Jewish College Students Face Intimidation and Antisemitism as Israel Faces Public Backlash

Sabrina Soffer, a GW student and Vice President of Chabad GW. Photo Courtesy.

Jewish communities on college campuses across the DMV region have been weighed down by a tense and troubled mood over the past several weeks since Israel began its response to the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks, as public sentiment among the younger generation shifts negatively on Israel, exposing Jewish students to antisemitism and
intimidation tactics.

The situation in Israel has played a large role on college campuses over the past few weeks, with a sharp uptick in antisemitic incidents and on-campus demonstrations taking sides in the conflict, which has opened avenues for hatred toward Jewish students regardless of their personal stance on Israel.

“Since the war erupted in Israel, on a national basis we have seen a nearly 400% increase in antisemitic incidents across the United States … We’re seeing that Jewish students have borne the brunt of severe antisemitic incidents, including everything from violent assaults, intimidation and a lot of harassment … About 54 incidents have been on college campuses,” said Meredith Weisel, Regional Director of the Anti-Defamation League’s (ADL) Washington, D.C. office.

There have been incidents of harassment, vandalism and intimidation at several campuses in the D.C. area, and while students largely have reported feeling supported, the atmosphere has been difficult to navigate.

“Most Jewish students are feeling cautious and concerned in a way they’ve never felt before,” said Rabbi Menachem Shemtov of Chabad Georgetown.

Most notably, George Washington University (GW), has long been a hotbed of antisemitism in the D.C. area, even more so now with the conflict, leading to students feeling as if they’re not able to really be themselves on campus for fear of antisemitism.

“We have groups on campus who openly support Hamas. And we have professors who are very subtly justifying Hamas’ actions and are not calling them out enough to the extent that students can learn about this issue from a factual lens and really understand all the intricacies of it,” said Sabrina Soffer, a GW student and Vice President of Chabad GW.

Soffer said there’s been many antisemitic incidents where she knows people who have been spit on and told that Jews are less than humans. Another incident she mentioned involved demonstrators that approached a Jewish fraternity house and tried to hit its residents with flagpoles.

And on Nov. 3, someone broke into the GW Hillel building right before Shabbat and tore down the hostage posters inside, where they had been specifically placed to protect them from people removing them.

“There’s a lot of issues that are going on here. For me personally, I do feel unsafe in public spaces at times. It’s just a very difficult climate to deal with, especially living the normal life of a student because I feel like I have to hide in some places, but ultimately, I’m a student who has been outspoken about these issues for a long time. So, I can’t really hide myself. I just really need to take precautions and be careful,” Soffer said.

It’s a climate of issues that’s been prevalent long before the attacks in Israel, when a Title XI complaint was lodged against GW earlier this year after a professor allegedly mistreated Jewish students over the course of several months and then recently praised the
Hamas attacks.

And student groups like Students for Justice for Palestine (SJP) at GW have held events on campus that have left some Jewish students feeling uneasy and feeling as if there’s not much chance to have a dialogue.

SJP held a rally shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks, prompting GW President Ellen Granberg to release a statement denouncing the glorifying of terrorism. At one recent SJP event they projected messages on a campus library that included, “Glory to our martyrs” and “Divest from Zionist genocide now” that made Jewish students feel unsafe.

And issues have been prevalent at other local campuses as well, although not to the same level that has been seen at GW. Several students at University of Maryland (UMD) have had their messages on their personal whiteboards outside their doors erased and replaced with vulgar and anti-Israel messages, according to UMD senior Uri Garfunkel.

Garfunkel said there’s been vandalism near the Hillel house and other small incidents but noted that it’s sad that the bar for serious concern over antisemitism and violence is so high that harassment and vandalism is not too far out from the norm.
Several UMD students noted there were signs posted around campus that made them feel uneasy, with some calling Zionists murders and other similar rhetoric.

There was one positive development at UMD, where Jewish students and SJP members had a good dialogue in which they met and had positive discussions, gaining a better understanding of each other’s positions.

A UMD Hillel Facebook post said that there was a time during the interaction where a member from the SJP side began using antisemitic language and the rest of her group immediately shut it down, allowing everyone to continue with respectful, productive dialogue.

Across town, Georgetown University is facing a similar situation as UMD, where there’s tension and there’s been charged public discourse at events and through posted signs. “There were actually posters that were just posted, like this week, mocking the hostage posters,” said Madison Lieberman, a senior at Georgetown.

