a history in which your people have been continuously vilified, scapegoated, and forced to fight for the most basic of human rights: freedom, liberation, and dignity.

I am so sorry that this is happening to you, how heavily it is weighing you down. However, you will get through it, and you have a choice in HOW you get through it: with your head lowered, or held high.

Maintain pride in who you are, and don’t be afraid to let the world bask in that pride. Carry your identity, which may feel as though it’s a target on your back, like a badge of honor. Treasure those who stand by your side. Do not allow the bullying and the animosity and the lies to silence you, even if you face an exorbitant amount, because let me tell you something: When you look back 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 50 years from now, you will be glad that you chose to embrace your identity, that you told your story, that you rejoiced in the long-sought liberation of your people, in spite of it all.

About the Author
Lilia Gaufberg is an artist and a Digital Research Analyst at StandWithUs Israel. She grew up in Boston, MA, and made Aliyah in 2018. She served in the Israel Defense Forces' COGAT unit as a lone soldier. She currently resides in Jaffa.
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