During my high school years, my plan was set on enlisting as a lone soldier in the IDF. However, my mom, a first-generation college graduate, insisted that I commit to a school before pursuing that path. With an interest in international relations and political science, I chose American University (AU) for its strong program and appealing location. Despite a transformative experience in the IDF, I found myself less drawn to politics but decided to attend AU, appreciating the opportunity without going through the application process again. As a non-traditional student with a unique “gap year” story, I aimed to create my version of a college experience.
Ironically, despite learning combat and tactical skills in the army, I realized I wasn’t equipped to identify subtle forms of antisemitism, an environment I unexpectedly walked into at AU. Initially, I didn’t anticipate that sharing my IDF background would be groundbreaking or alienating, but the reactions I received were far from ordinary.
In the first semester of college, people often asked why I lived off-campus in my first year, leading to discussions about my time in the IDF. However, the responses at AU were disheartening:
“Oh my god, the IDF? They’re baby killers.”
“You support ethnic cleansing and apartheid; you should be ashamed of yourself.”
“Wow, don’t even get me started on the IDF. They use their white privilege to gain power.”
Little did they know, my heritage traces back to Arab Jews, an identity spanning less than two generations. Moreover, the IDF serves as a melting pot, encompassing individuals of diverse races, religions, and ethnicities. Faced with such reactions, I learned to avoid discussing being a “non-traditional” student and often said I took time off to work, appalled by judgments from people who didn’t know me, had never been to Israel, and couldn’t locate it on a map.
Despite the challenging social environment, I stayed at AU due to its education and curriculum, even shifting towards the sciences. However, my experience took a different turn when I encountered a required course called AUx (the AU Experience). This 3-credit freshman course spans two semesters, aiming to help students transition to college life and foster dialogue on race, social identity, power structures, and oppression.
While the first semester was bearable, the second revealed that Jews were excluded from this safe space of dialogue. We seemed to be the exception to every rule, and I had to fight for and prove my identity because, as a Jew, I couldn’t simply assert the existence of antisemitism; I had to substantiate it.
In the class discussion, we delved into the concept of intersectionality, exploring how various aspects such as race, religion, ethnicity, and other defining factors intersected. However, the focus was limited to what AU referred to as the “US-based definition of racism,” seemingly disregarding global perspectives on racism and the existence of multiple forms within the US. When tasked with writing a paper and delivering a presentation on a historically marginalized group due to their race, I instinctively chose to explore the Jews in the Holocaust, proposing a paper on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.
However, my proposal faced immediate resistance, and approval was denied on the grounds that the course design team believed the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising lacked intersectionality with race. Instead, they suggested a project on Ethiopian Jews, providing what they considered reliable sources – a Twitter thread and a TikTok video.
In response, I presented academic sources, adhering to the standards expected at any accredited university, including references from Hitler’s Mein Kampf, where Jews are explicitly referred to as a race. It’s worth noting that the course design team had initially provided a list of project examples, prominently featuring BDS at the top.
The team subsequently communicated that AUx 2 follows a “US-based definition of race” framework, seemingly excluding Jews and the complexities of racial ambiguity. To meet project deadlines and preserve my grade, I opted for a new topic, but the experience left me feeling profoundly rejected by my university.
I experienced a sense of isolation, finding solace only in the company of fellow Jews who shared similar feelings. Recognizing the need for a secure space where Israelis and Jews could be themselves without facing derogatory remarks or endorsement of harmful ideologies, we decided to establish a chapter of Students Supporting Israel on AU’s campus. However, the journey was far from easy.
Initially, and for an extended period, securing approval for our club posed challenges as faculty members at AU hesitated to sign off on our application. Reasons varied, including concerns about the club conflicting with their political or course teachings, fear of backlash from colleagues, reluctance to be associated with a “Zionist” club, and, perhaps most fundamentally complex, disbelief in Israel’s right to exist.
After numerous meetings and considerable effort, we eventually found a faculty member willing to support us (whose name remains undisclosed), even before we officially became a club. By my sophomore year in Fall 2022, SSI AU had gained official club status, enabling us to organize events on campus.
Despite fostering a strong community, the club faced its share of antisemitic and anti-Zionist challenges. Individuals threw Holocaust books on the floor when we distributed them for awareness, hurled insults at us, protested our events, and excluded us from other clubs events – all while the administration seemed passive, accumulating Title VI cases related to antisemitism without taking effective action, despite public statements claiming intolerance for antisemitism.
Throughout that year, despite having a strong support system from SSI, I found it increasingly difficult to confront blatant antisemitism. I was unwilling to conceal my service in the IDF for my safety, as I take immense pride in serving such a beautiful nation – a family. Contemplating a change, I decided to apply for a transfer.
Now, I am enrolled in a different university where I openly acknowledge my IDF service and Jewish identity – I don’t hide. Although I still encounter antisemitism and anti-Zionist sentiments, it emanates from individual students and their beliefs, not ingrained into the curriculum as it was at American University. The antisemitism in my current environment is not a prevailing trend or a cultural norm on campus.
In the weeks following October 7th, I received numerous texts and calls, all emphasizing how fortunate I am to have left AU when I did. While I am content with the decision that placed me in a more supportive environment, it’s disheartening that such a choice was necessary in the first instance.
Jewish and Israeli students, my friends, should feel secure walking to their classes without fear, as their university – be it American University or any other – should be a place of support. However, the reality is quite different. The university not only fails to support them but, in fact, enables a hostile environment. Instances include allowing students to endorse genocide within campus buildings, permitting the vandalism of posters put up by Jewish students, and specifically at AU, attempting to stifle Jewish voices by threatening disciplinary action against the Students Supporting Israel chapter instead of addressing and taking action against the evident antisemitism prevailing on campus.