Benjamin Meppen

Israel in Higher Ed: Battle for Jewish Student Life

Antisemitism in the name is this: hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial groupBut you probably already knew that. Because it’s everywhere, nowadays it’s as recognizable as Harry Styles or the Yankees, or Drake, or Leonardo DiCaprio. Because it’s everywhere. It’s on every college campus; it’s on everyone’s social media. Antisemitism is everywhere.

On American college campuses, like ours here at NYU, Jewish students have been ravaged and assaulted with antisemitism and anti-zionism like we have never seen before. To be clear, bigotry, hatred, and prejudice are not new to college campuses or to the world at large. What is significant about this is that, in the year 2023, Jewish students do not feel safe walking alone, they do not feel safe congregating for holidays, and they do not feel safe being Jewish.

New York City, Boston, New Orleans, Ithaca, Ann Arbor, Philadelphia, London, Paris, Los Angeles, Barcelona, Berkeley, Buenos Arias, Dallas, Miami, my backyard, your backyard, every city, every state, every college, every everywhere. This is the fight for Jewish life.

The fight for Jewish life on campus doesn’t mean the fight for Israel or Palestine. It doesn’t mean the fight for Israel’s government or the terrorists in Hamas. It doesn’t mean the fight for or against anyone or anything; it’s the fight for Jewish people Jewish students to exist and thrive.

At New York City schools, NYU, Columbia, Baruch, New School, Cooper Union, Hunter College, there has been antisemitism. In some form or another, there has been antisemitism. I don’t mean in the past at some point in time. I mean, now, in November 2023, there is antisemitism.

Cooper Union students locked themselves in the library as protestors attempted to bang down the doors. NYU students are being shouted down outside their library by a person with a “White Supremacy” sign. Columbia students were screamed at by professors and fellow students, calling them colonizers and claiming they support apartheid, all this before they shut down the campus for safety concerns — all this on one Thursday! The list of antisemitism and I really do mean this, goes on and on.

On October 7th, the world changed. The terrorist group Hamas, which has ruled much of the Gaza Strip since the early 2000s, launched an all-out attack on Israel. Terrorists ran, drove, and paraglided into Southern Israel, killing, raping, mutilating, and kidnapping Israelis. Over 1,400 Israelis were killed, and over 250 were taken hostage. The fallout and retaliation happening in Israel, in Gaza, and in parts of Southern Lebanon is becoming another senseless war in the region. Hamas in Gaza and Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon both have the sole goal of destroying Israel, gripping the region and thrusting it into a horrible wave where thousands upon thousands of innocent lives are being lost. Over land? Religion? Power? Bragging rights? A mix of all of them? Who knows — I don’t know.

What we do know is that for the average person, it can be hard to draw a line between rockets being fired half a world away and Jews at Cooper Union being attacked, but there is an unfortunate correlation.

Just as a war has broken out half a world away in the Middle East, a war has broken out here in the United States. An ideological war. A struggle, one that the world has seen many times before and will continue to see for many years to come. Oh wait, you know this one, we covered it earlier… It’s antisemitism.

There is a negative feedback loop at play here. Something happens in Israel. People in the United States are divided; most of the time, most of the American Jewry stands with Israel. Many Americans don’t. There is then an immediate rift created between the Jewish diaspora and everyone else. Not supporting Israel’s government isn’t antisemitic, but marching with signs showing swastikas on them, protesting alongside white supremacists, chanting “From the River to the Sea”, most definitely is.

It’s essential, no, it’s imperative, to understand the lines of what antisemitism is and isn’t. Anything calling out Israel or its government is not antisemitic. Calling for Israel’s destruction is (refer back to our initial definition).

Zionism, as defined by the Cambridge dictionary is “a political movement that had as its original aim the creation of a country for Jewish people, and that now supports the state of Israel”.

Now that you have this information, think about some of the imagery and messaging coming from protests you have seen around college campuses, NYU included. *I will warn you the content in the upcoming hyperlinks contains high levels of misinformation and stupidity.*

Signs saying “Zionism is Colonialsm”, “Zionism is Genocide” “Zionism is Murder” don’t call for Palestinian statehood and a prosperous Palestinian government; they instead call for the downfall of the Jewish state. Zionism at its core, is a movement supporting the existence of a Jewish homeland, nothing more and nothing less. Now, knowing what Zionism really is, you have to ask: do these protestors on campuses nationwide have a problem with genocide, murder, and torture (all actions being committed by Hamas and Hamas only), or do they have a problem with a Jewish homeland?

Here’s my personal point of view: I am Jewish, and I’m a Zionist. My family lives in Israel. My family works there, and my family fights there. I have reason to think the way I think. I also recognize Israel’s imperfections, shortcomings, and mistakes. But hear me when I say this, no matter what is going on over there, the hatred, intimidation, or attack of Jews in NYC or elsewhere will not be tolerated. The fight for Jewish survival doesn’t mean that hatred is rid of the world and we all live in peace. It means no more Jewish students being beaten at Tulane. No more death threats towards Jews at Cornell. It means no more celebration of terrorist acts against Jews at Columbia. This isn’t a Jewish thing or an Israeli thing; it’s a human thing. It’s not cool or socially apt to hate Israel and the Jewish people. It’s not fashionable to tear down posters of missing hostages in Gaza. It’s not in vogue to spray paint swastikas on university Hillel buildings. It’s not stylish to harass and berate Jewish students wearing yarmulkes. This isn’t rocket science I promise.

This most recent bout of antisemitism on campus was sparked by the war in Israel. A war where innocent people went to places like the Nova Music Festival in Southern Israel and never returned. I sat down with two survivors of the festival and asked them about their traumatic experiences and their reaction to the antisemitism here in NYC and beyond. Fresh off the plane from Israel the survivors, Maya and Yoni, recounted stories of speeding away from Hamas terrorists in their cars while bullets flew overhead. Shockingly, they also took a moment to note how much antisemitism they have seen during their brief visit to New York. They talked about seeing shreds of posters that once showed the names and faces of Israeli hostages. They walked by kidnapped posters that had been vandalized, cut with knives, and crumpled up on the ground. The difference is that to Yoni and Maya, those papers don’t just display hostages. They display friends, family members, and fellow festival goers.

I don’t know a lot about history; in fact, I am a film major. I don’t know a lot about anything. What I do know is that history does not look favorably upon antisemitism. Neither does it smile upon those who refuse to condemn terrorism and call for the extinction of a people. Those who kidnap, murder, rape, and mutilate women and children. At every moment in history when there has been an axis of evil, the first people they look to wrap their claws on are the Jewish people.

The hatred we have seen in the Middle East and here in the United States has always been here; it has never gone their way, and at this rate, it will never go their way. Bringing us back to our initial fight.

The fight for Jewish life is a very simple fight. Stop hating the Jews and their homeland. We are here; we’re not going anywhere. Am Yisrael Chai.

About the Author
Benjamin Meppen is a sophomore at NYU Tisch. He runs an on campus, pro-Israel publication called The Israel Journal @ NYU.