Lieberman said that most of the anti-Israel content has been posted in Georgetown’s Red Square, a central space on campus, and that it’s been heavily concentrated over the past few weeks as the conflict and reported civilian casualties have grown.

Rabbi Menachem Shemtov said that there has been some intimidation of students on Georgetown’s campus, with stealing signs and making passing comments to pro-Israel students.

According to Rabbi Shemtov, there was an anti-Israel rally on campus where a student he knew went and tried to have a discussion with other students about a sign that blamed Israel for the explosion at Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza. The discussion went nowhere, and Rabbi Shemtov said the student left the event feeling intimidated.

Lieberman echoed the feeling that there is intimidation on campus, saying that she and a friend have been called murderers, among other incidents.

“I was hanging posters with my friend and we got called murderers. And then we were hanging up posters and somebody started taking pictures [of us],” Lieberman said.

With all of these incidents, the onus has been on the administrations to police behavior that’s leaving Jewish students feeling uncomfortable on campus and they’ve been mostly up to the task so far according to students and Jewish leaders across multiple schools.

Rabbi Shemtov said that Georgetown had hired a teacher who allegedly had antisemitic posts on her social media accounts, and almost as soon as it was discovered the teacher was placed on leave while an investigation is being conducted.

“Georgetown immediately put her on leave. Immediately, two or three days after they hired her. The administration found out about this and immediately put her on leave and is doing amazing,” Lieberman said.

At UMD, there’s been an increased police presence and a clear shift of resources to make sure that Jewish students are protected, and their complaints of harassment are taken seriously.

“University of Maryland Police Department has been very receptive to the needs of the Jewish students and have patrol cars going around and showing a presence at Jewish areas on campus,” Garfunkel said.

At GW, there was praise for the strong response from President Greenberg after the SJP projections on the library, which Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Executive Vice President of American Friends of Lubavitch (Chabad) and founder of Chabad GW, acknowledged was a difficult position for the new president.

“She’s [President Greenberg] had to deal with all of this baggage which preceded her tenure. At first, she gave a statement which some people were not crazy about, but I think that her subsequent statements and gestures have been much appreciated … She actually came by Chabad GW on a Friday night to express solidarity with the Jewish students,” Rabbi Levi Shemtov said.

But while students across the board at these universities express their appreciation at the response from their respective school administration in providing statements of support and resources, they all would like to see a little bit more to ensure that their campus remains safe.

Much of the commitment that Jewish students and leaders are looking for is unequivocal and continual support as the conflict drags on, as well as clear policies that hold students accountable for bad actions or inflammatory rhetoric.

Weisel and ADL noted the strong response from UMD and GW’s President Greenberg, something that she said was largely missing from campuses across the DMV region.

“The reality is that this is a really fraught time, and we really need our campus leaders to be speaking up unequivocally and condemning a heinous terrorist attack and not making equivocating statements that are blaming the victims, which is really what we’re seeing a lot of on the campuses,” Weisel said.

There are also complaints across multiple schools about school policies being violated with no consequences, which is frustrating for Jewish students who feel as if they’re not playing by the same rules.

UMD senior Leah Bregman said that there have been a lot of anti-Israel signs on campus, which is not allowed under school policy, so the Jewish groups haven’t been contesting those posters with public signs of their own.

“We need to have freedom of speech be protected on campus, but within the rules,” Bregman said, noting that pro-Israel students were being mindful of abiding by UMD’s policies.

Soffer offered another position, saying that there need to be consequences for antisemitic incidents on campus to curtail that behavior.

“The administration has been supportive, but these rhetorical statements are not enough. They really have to have no tolerance for this. These kids need to be held accountable,” Soffer said.

A lack of accountability for students causing these types of incidents was an issue noted by Weisel as well, which she said is a trend across the region.

“There needs to be some clear and transparent non-discrimination and anti-harassment policies. And that’s something that the university should be looking at,” Weisel said.

But as the conflict drags on, all that the Jewish community and various organizations can do is provide a safe haven for their students amid a whirlwind of hate.

“Even though students are devastated by current events, I think our task now is to reinforce their sense of togetherness, that even if they are devastated, they’re not alone,” Rabbi Levi Shemtov said.

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