In the weeks since October 7, the text messages have come in droves, from friends and family alike: “Oh my goodness! Are you okay? There is so much antisemitism on college campuses!” I respond that I am fine. However, if I must be honest, they are spending way too much time fretting about what is going on on college campuses.
As a senior at Rutgers University, I’m not sure I anticipated spending my final year of college being immersed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on my campus in New Jersey. I enrolled in 2020 to achieve a bachelor’s degree in English with a minor in international and global studies because I knew that Rutgers was a diverse place with a vibrant Jewish community.
By choosing to attend a university with a diverse student body so that I could engage with students outside of my own community, I knew that I would encounter beliefs different from mine. I am sure that every parent on every campus tour has run into the Hillel desperate to know what Students for Justice in Palestine is like on campus. I can answer that. SJP is vocal and outspoken. SJP has chalked words calling for Palestinian liberation in highly trafficked campus areas, and at times I pass words calling for a global intifada and students wearing keffiyas and holding Palestinian flags on my way to class.
Many of my Jewish friends find this particularly distressing, and I do not blame them. However, I want to urge people who see this happening at universities to accept this discomfort. Groups should not be removed from campus for having opposing views, and a safe place to express all views is vital. Hearing a different perspective on campus does not constitute a bias incident, and does not warrant doxing. I chose to go to a public university because I wanted to be exposed to perspectives different from mine and this is no different. I am grateful to be a student in a university that protects freedom of speech.
This is not to say that this past month and a half has not been distressing for everyone involved. The conflict may be thousands of miles away, but there is reason to be afraid. On Oct. 25, Jewish students were barricaded at the Cooper Union Library as Palestinian protestors pounded on the doors. On November 3, an Arab Muslim student was struck in a hit-and-run in what authorities are calling a hate crime. Over Thanksgiving break, three Palestinian college students were shot in Vermont, leaving one paralyzed from the chest down.
There is no shortage of people scared and distressed due to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Students at Rutgers have family that are currently hostages held by Hamas, who were killed on Oct. 7, and who are serving in the Israel Defense Force. Students at Rutgers also have family members who were killed in Gaza by bombs dropped by Israel, and family members who are being attacked in the West Bank. There is a shroud of fear and mourning surrounding both Jewish and Palestinian students at Rutgers who feel powerless to help their family and friends, and isolated because so many on our campus lack this personal connection that we have. Our situations are not so different, yet we continue to antagonize each other and we are left with more fear. In response, I have tried to find space for conversation, understanding, and dialogue.
There is not currently a space for nuance on campus. As I walked past the SJP rally on the way to the library (quite inconvenient that Hamas attacked Israel right around midterm season), I encountered Chabad, one of many Jewish organizations at Rutgers, tabling on the other side of the street. They recognized me and one of the people tabling quipped: “Stay safe.” I kept walking, but I wanted to reply, that quite frankly, I do not feel unsafe. I know that students protesting for SJP and for Palestinian liberation are not my enemy. These students did not attack Israel, and I did not contribute to Israel’s violent response in Gaza after the attacks on Oct. 7. I, just like them, am grappling with the repercussions. I do not have to agree with their understanding of a twisted narrative to sympathize with their pain and to believe that there is a space for them to exist and to have a voice.
I know that this can be a difficult perspective to grapple with. It is hard to hear another perspective and to allow and encourage people to speak this perspective when it is so different from our own and we are still mourning our losses. I still shudder when I hear the word intifada and the phrase, “From the river to the sea.” In response, I have reconsidered the language used to refer to Palestinian liberation to understand what it could mean to Palestinians as opposed to what my initial reaction is when I hear it.
It is here that the distinction between free speech and antisemitic language needs to be made clear. SJP should not be permitted to call Jewish people Nazis or to call for the death of Jewish people, but they are allowed to rally for their liberation. I am choosing to allow for my discomfort because dialogue is important to me and I believe that peace will always begin with a commitment towards understanding. I hope that my fellow students are attempting the same because when we demonize and assume each others’ perspectives, we are hurting ourselves more. It is when I enter spaces looking for a resolution that I feel the safest on campus and that I feel that I can contribute the most to helping my friends and family in Israel. I want my fellow students to experience this as well.
On Nov. 10, Columbia suspended SJP from its campus and many of my friends rejoiced and hoped that the same would happen at Rutgers. I do not hope for this. SJP at Rutgers has been protesting within university guidelines and, as I explain time and time again to my friends, their inflammatory language is not inherently hate speech. On a United States campus, we are in a unique position to have conversations that our family and friends in the Middle East are unable to have.
We are not fearing for our lives and it is my hope that we stop seeing each other as a threat. The students protesting across the street are our classmates and peers. It is when we think otherwise that leads to the terrifying events that occurred at Cooper Union Library and in Vermont. I hope that as college students, and as parents, family, and friends to college students, we look for spaces to mourn together and to have dialogue. If we cannot yet achieve peace in the Middle East, at the very least we can strive towards peace and understanding on campus.