Deborah Gastfreund Schuss

What leadership failure on US campuses is doing to Jews

Morally bankrupt policies that nourish threatening behavior are spurring students to prioritize their safety
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students at Columbia University on October 12, 2023 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)
Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel students at Columbia University on October 12, 2023 in New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

It should come as no surprise that Jewish students at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology had to skip classes last Thursday, fearing for their safety on what was the 85th anniversary of Kristallnacht.

In defiance of campus rules, protestors took over the school’s main entrance called Lobby 7 and another corridor connecting the academic buildings beginning at 8 a.m. They chanted, “Justice is our demand, no peace on stolen land,” “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” and other rallying cries threatening to Jews, according to videos provided by the MIT Israel Alliance.

“I had a class there that I simply could not attend,” Liyam Chitayat, a 19-year-old Israeli doctoral student in computational biology, told me. “When you see a group of over a hundred people chanting for your death in the entrance to campus, you’re like, I’m not doing this. Why would I ever go inside if that is what’s waiting for me?”

Last month’s horrific massacre in Israel by Hamas – the bloodiest day for Jews since the Holocaust – was a watershed moment that crystallized just how deeply embedded Jew hatred has become in academia.

US college administrators are failing miserably at protecting our children and grandchildren, who are physically and verbally assaulted, denied access to their kosher eating spaces that have shuttered because of threats, singled out in class by educators, and intimidated by dormitory student-resident assistants who are paid to help them.

This ineffectual leadership, consisting of highbrow dodging that excuses perpetrators while abandoning endangered Jewish students, is prompting a rethink – at MIT and elsewhere – about US college and university choices. It’s an utterly disturbing, yet necessary, acknowledgment by Jews that the vaunted institutions they have entrusted with their kids’ schooling are no longer safeguarding them.

MIT students understandably feel betrayed by administrators’ handling of Thursday’s protest. Many hours after it started, the school issued a campus-wide advisory to “avoid Lobby 7 due to an ongoing demonstration,” a profound copout by administration leaders who should have taken decisive action against the rule-flouting mob instead of enabling parts of the campus to remain inaccessible.

Nor are the protesters being punished in any sense of the word. Jewish students, who joined Lobby 7 to support Israel with flags and peace-themed songs two hours after the protest began and with no indication the school was planning to shut it down, left as soon as the administration issued a written deadline for everyone to disperse.

The other protesters continued for hours more, despite the school’s warning that violators would be subject to suspension. But MIT president Sally Kornbluth backed down, saying in a statement to the MIT community that the offenders only “will be suspended from non-academic campus activities,” because of “collateral consequences for the students, such as visa issues…”

“We have no idea what that means – it’s a joke,” Chitayat told me. “It’s like what, you can’t go to the MIT gym?”

So goes it for Jewish college students in the US

It’s an outcome built from years of academic leaders’ dereliction of duty to harassed and excluded Jewish students even as they have prioritized creating safe spaces for other historically marginalized groups. When Jew hatred on campus spiraled exponentially following the Oct. 7 massacre, administrators’ unwillingness to support and protect Jewish students became impossible to gloss over.

It isn’t a matter of complexity or nuance that Jews – infants to infirm elderly – were hunted down methodically, tortured, savagely raped, burned alive, and mutilated while Hamas perpetrators gleefully documented their horrors and posted them to social media. Rather, it’s a simple matter of humanity to call out such heinous acts of barbarism for what they are: evil.

Yet universities that are supposed experts in leadership training issued spineless statements that generalized their empathy for “the victims of fighting.” Nor has there been widespread condemnation of professors or student groups in their midst who celebrate and justify this unspeakable carnage.

In fact, Columbia University’s president wrote in a statement titled “Upholding Our Values” that its “role is to create space for our scholars and students to fill with their own moral and intellectual conversations.”

Try telling that to the Jewish kids who were locked down at Columbia’s Kraft Center for Jewish Student Life, as a massive Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) rally marched toward that building.

