Harvard Hillel president’s campus fears: Lessons from my senior thesis
OpinionGuest columnist

Harvard Hillel president’s campus fears: Lessons from my senior thesis

The most acute examples of discrimination involved Harvard’s Israeli students.

Harvard by Carlos Pacheco, courtesy of flickr.com.
Harvard by Carlos Pacheco, courtesy of flickr.com.

When I served as president of Harvard Hillel, the center for Jewish life on campus, in the 2021 academic year, I knew that the position required me to navigate extremely difficult conversations related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As a Jewish student, I watched from a distance as my predecessors leaped into crisis management mode each time tensions flared in the Middle East, and consequently on Harvard’s campus. In the spring of 2021, violence between Israelis and Palestinians erupted. I felt the emotional weight of Jewish students on campus; my phone constantly pinged with students seeking comfort. I worked around the clock to make sure they did not feel alone. I began to understand the challenges some Harvard students faced simply because they were Jewish.

These experiences spurred me to dedicate a year of my life to writing a senior thesis on what it is like to be Jewish on a college campus. I interviewed 60 Jewish Harvard students, Harvard Hillel staff members, and students and Hillel staff members at nearby Massachusetts schools to help answer this question.

What I learned was concerning: The most acute examples of discrimination involved Harvard’s Israeli students. One student faced backlash for his involvement with Israel Trek, an Israeli student-led trip to Israel for Harvard students who do not identify as Jewish. He reached out to organizers of the anti-Trek movement on campus, hoping to begin a dialogue and potentially incorporate their feedback. They refused to speak to him. The Harvard Crimson published an article about the outreach effort, and quoted a member of the Palestinian Solidarity Committee, Harvard’s primary pro-Palestinian advocacy group, who suggested that if they were to meet with the Israeli student, their physical safety might be jeopardized. He was shocked that The Harvard Crimson was willing to publish what felt like a personal attack.

Indeed, social alienation is unavoidable for Harvard’s Israeli students. Students recall moments of feeling like their “humanity was questioned.” One student said to their Israeli peer, “I can only imagine the war crimes you have committed.” Another explained that his friend was not allowed into a social organization when the leadership discovered he was Israeli. At Harvard, students face obstacles — social and otherwise — simply because of their nationality.

Among all my interviewees, one of the most pervasive themes was self-censorship. In particular, students felt uncomfortable identifying as “pro-Israel,” irrespective of the term’s definition. Certain students who identify as progressive in the American political system felt they needed to conceal their Israel politics in order to access campus liberal spaces. One student revealed that they “chose to not engage because it is a topic where you can be seen as absurd for being pro-Israel, and [I] would rather maintain the reputation of being a ‘normal person’ on campus.” Anti-Zionism, then, has become the norm in most social and intellectual milieux on campus. This affects how Harvard’s largest Jewish institution is perceived. For instance, another student recalled a first-year orientation program that purported to show incoming students the “bad parts of Harvard.” The tour guide, suggesting it was a hostile environment for Palestinian students, stopped at Hillel.

Every year, the PSC participates in Israel Apartheid Week, a national movement on college campuses during which students organize rallies, speaker events and displays. At Harvard, its centerpiece is the PSC’s “Wall of Resistance” (which was up March 25-31). Intended to remind students of the security barrier in the West Bank, it highlights the oppression of Palestinians, alleges that Israel is an apartheid state and invokes a series of other progressive social justice movements, too. The wall demonstrates how anti-Zionism affects the broader Jewish community — the environment created by groups like the PSC makes Jewish students feel, at best, censored, and at worst, unsafe. One student shared their reaction with me: “Seeing the country that’s such a huge part of my religion and identity falsely demonized, singled out and misrepresented in the center of campus makes me feel hated and unwelcome, and signals to me that there isn’t a place for me or my values on this campus. By misrepresenting Israel, the Wall shuts down any dialogue, discussion, progress or learning, especially for the majority of Harvard students who aren’t knowledgeable about Israel and everything that it is and stands for.”

The PSC’s characterization is reductive and inaccurate; as another student described, “Slogans like ‘Zionism is White Supremacy’ [written on the Wall] serve to erase the identities and experiences of the millions of Mizrahi Jews, myself included, whose ancestors never set foot in Europe, and for whom Israel provided a refuge after they were ethnically cleansed from their homes.”

The Holocaust imagery on one of the panels of the Wall is inexcusable. I think of my ancestors who perished in the Holocaust; it is devastating to see my generational trauma exploited. Moreover, the Wall fosters a spurious sense of intersectionality by invoking so many issues of justice. Jews have fought alongside other oppressed communities for centuries, and it is these same humanitarian values that compelled Jews to escape persecution and inspired them to build and preserve a safe and secure Israel.

I have spent countless hours speaking with students, compiling results, and just sitting with my own reflections. I mentioned earlier that students involved in pro-Palestinian advocacy have refused to engage in conversation — both directly, by declining invitations to talk, and indirectly, in the abrasive statements on their Wall that preclude discourse, like “there is no Zionist state without racism.” But we must pursue dialogue wherever and whenever we can — students cannot be afraid to talk to each other. Both of our communities have deeply held connections to this land. The more we talk, the better we empathize: The PSC’s Wall hardly encourages this.

My thesis begins with this quote from the 20th-century theological and social justice activist Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “We are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers.” This time it feels right to end with it. PJC

Sabrina Goldfischer is a senior at Harvard studying government with a secondary in Jewish studies. Originally from Poughkeepsie, New York, she served as president of Harvard Hillel and works as the Harvard Hillel intern for combating antisemitism.

This column first appeared on The Times of Israel.

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