As Jewish students, we are no longer safe on our US campuses

U.S. college campuses are no longer safe spaces for Jewish students. As proud British Jews and recent expats, we emigrated to the U.S. from northwest London to pursue graduate studies at Harvard University, comforted by the knowledge that America was home to the second-largest Jewish population worldwide and that Jewish students on campus were granted all the freedoms and protections of a modern university education.

Gone were the days of the early 20th century, when elite American universities, including Harvard and Princeton, restricted Jewish enrollment with “quotas” to maintain their “upright” character and not “drive away the gentiles,” as Harvard’s former President Abbott Lawrence Lowell wrote to a fellow professor in 1922.

In 21st-century America, we thought, antisemitism barely had a foothold. Its elite campuses had a long and distinguished history of Jewish life. Surely, we thought, we would remain comfortable and safe here.

Yet the events of the past two weeks have convinced us otherwise.

Saturday, Oct. 7 was the most joyous festival of the Jewish calendar—Simchat Torah, on which we celebrate the completion of the annual Torah reading cycle and start anew. But that Saturday turned out to be anything but festive. Almost exactly 50 years after the Yom Kippur War of 1973, when Egypt and Syria launched a coordinated surprise attack on Israel, the Jewish state fell victim to another ambush—this time an unprecedented, unprovoked and highly choreographed Hamas attack by land, sea and air.

Hundreds of Hamas gunmen breached Israel’s southern border, killing at least 260 revelers at a music festival celebrating peace and unity in what is now the deadliest concert attack in history. Over a thousand more Israeli civilians were slaughtered in their homes. Children were burned. Women were tortured and raped. Scenic kibbutzim bordering Gaza were turned into charnel houses. More than 200 people, including foreign nationals, were forcibly taken back to Gaza as hostages.

For Jewish people around the globe, Oct. 7 has become the darkest day of their lives. This attack was different from past acts of terror. Its scale and savagery triggered painful—and rare—comparisons to the Holocaust. Every Jewish person we’ve spoken to, whether they’re in London, Tel Aviv, California or New York has relayed to us their shock, trauma and outrage at the return of Nazi-style butchery of Jews.

Jewish students in the United States had sincerely hoped that students and faculty across all campuses—those who had furiously denounced other moral outrages like the killing of George Floyd in May 2022—would unite in denouncing these atrocities. Both of us were certain that our colleagues at Harvard, surely sensitive to the pain and vulnerability of their Jewish classmates, would offer solidarity and comfort.

Alas, we have been bitterly, bitterly disappointed.

Following Hamas’s savage attacks, student groups across America released statements excusing, justifying and even celebrating these crimes against humanity. At our own shared academic home, 30 student groups signed onto a letter from the Harvard Palestine Solidarity Committee that entirely blamed the victims, not the perpetrators, for this heinous crime.

Ryna Workman, president of New York University’s Student Bar Association, publicly condoned the atrocities, expressing her “unwavering and absolute solidarity with Palestinians in their resistance.”

A joint statement from 20-plus groups at the University of California, Berkeley positively lauded the Hamas terrorists, declaring “glory to our martyrs.”

Even as we write this, Harvard’s Graduate Student Union is preparing to vote on a statement that places the blame for this conflict entirely upon Israel.

Such appalling vitriol has not been confined to the students. Professors in elite institutions have seen fit to disgrace themselves in similar ways. Russell Rickford, a professor of history at Cornell University, declared at a rally that he was “exhilarated” by the murder of hundreds of Jews. An instructor at Stanford University made all his Jewish students stand at the back of his classroom and berated them for Israel’s actions, telling his class that colonizers are worse than Nazis.

Such words have consequences. Pro-Hamas rallies and marches have taken place on campuses across the country, a chilling sight for all Jewish students, many of whom personally know victims of Hamas atrocities. Worse still, at Drexel University in Philadelphia, just three days after the Hamas attack, a Jewish student’s door was set on fire in an alleged hate crime. As with past combustions of violence in Israel and Gaza, Jewish students across the West will bear the brunt on their own campuses.

These developments are shocking and, for those of us who came to the United States in search of thriving Jewish life on campus, absolutely chilling. If large groups of their classmates can justify and celebrate the mass slaughter of Jews, then Jews are no longer safe on campus. If their own professors join this carnival of Judeophobic hatred, then Jews are no longer safe on campus. If the university administrations can only release weak and equivocal statements that entirely ignore the spread of poisonous anti-Jewish sentiments throughout their own classrooms, then Jews are no longer safe on campus.

For decades, American Jewish students have enjoyed all the privileges, freedoms and opportunities afforded to those attending the country’s best universities. We ourselves once enjoyed such freedoms at Harvard. This golden age, we fear, has come to an end.

Jonathan Harounoff is a journalist and director of communications at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America. JJ Kimche is a doctoral student in Jewish history at Harvard.

Originally published in JNS.