In the face of antisemitism, Jewish resilience shines at Pitt
OpinionGuest Columnist

In the face of antisemitism, Jewish resilience shines at Pitt

"We can give in to the fear that these encampments cause or proudly stand up, showing the world that we are the reason 'Never Again' is not just a slogan."

Students and community members held a counter-protest this week in response to the anti-Israel encampment at Schenley Plaza (Photo courtesy of Julie Paris)
Students and community members held a counter-protest this week in response to the anti-Israel encampment at Schenley Plaza (Photo courtesy of Julie Paris)

Last week I called a friend at Columbia University to check on her and discuss recent events. Little did I know that as a result of violent antisemitic protests and encampments, she was not on campus but was attending Zoom classes at home because she was told Columbia was no longer safe for Jewish students.

With COVID flashbacks coming to mind, I could not help but ask, “How is this happening?” “Why is the safety of Jewish students being sacrificed?” And, “Will this happen to us?”

I hung up the phone thinking that something like that could never happen here at the University of Pittsburgh. But I awoke to activists attempting to build an unpermitted encampment at the Cathedral of Learning, which then moved to the city-owned Schenley Plaza.

Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel did not lightly touch the hearts of Jewish students; it profoundly skewed their academic year’s direction. Jewish leaders from various organizations banded together as a people to create a place for Jewish students to feel heard, respected and safe. We will continue to keep creating those spaces, even with an encampment at our local public park.

Schenley Plaza is a popular location where Pitt students go to study, hang out and appreciate the warmer weather, especially toward the end of the school year. It is also where many seniors take graduation photos. Sadly, none of this is an option now due to the recent scene of sweeping tents, large posters and aggressive “rules” discouraging interactions with Zionists and police.

A few days after the encampment was set up, a group of students independently organized a peaceful counter-protest in response to the encampment and to the misinformation being spread there. Not only did various Jewish students stand with us in support, but so did community members of greater Pittsburgh. Some students donned Israeli flags on their backs, and others wore “Stronger Than Hate” T-shirts, a slogan that we still believe rings true today. We stood at the edge of the plaza, arm in arm, each holding a hostage poster to account for the 133 hostages still in Gaza. We remained silent, allowing the posters to speak for themselves, as a few encampment members barricaded a small part of the park in response to our presence. Some of them were chuckling.

I found myself thinking that, yes, this was a counter-protest, but was simply wearing an Israeli flag and holding a poster of someone’s lost relative a reason to oust us from this public space? A public space in which the anti-Israel protesters proclaimed in their written rules to “Love Everyone!”?

As the night proceeded, a few people approached us with questions for peaceful conversation, but others did not. As we marched around the camp peacefully, the barricade and a few heated comments followed. Chants of “From the river to the sea” began. In response, my good friend, who lost most of his family during the Holocaust, asked, “Where do the Jews go?” An encampment member responded with “Back to Europe, where you’re originally from,” earning shocked expressions from many of us.

As the barricade wrapped around the camp with chants growing louder, we decided to sing. We ended the night as a community by wrapping our arms around each other, singing songs in Hebrew and English for the peace of everyone suffering around the world and for the safety of the hostages.

As president of Chabad at the University of Pittsburgh, I have faced many situations this year that raised more minor concerns than felt on other campuses, but this incident has caused me to worry for what the future holds. I never would have expected to see an encampment at Pitt. Then again, I never would have expected so many Jewish students to have to take it upon themselves to advocate for their right to be Jewish Zionists in response.

There is something to be said about the resilience of Jewish students on campus during these past six months, nationally and in Pittsburgh. We have faced obstinacy, assumptions, stereotyping, fear-mongering, cultural appropriation and silence, yet our Jewish pride returns stronger every time, despite multiple attempts to hinder it.

We are faced with a choice now as a people. We can give in to the fear that these encampments cause or proudly stand up, showing the world that we are the reason “Never Again” is not just a slogan. In the face of adversity, there is beauty to be appreciated in our fight for peace, truth and our Jewish brothers and sisters around the world. PJC

Alitza Hochhauser is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. She is majoring in anthropology and psychology and minoring in writing.

 

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