College Shopping after 10/7: Dear University President

Dear University President, 

I am the mother of a junior in high school who has begun his college search. He is my youngest; I have navigated this process twice before. Much to the chagrin of my older children, campus visits  often included checking for the percentage of Jewish students, inquiring about Jewish life, and even knocking on the door of Hillel for a chat. With my older children, I simply wanted to ensure they were able to find community. But now, in addition, I am seeking an environment where my son will be able to learn without fear. 

Your Jewish students are suffering. You insist you find antisemitism repugnant, but I wonder if you would recognize it if it knocked you down on your campus quad. On my last two tours with my youngest son I sought out Jewish students to inquire about their post October 7th experience. At one school, the tour guide looked over his shoulder to ascertain that no one was watching and asked if we could discuss it later. This reminded me of a recent trip to Hungary where I stood by the Holocaust memorial, Shoes on the Danube while our guide spoke to us in hushed tones about the rise of antisemitism under Prime Minister Victor Orban. 

At another northeast campus, our tour guide did not hide her Chai necklace. I waited until the end to ask about campus climate. She said she felt supported by administration but as a pro Israel student, was frustrated that the advice she had received from adults on campus was to stay quiet. “If we are quiet, they will be quiet,” she was told. 

This was disturbing. College is not a time to be quiet. College is about the exploration of ideas and engaging with people whose ideas differ from your own. It is about civil discourse. Learning to listen. 

But this is not occurring on your campuses. Jewish students are alienated and afraid. The accepted ideology calls for their annihilation, which is shouted under the guise of free speech, championed as acts of civil disobedience, and spurred on by the adults who serve as role models for our children. 

Consider this: Jewish students may not feel safe when common spaces are no longer common, but are inhabited by peers living in color coordinated tents, and calling for the destruction of Israel. These same Jewish students may feel intimidated by professors who stand in solidarity with the protestors, or who cancel class to join the fun. 

Your solutions show clear favoritism to the protestors when you cancel graduations or tell students if they feel unsafe, they can attend class virtually. If I were more of a cynic, I might say you are trying to sweep the tension under the campus quadrangle. 

If I were to play armchair historian I might even accuse you of being complicit with discrimination and dehumanization-two stages of genocide. You discriminate when you make classes more accessible to one group, and decide that one group’s right to free speech supersedes another group’s rights to an education. The Jewish students are dehumanized. They are treated as second class citizens, and the propaganda (I will not enumerate on the signs and slogans that adorn these protests) characterizes Jews as villains.  

Dear President, while these activities may be interpreted by some as free speech and peaceful protest, they are in fact dangerous. Perhaps the recent take-over at Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall or melee at UCLA will convince you. 

If not, think about the optics of a couple hundred students gathered in a small space, with faces covered, chanting in robotic unison for the destruction of the only Jewish state on earth. Or, as was reported to me by a student at George Washington University, the constant drumbeat reverberating from the encampment that keeps people up at night during finals week. In this case, intimidation is tantamount to violence as it is clearly directed at Jewish students. 

And your professors need to be schooled in what civil disobedience really is. Civil disobedience is about taking action against an unjust law. It’s about Rosa Parks refusing to move to the back of the bus, or the Greensboro four staging a sit-in at the lunch counter. Let’s be honest. Laws won’t change by showing the pro-Palestinian protesters your investment portfolio. Nor is the war going to end if you capitulate to the protests’ demands. While professors can romanticize anti-war movements, if this were the goal, then the demands would include a call for the immediate release of the hostages. 

These young adults are just that. Young. And impressionable. You must recognize that your faculty and administration have a responsibility to usher them into adulthood.  Civil discourse must be modeled by professors who can show them how to present their ideas and listen to one another. They need your guidance to help grow their hearts and minds. 

Students choose to attend your university and they easily choose not to attend if they do not like your values. You are entitled to make rules that suit your institution for both students and faculty. In turn, you must enforce consequences when rules are broken.

When I send my son to college in 18 months I want him to hear ideas that he disagrees with. I want him to hear ideas that offend him. And I want him to respond in kind. But in order to do that, he needs to be able to attend class, and walk across campus wearing his Magen David necklace unobstructed and without fear. Sadly, he already knows there are people who hate him because of his religion, but he wants to know that you, dear President, have his back. That you will recognize and call out antisemitism for what it is and understand that perhaps not is all that it seems. Until then, we will not be visiting your institution. 

About the Author
Laurie Lichtenstein teaches social studies in Chappaqua, NY, and was just honored with the Susan J. Goldberg Memorial Teaching Award by the Holocaust and Human Rights Education Center. She is a Jewish mother to three young adults, two of whom she has ushered through the college search. She lives with her children and her husband in Westchester County. In her spare time she does college advising and freelance writing.
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