It’s 2024. Jewish students are being forced underground

Olami Student Holding #ZeroTolerance sticker - Courtesy of Olami
Olami Student Holding #ZeroTolerance sticker - Courtesy of Olami

In the wake of ongoing anti-Israel protests – which have devolved into outright antisemitism and now require constant police presence – Columbia University administrators have said  all professors must offer remote options for upcoming exams.  This is a continuation of the extraordinary trend in recent weeks of Jewish students avoiding threats of violence on campus and learning online, while other students have been studying in classrooms. 

It may be 2024, but situations like this, when Jews are forced to stay home and hide, and to hide their identity when they do go out, remind us more of pre-war Germany or perhaps even more so of pre-expulsion Spain before 1492. Like modern-day Marranos, if they do come to campus, many Jewish students feel that the simple act of wearing a Star of David necklace or kippah will set off a confrontation that could see them harassed, canceled, or injured. Just as the Marranos in Ferdinand and Isabella’s Spain were forced to renounce their Jewish identity and convert in order to avoid being persecuted, Jewish students on many campuses are being forced to renounce their identification with Israel, and even with Judaism, lest they, too, face persecution by the mob. 

As at Columbia, the well-intended actions of campus administrators and security officials to protect Jewish students are reinforcing an environment where the free expression of religious identity has been stripped for just one specific group.  This is not America. 

And this is not something that started when protests at Columbia made headlines; it has been going on for months at campuses big and small, public and elite. Our organization, Olami, experienced this need to hide Jewish events and Jewish identity firsthand as we planned our recently completed tour of 25 college campuses across the U.S.  Olami helped students on campuses plan events featuring Israeli students who reported in real-time exactly what they experienced on October 7th and the new reality since October 7th,  the suffering of the tens of thousands forced to abandon their homes because of ongoing attacks by Hamas and Hezbollah, the tragedy of the hostages, whose fates are unknown, and the trauma faced daily by Israelis throughout the country over the never-ending security challenges. We were able to reach 2,000 Jewish students  –with no incidents.  You may wonder how it is possible that so many Israelis came to campus, so many attended the events and yet there was no noise and no protests.  The answer is what is most troubling.  We operated like the Marranos.  It was all done in secrecy.  Campus security would not allow the events to be publicized and the events were forced underground.  They were all hidden events with no publicity.

When we started planning these events, we knew that students who engage in public displays of Judaism on campuses report being subjected to hate speech, epithets, and even physical assaults.  Events that used to draw hundreds of participants now count a few dozen – and the students that do show up often have to run a gauntlet of hate in order to proclaim their identity and affiliation.

What we hadn’t expected was the pushback of campus authorities – who, like many Jewish students, are trying to “avoid trouble.” On more than one occasion and on more than one campus, groups like ours have been told to tone down or even cancel events. When word gets out that an event that is even peripherally connected to Israel is set to take place, the hate machine of the anti-Israel movement goes into play – printing up posters and flyers, developing new chants and epithets, distributing signs and banners, and inciting students against “Zionists,” often a thinly-veiled reference to Jews. Instead of prosecuting rabble-rousers for their hateful stance – a violation of campus policies against tolerating racism and hate – campus authorities issue bans on the events that the haters are targeting. Often, the only way a Jewish group can hold an event is by keeping it secret – an extremely difficult proposition in this day of social media.

Campus officials often couch their demands to cancel events as a not-unwarranted concern over the safety of program participants. However, this sends a bad message, and is dangerous to the future of democracy.  The message to the masses is that mob justice is legitimate – while the message to Jewish kids is that their rights can be trampled upon without penalty.  It is the very opposite of why we send our kids to college. Colleges are supposed to be places for the open exchange of ideas and opinions, places where students are supposed to learn to appreciate “the other” – not condemn them for being, thinking, or acting differently. And it is the very opposite of America. 

It’s definitely a challenging situation for colleges – but allowing the current situation to prevail is untenable. We must demand that American values prevail, that colleges go back to the business of educating – as opposed to giving into anti-Israel and antisemitic hate and threats. That is the only way that Jewish students and Jewish groups will no longer feel the need to be modern-day Marranos. And that America will remain America.

About the Author
Rabbi David Markowitz, Executive Vice President of Olami, has been focused on Jewish outreach for the past 15 years. He has worked in numerous outreach capacities, including educational development, programming, Kiruv training, camp programming, campus outreach, and management. Prior to his role with Olami, he worked as the COO of Aish NY, a campus Rabbi at UCLA, and managed ten college campuses for JAM in LA.
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