Local college students face varying degrees of antisemitism on campus
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AntisemitismLife on Campus

Local college students face varying degrees of antisemitism on campus

Experiences align with recent ADL-Hillel survey

Photo by Oleksandr Hrytsiv via iStock
Photo by Oleksandr Hrytsiv via iStock

Andrew Cole experienced two instances of antisemitism in the last several months. The first incident wasn’t intended for his ears. The second one was.

Before recounting the events, Cole, a 20-year-old sophomore at the University of Pittsburgh, said he needed space. He walked a few feet away, paused and explained how he grew up in Ridgewood, New Jersey, a place where he could count the number of Jewish classmates on his hands. High school was only a couple years ago but a lot has changed, he said. There was a pandemic, students were sent home from college and classes went virtual. Cole missed the lecture halls where professors spoke about American history or urban development. He longed to be with his friends, like those he met while playing a giant dreidel game on Chanukah. As spring semester 2020 rolled along in a virtual world, Cole realized he was struggling. He finished the term, then took a gap year and worked on farms across the country before returning to Oakland this semester for in-person classes.

Something is different now, he said, and maybe that’s the reason why the first incident was so disturbing.

It happened during a gaming session. Cole wasn’t playing, but heard one of the participants tell a fellow player to “Quit being so Jewish.”

Cole thinks the comment was made in the context of a trade. He also doesn’t think it would have been uttered if his presence had been noticed — and that might be the most hurtful part about it, he said.

“I don't even think he considered me whatsoever, which kind of felt worse because it made me feel like I didn't even exist,” Cole said.

The second incident occurred at a party. Cole was chatting about music when someone kept asking him about Israel and Palestine.

“It felt strange,” Cole said. “I don't think it was blatantly antisemitic rhetoric, but it felt like it had antisemitic undercurrents.”

The way the questions kept coming, “I understood it to be that as a Jew, as an American Jew, I somehow needed to have an opinion on Israel,” he said.

Cole found that troubling, he said, because “American Jews are not a monolith. We all are entitled to our opinions, whether that is having any opinion at all or none.”

For a significant minority of Jewish students, antisemitism is a part of college life. In the last year, a third of Jewish college students say they’ve experienced it, according to a survey by Hillel International and the Anti-Defamation League.

Cole said he’s been spending time thinking about his Jewish identity as well as his reactions to the two incidents he recently experienced on campus. After the person at the party kept asking him about Israel and Palestine, he immediately mentioned the episode to friends. But he kept the episode with the gamers to himself for days.

“It was just so shocking,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk about it. I felt like I had nowhere to go with it.”

His reactions aren’t surprising. According to the ADL-Hillel survey, most incidents of antisemitism and microaggressions go unreported.

Delilah Hollander, a 19-year-old freshman at Chatham University, said she hasn’t encountered any overt antisemitism on campus but that she’s been treated differently because of her ties to Israel, where she spent a gap year before college.

“It’s something people know about me and something I post about on social media,” she said.

Hollander believes her online presence initially precluded relationship-building on campus. She said classmates avoided her in the beginning of the semester and that their hesitancy was hurtful.

“People think I’m some angry radicalist who will scream at them for expressing their view, which is obviously not something I would do,” she said.

As the semester went on, however, Hollander found spaces where she could engage in dialogue.

“College students are conscious of these issues,” she said. “It’s something that’s being worked on and recognized, and trying to be solved by students and faculty.”

Sam Zukerman, an 18-year-old freshman at Robert Morris University, grew up in O’Hara Township and graduated from Fox Chapel High School before arriving on campus.

Zuckerman said he hasn’t experienced any antisemitism at Robert Morris.

“I believe that it’s around and exists, but it’s very minor,” he said. “I doubt I will ever see it anytime as a student.”

Zuckerman’s sentiment is consistent with findings from the ADL-Hillel survey: 71% of students said they felt safe as Jews on campus, while 67% described their campus as welcoming and supportive of Jewish students.

Gabe Dweck, a Carnegie Mellon University sophomore, said the statistics are in line with his experience. He said even after a group of people painted “Israel is an apartheid state” on the Fence at CMU in May 2021, he wasn’t too concerned, and five months later, a separate group of students painted “Stronger Than Hate” on the same spot.

Ultimately, the amount of publicity the Fence gets is problematic, Dweck, 19, explained. “It’s a massive message on campus and it can be done by three people.”

CMU has more than 7,000 undergraduates. If a group of 10 people painted a statement on the Fence, it only represents a small percentage of the student body. Dweck said he understands how students can feel threatened by such incidents, but he’s found nothing but “overwhelming support” since arriving on campus after transferring from the University of Pittsburgh.

“I consider myself an Orthodox Jew,” he said. “I keep kosher. I’m pretty comfortable here.”

Dweck noted that his roommate isn’t Jewish, yet was so concerned with making Dweck feel comfortable at CMU that their kitchen is now kosher.

“I think being on campus in Pittsburgh has opened my eyes to how accepting people are, and that’s not what you expect when you look at what's happening at other campuses,” he said.

Sadie Hilf, who is midway through her senior year at Grove City College, is the only Jewish student at the Christian college located 58 miles north of Pittsburgh. Being a party of one, though, hasn’t resulted in a negative collegiate experience. Hilf has friends on campus, is a cheerleader and majors in mechanical engineering. She also spent last summer in the Jewish state as part of Onward Israel and is an active member of Rimon, an international student-led movement seeking to reimagine Israel education at colleges.

Hilf, 21, described her own college and fellow students as “very pro-Israel.” Grove City regularly organizes trips to Israel, and classmates are constantly asking what they can do to help during times of international turmoil.

Hilf did, however, recall a “major” antisemitic event. Following the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, she tried to explain to another student how neo-Nazis were among those rioting in D.C. The conversation quickly spiraled, and during a subsequent mediation with the chaplain the student called Hilf a “kike.”

Hilf reported the incident to the ADL and spoke with Grove City administrators. She said the college handled the situation “the best they could.”

The bigger issue, Hilf said, is what’s occurring on less supportive campuses. In many places, students are arriving for school and being exposed to aggressive marketing from the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement. College students see these messages and want to make a difference, but at the same time “don’t know the full scope of the organizations they’re getting involved in. They don’t know that BDS is harmful to Israelis and Palestinians.”

At the same time, students who want to support Israel or maintain a public Jewish identity need to master a lot of knowledge and jargon. They are expected to understand the 1967 borders, Oslo Accords and potential impacts of a “one-state, two-state or three-state solution.” Yet, on the flipside, someone can just say “Israel is an apartheid state” and others “get on board with that,” Hilf said.

There needs to be an easier way for college students to be Jewish and pro-Israel, Hilf said, “otherwise you’ll be fighting a losing battle for the next 50 years.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.

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