CAMBRIDGE – As a student leader in the Harvard University Jewish community, Sabrina Goldfischer became so concerned about antisemitism and anti-Zionism on campus that she decided to write her senior thesis about it. Having completed the project, she is reflecting on what she’s learned.
“I knew the pain that can be caused from having a Jewish identity, given campus culture in talking about Zionism,” Goldfischer said. “I think I didn’t realize the extent of self-censorship and direct antisemitism and anti-Zionism that students experienced.”
Titled “The Death of Discourse: Antisemitism at Harvard College,” the thesis is based on interviews with 60 individuals – students and Hillel staff members, mostly from Harvard, with some representation from other universities.
Her adviser, government professor Jeffry Frieden, praised the thesis as “an outstanding job on a very tough topic.”
Frieden found one aspect of Goldfischer’s thesis especially interesting – “that a very large number of the Jewish students on campus feel the necessity to censor themselves, especially when they talk about the Israel issue.”
As Goldfischer – a former president of Harvard Hillel – conducted interviews over Zoom and in person, she learned that an orientation program for incoming first-year students had allegedly planned to include Hillel as part of a tour of the “bad” places on campus, in part due to its role in the conversation about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. One of her interviewees said that other students had faced difficulty in getting accommodations for the High Holidays. Another shared an email exchange with a dean who initially asked why the student wanted to miss class on Rosh Hashanah before wishing the student a happy holiday.
Goldfischer was particularly worried by the impact of the divide over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on students who are Jewish and/or Israeli.
“I think that the issue of facts has really given way to buzzwords,” Goldfischer said. “It can be really dangerous.”
She sees this in the ways that students on campus have reacted to the conflict, which has heated up in recent years. Her term as Hillel president coincided with one such flare-up between Israel and Hamas in April and May 2021.
“It was a particularly fraught time,” Goldfischer remembered. “There were repercussions on the Harvard campus.”
More recently, she was on campus for the construction of an “apartheid wall” criticizing Israel, both last year and this year, by the Harvard University student chapter of the Palestine Solidarity Committee.
Goldfischer said that both the walls in 2022 and 2023 featured “really dangerous tropes, insinuations, and outright lies that can propagate and continue the toxic environment that Jewish students face on campus.” Each wall included a panel she said incorporated Holocaust imagery.
“It’s just so upsetting to see imagery co-opted from an event that should never be co-opted,” Goldfischer said.
Jewish students with progressive views that might otherwise align with peers are silenced over the issue of Israel-Palestine, according to Goldfischer.
“It’s sort of a challenge to bring Zionist views to progressive spaces on campus,” she said. “The second Israel comes up, they’re asked to leave that part of their identity at the door.”
Goldfischer is especially concerned about the experiences of Israeli students on campus. In her thesis, she documented instances of hostility toward Israelis at Harvard. When one such student told a classmate she had been an officer in the Israel Defense Forces, the classmate asked whether she felt morally OK to say such a thing.
“It’s much more difficult to talk about Israel in a more nuanced way, without saying ‘the whole state is bad,’ ” Goldfischer said. “There are countries that do bad things, commit human rights abuses, and we’re able to discuss and converse about them in a nuanced way. It’s not about canceling the entire country.”
A native of Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Goldfischer has been to Israel twice, once before her bat mitzvah and again on a Birthright trip during the winter of her freshman year. Both times, she was moved by her visit to Yad Vashem.
Goldfischer is not out to cancel anyone. She described herself as a Zionist who sees room for both Jewish Israelis and Palestinians in the Middle East, with both populations deserving of peace. She also recognizes the diversity within the Jewish student spectrum, which includes fellow Zionists as well as members of Jewish Voice for Peace, which supports the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign against Israel.
She’s not afraid to offer constructive criticism of Hillel. Noting her love and gratitude toward the organization, she gives it both praise for what it does well, and suggestions for how it could better serve Jews on campus who feel marginalized, including by the Israel-Palestine debate. Many of her interviewees told her she was the first person they told about an instance of antisemitism. She also recommends increased connections between Jewish students and the campus office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging.
Goldfischer lamented what she characterized as a missed connection on campus – a lack of discourse between supporters of Israel and supporters of Palestine.
“I have attempted to make contact,” she said. “I can’t say the interactions were so fruitful.”
Having submitted her thesis, Goldfischer looks forward to her life post-graduation. As for the future of campus discourse, she wishes students could share their views on Israel and Palestine in an atmosphere of mutual respect.
“It’s crucial to have the type of difficult conversations that we have all the time at Harvard,” she said. “Why can’t we have [this one] at Harvard?” Θ