CAMBRIDGE – Earlier this month, 55 Jewish MIT students signed a letter to the school’s president, Rafael Reif, describing an “urgent” concern.
It was about an upcoming Oct. 22 campus event, co-sponsored by four academic departments, called “Allyship, Art & Apartheid: A Conversation with Palestinian activists.” One of the activists was writer and poet Mohammed El-Kurd, who, the students noted, has “a deeply troubling record of antisemitic statements” and of “demonizing the Jewish state and the Jewish people.”
A familiar figure on college campuses, the Anti-Defamation League has an El-Kurd primer on its website, noting he has displayed “unvarnished, vicious antisemitism,” compared Israelis to Nazis, negated the Jewish connection to Israel, even alleged that Jewish Israelis eat the organs of Palestinians.
The students wanted the event cancelled. Two days later, Reif responded. While he “clearly and unequivocally” condemns antisemitism and discrimination, he believed the topics to be covered by the speakers “are appropriate for discussion at MIT.”
“We see you, we hear you and we want you to feel safe on our campus,” he signed off.
But many Jewish students in Massachusetts don’t.
“I am honestly scared,” an MIT student told the Journal, one of several interviewed who asked to remain anonymous, fearing a backlash. “I have no interest in making myself a target.” Students at the school described numerous unsettling incidents they’d witnessed on campus. Lights smashed on the Chabad menorah placed on the MIT lawn. An image circulating on a student’s Instagram showing an Israeli soldier wearing a Nazi arm band. The poster taped to the wall of the computer science building decrying the apparent hypocrisy of Birthright trips to Israel. One student described being iced out of a social group for objecting to another student’s anti-Israel comment.
And MIT is by no means an outlier. A 2021 survey conducted for Hillel International and the ADL found that one in three college students personally experienced antisemitic hate on campus or by a member of the campus community.
“Jewish students on campus are feeling uneasy, and feeling literally threatened,” according to Rabbi Ron Fish, director of antisemitism advocacy and education for the ADL.
At one Boston-area college, he said, a Jewish student woke up to discover that his non-Jewish roommate had etched a large swastika into his desk while he slept, wielding a large knife. “The student was terrified,” he said.
Others have opted to not identify themselves as Jewish, hidden their Star of David necklaces under their clothing, even kept quiet about a family trip to Israel. Bailey Allen, a journalism major at Emerson College active in Hillel, was distraught to discover last year that a poster in her dorm advertising “Yoga with Hillel” had been altered to read “Yoga with Hitler.”
“It was creepy to know that whatever their intentions were, they were a floor away from me,’ she said. “I wasn’t thinking ‘They hate Jews and are out to get us.’ The scary part was that this is the environment we are living in.”
“These are incredibly troubling trends,” Fish said. “And this is happening right after the Kanye West [incident], and his extraordinarily terrifyingly direct antisemitic trope delivered right into the bloodstream of the country. And at the same time as the rise in white nationalists who would assert that there is no place in America for Jews.”
College campuses, he said, project the illusion of “being isolated little enclaves of thought and reflection, but they are deeply representative of what’s happening in the rest of the country.”
The MIT panel on Saturday was not reassuring to the handful of Jewish students who attended. One of them passed out leaflets protesting the event, only to have several students rip them up.
In his email, Reif had assured students the panel was designed to “address issues related to poetry in activist movements and questions concerning human rights.” But the panel had nothing to do with poetry or art.
Instead, El-Kurd mainly tried to validate the Palestinian side of the conflict with Israel, which he referred to as the country “people refer to nowadays as Israel.”
At one point El-Kurd, who in a tweet last year wished a “torturous & slow” death on Israeli security forces and hoped they “see their mothers suffering,” was asked if he endorsed violence against civilians.
“These questions are really silly, to be honest,” he replied. “I don’t take them seriously.”
El-Kurd went on to speak at Harvard on Monday, where he drew protest from pro-Israel students, according to the Harvard Crimson student newspaper. “People protesting my advocacy, people smearing my name, spreading disinformation about me, could not move a hair on my body,” he reportedly said. “It’s not because I’m strong, and it’s not because I’m powerful, but because when you put it in perspective, what’s a bunch of whiny Ivy League kids going to do to me?”
Meanwhile, it’s been a busy few weeks for antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents on Massachusetts campuses.
There was the high-profile mishmash of heated events at Wellesley College, where the student paper’s editorial board endorsed the controversial “Mapping Project” of Jewish sites which collects data on Jewish institutions in the state that it wants to “dismantle,” and also endorsed the BDS movement which calls on Western institutions to cut ties with Israel.
Wellesley College President Paula A. Johnson promptly slammed the editorial as antisemitic. The newspaper gingerly walked back its endorsement of the Mapping Project in a fuzzy statement, but not its endorsement of the BDS movement. The Jewish community expressed outrage. The group Wellesley students for Justice in Palestine called Johnson’s letter “bigoted” and “inflammatory.”
Then things went dark at Wellesley. The paper’s editorial board members removed their names and photos from website. And Wellesley’s Jewish chaplain and campus rabbi, Dena Bodian, declined to respond to the Journal’s questions.
Over the High Holidays, there was an “antisemitic incident” involving Tufts students. The school community learned of it in an Oct. 7 letter from President Tony Monaco. Monaco condemned but did not name it, saying, vaguely, it involved members of a club sports team during their recent visit to “another higher education institution in New England” to compete at a match.
The Journal has learned it involved members of the Tufts water polo club during a visit to Colby College. In a statement, Colby revealed the incident occurred in one of its student residence halls, adding: “We understand that an investigation is underway at Tufts, and Colby is fully cooperating with that effort.
Members of the Colby community are also providing support to the students on our campus who were impacted.”
And in the rear-view mirror are numerous other incidents that seem to be escalating. There was the op-ed this month titled “In Defense of Hamas” that appeared in the Amherst College student publication, the Amherst Contra. The hate graffiti at Curry College earlier this year. The vandalism at UMass Amherst on Yom HaShoah when the Hillel House was defaced with the word “Palestine” spray-painted in red. Mount Holyoke College reported three antisemitic incidents last fall, including a swastika and racial slur targeting Jews found in a bathroom. And last April, The Harvard Crimson, too, endorsed the BDS movement, which generated international backlash.
According to a new report from the Anti-Defamation League, there were 359 incidents of anti-Israel activity reported nationwide during the 2021-22 academic years. These included one physical assault, 11 instances of vandalism, 19 instances of targeted verbal and/or written harassment, 143 anti-Israel events, 165 protests and actions, and 20 BDS resolutions and referenda.
Another new report – this one from Alums for Campus Fairness, which counters antisemitism on college campuses – found campus media is extremely biased against Israel. It analyzed data from 75 leading newspapers between 2017 and 2022, and found that of all news articles that exhibited bias, 181 cast Israel in a negative light while only 14 portrayed Israel in a positive way.
The American Jewish Committee has called anti-Jewish prejudice a “growing concern” on college campuses. In the last five years, AJC reports, 42 percent of American Jewish college students or parents of college students say they’ve known someone who experienced antisemitism at a college setting. The organization issued a multi-pronged “Call to Action Against Antisemitism” report last month urging colleges to protect their communities, and offering a blueprint for doing it. High on the list is including antisemitism in their commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion.
Linda Matchan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.