A National SJP toolkit articulates unmistakably its position: “Resistance comes in all forms” including “armed struggle,” and “all of it is necessary.” Yet SJP has chapters on campuses throughout the US

Contrary to Columbia’s assertions, college students are in desperate need of a moral compass. According to a recent Harvard CAPS /Harris poll, 51% of those aged 18 to 24 said Hamas’ killing of Israeli civilians can be justified by Palestinian grievances, while 39% said Israel doesn’t have a responsibility to bring back its abducted citizens from Gaza.

Those morally bankrupt viewpoints nourish campus behavior. As Chitayat was returning from the MIT campus to her residence recently, a biker at a large rally on school grounds tried to run her down while shouting, “Your ancestors didn’t die to kill more people” in reference to the Holocaust. Demonstrators were chanting “One solution: intifada revolution” – a clear call for violence against Jews that is heard on many campuses across the US

“How little are the lives of all Jewish people inside and outside of campus worth to MIT,” Chitayat wrote to school leadership. ”Will an intifada be tolerated on our campus?”

She is looking into other degree options, this time laser-focused on schools’ rules of conduct. Many other Jewish students, and professors, also are rethinking their next steps, she told me.

These are not isolated cases. Columbia Business School professor Shai Davidai, who in a video that went viral denounced colleges for failing to protect students from “pro-terror student organizations” celebrating rape and murder in the name of “resistance,” told me he’s received thousands of messages from parents and students all over the US expressing “dread” as they share antisemitic experiences and look for direction.

And in a scathing commentary on the state of US higher education, Jewish day schools around the US have found it necessary to galvanize as a result of “threats and intimidation” by students and university staff that their graduates are reporting to them. Three dozen schools signed on to a letter telling parents they will expect recruiters to communicate precisely how their colleges will ensure Jewish students are safe.

Knowing what’s ahead of them, Jewish families with children in public high schools also are rethinking their college education. A parent whose child was targeted in the classroom told me she is pressing her older child to attend college in her native Scandinavia, where antisemitism has surged as well, but with tamer campuses. It’s a no-win choice for Jews.

Significantly, US public schools themselves have become breeding grounds for antisemitic activity – also enabled by feckless administrators – that indoctrinated youth then bring with them to college. Like their campus counterparts, Jewish students are reporting a dramatic spike in antisemitic episodes coming from pupils and teachers.

“We have Jewish students in high school, middle school and college who just fear for their lives,” said Karen Bar-Or, vice president of activism for the Israeli-American Council, which tracks school incidents in all academic settings around the US and assists affected families. “There’s really almost not a district in which there hasn’t been issues.”

The question is whether US educational leadership will be content with a status quo that is squeezing Jews out of their doors and into a narrow slice of schooling. Are they okay with losing brilliant students like Liyam Chitayat, who began college at age 12?

Academic leaders have an urgent role that goes way beyond the advisory groups some, like Harvard, created under pressure to explore antisemitism over the long haul. They should start by shutting down their schools’ SJP chapters, as Brandeis University did last week – and not for just one month, as Columbia lamely did with SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace. Ditto for any other groups that incite violence.

To remain mute reinforces to students that such abhorrent positions are acceptable as they later are launched into careers in government, industry, media and NGOs, with consequences that will ripple through multiple generations.

My parents, Holocaust survivors, decried the “conspiracy of silence” that engulfed the so-called civilized world as Europe was transformed into a human slaughterhouse for Jews. When I share their experiences with student groups, I ask youngsters to ponder where they lie on the continuum of courage and cowardice in the face of challenges.

It’s high time US academic leaders contemplate that as well.

About the Author
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss is an award-winning reporter and the recipient of a journalism fellowship that supported her graduate education at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was a correspondent for The Boston Globe for six years, reported for The Associated Press, and worked for other news organizations as a writer and editor. She also has been published in The Wall Street Journal, on, The Jerusalem Post and WebMD, among many other media.
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