College campuses are often a canary in the coalmine of American culture. Ideas percolate, and movements for social change gather steam in dorm rooms and campus quads. Campus trends are a harbinger of national trends, and student leaders who shape them graduate to positions of influence in government, industry, and society.
That’s why there is so much attention on the recent record-setting increase of antisemitism on college campuses that has been documented in the fall semester. The Jewish community is right to be concerned about rising hatred toward Jews in higher education. But I speak with thousands of Jewish students and Hillel professionals on hundreds of campuses every semester, and I am confident that even in the current climate, we have three reasons to be hopeful about the future of Jewish life on campus and beyond: most of the campus community rejects antisemitism, resilient Jewish students are participating in Jewish experiences at record levels, and Jewish student leaders are an inspiration.
The first sign of encouragement is that although the antisemitic rhetoric on campus has become more pronounced since Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attacks against Israel, anti-Zionists on campus remain outliers—extremist elements perceived as radical and hateful by the majority of students, faculty, and administrators. Bad actors on campus are louder than ever, but they aren’t convincing many students to join them.
Since October 7, antisemitic student groups have attempted to revive the many-times-failed strategy of passing anti-Israel bills in student government. Out of 25 proposed resolutions this fall, 14 were rejected outright by student leaders. The majority of student representatives recognize the hateful, biased, and harmful nature of these campaigns and refuse to endorse them. These rejections often don’t make the headlines, but they do give an indication that student bodies have not been swept up in anti-Jewish mania. Many university presidents are also getting it right and showing up to protect Jewish students, advocate for them, and denounce antisemitism on campus, even though others have very publicly gotten it wrong.
My second cause for hope in this moment of rising hatred is the equally quick rise in Jewish student engagement with Israel and participation in Israel-related programs. This fall, Hillels experienced a sharp increase in demand for learning opportunities about Judaism, the history of Israel, and the current war between Israel and Hamas. And this spring, we are launching the Hillel Teach-In Tour, a series of lectures by diverse educators for students to learn about the history of Israel and the current conflict. Jewish students on US campuses want to understand what is happening in Israel at a deep level. They are turning to their Hillels for access to experts, platforms for discussion, and ways to understand what is happening and what it means. They want to talk about the day after Hamas is ousted from the Gaza Strip and think about what a future Palestinian state might look like, and they want to envision the future of Israel, too. They are asking important questions about the role of the US as an ally supporting Israel after the war.
Like our namesake, the great rabbi Hillel, our dedicated Hillel educators are helping their students grapple with and understand the changing global environment. And university leaders are also turning to Hillel professionals, executive directors, and rabbis for information and context. Administrators seek guidance about the needs of Jewish students in this challenging time and how to address the rising antisemitism impacting the day-to-day lives of their students and the climate on the campus.
In the three months since October 7, record numbers of Jewish students showed up at their Hillels for Shabbat dinners, unity events, vigils, and educational programs. Hillel International’s Instagram followers more than doubled as Jewish students sought connection to Jewish life. Jewish students came out for student government hearings to defend the Jewish community and stand up to anti-Israel demonstrators. An unprecedented number of students joined Hillel International’s Israel Leadership Network. And in November, more than 10,000 Hillel students dropped everything to travel to Washington DC to be part of the March for Israel on the National Mall with 290,000 fellow supporters of Israel and the Jewish people.
When I was a student leader two decades ago, it was easy to start a pro-Israel student club. It was easy to be elected for student president on a pro-Israel platform. It was easy to invite my local member of Congress to campus and host a discussion about their recent trip to Israel with 200 students from both sides of the political aisle. Today, these seemingly simple steps are uphill battles for Jewish students, who are met with protest and vitriol at every turn. Yet, they persist—with integrity, civility, and determination.
The third reason I remain optimistic is because of the deep inspiration I take from our courageous student leaders. In more than a decade of working with Jewish and Zionist students, I have never seen such bravery and strength. Students are stepping up—in huge numbers, to lead their communities with pride. For years, the Hillel movement prepared and empowered students and built their leadership capacity, but we couldn’t have known this critical moment was approaching. Every student leader is being called to action—to lead, to inspire, to define a generation. Our students didn’t know it was coming either, but they were ready when it arrived, and they stepped up—together.
Students are making meaningful contributions to the public conversation about Israel, antisemitism, and what it means to be a Jew in 2024. They are publishing op-eds, giving interviews to local and national media outlets, and speaking to their political leaders. They are not afraid to put their public reputations on the line to stand for what is right, what is moral, and to represent the Jewish people.
Cornell University Hillel student leader Talia Dror and Hillel student leaders Gabriel Diamond from Yale University and Jillian Lederman from Brown University published an op-ed in the New York Times, and other Hillel students shared their stories in the Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel, The Hill, and on CNN, Fox News, and NBC. Talia also testified before the US House of Representatives Committee on Ways and Means about her experience as a Jewish student on campus following horrific antisemitic incidents targeting the Cornell Jewish community. She told her representatives she will not allow hate to fester on campus, and that she and her peers need their support to combat hatred.
Today’s Jewish college students are an inspiration. They continue to show up and stand up, and they do not despair, even in this toughest of school years. The resilience and capabilities they are developing will serve them and the Jewish people long after they graduate. And if our young leaders can summon the strength to inspire us, then we owe them not only our gratitude, but also our attention and our ongoing and unwavering support.
This is the first in a series of opinion pieces called Campus Insider, in which Jon will share his first-hand observations about the real challenges Jewish students are experiencing at colleges and universities in North America in 2024, a situation with strong implications for the broader Jewish community.