Shayna Mandelbaum held an Israeli flag and wore a graduation cap decorated in blue and white with the words “Master’s in Zionism” at the Northeastern ceremony on May 5./COURTESY PHOTO

Graduation season turns into fear and chaos for Jewish college students

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Graduation season turns into fear and chaos for Jewish college students

Shayna Mandelbaum held an Israeli flag and wore a graduation cap decorated in blue and white with the words “Master’s in Zionism” at the Northeastern ceremony on May 5./COURTESY PHOTO

On a warm spring morning, Marilyn Meyers, 22, a Jewish senior set to graduate from MIT, sat at a picnic table a little way from a pro-Palestinian encampment.

The encampment – which has since been disbanded by police – was a quiet plot of tents and tarps, encircled by a metal barrier fence hung with cardboard, hand-painted posters: “MIT, there is blood on your hands;” “No peace during genocide;” “MIT Jews say: Not in our name;” “Free Palestine.”

A sign at the front entrance said protestors were demanding MIT cease to receive funding from the Israeli military to conduct weapons research on its behalf.

Israeli flags also adorned the barricade around the encampment – hung in response to the encampment by some of Meyers’ fellow Zionists on campus. Across from the tents was a field of small Israeli flags, in the shadow of a bigger flag, beside rows of hostage posters. There were 1,200 flags, Meyers said, one for each person killed by Hamas on Oct. 7.

Meyers, who is from New Rochelle, N.Y., did a seminary program in Israel on a gap year between high school and college, and plans to make Aliyah and join the Israel Defense Forces after she graduates with a degree in material science and electrical engineering and computer science. Her time at MIT was not unscathed pre-Oct. 7: She recalled a pattern of antisemitism and anti-Israel incidents that were largely ignored by the administration, despite her and other students repeatedly reporting them. But after the Hamas attack, things grew significantly worse.

“I thought it’d be bittersweet,” she said, as she contemplates her May 30 commencement. “But I’m very excited to get away from this environment and to go to Israel. It’s been hard not being there through all of this.”

Meyers, like many of her peers, was alarmed by the reaction of campus anti-Zionist groups following the Oct. 7 massacre. She knew several people who died that day. “Especially because I’m moving to Israel next year, it kind of feels like I can’t trust anyone on campus who hasn’t explicitly voiced support,” she said.

Meyers is not alone: A Hillel International survey recently (May 6-8) conducted a study of 310 Jewish students across the country, asking how the encampments were impacting their collegiate experiences. 61% of Jewish students said “there has been antisemitic, threatening or derogatory language toward Jewish people during protests at their school,” and 58% feel less safe because of the encampments.

Following the dramatic example of Columbia University, where the main commencement was canceled after weeks of student protests, the big question is whether or not graduation will be held at MIT.

“It wouldn’t be unlike [the administration] to just – instead of solving the problem – just cancel the graduation so they don’t have to deal with it,” Meyers said. “That being said, I’m worried that if they don’t cancel it, the anti-Israel group is going to make some disruption in the middle, which would also be unpleasant. It kind of feels like a lose-lose situation.”

At Northeastern University, commencement – which went ahead on May 5 at Fenway Park following a dramatic shutdown of their pro-Palestinian encampment – was indeed marked by protests and an arrest.

Shayna Mandelbaum, 23, is a Jewish Northeastern graduate from Elizabeth, N.J., who just completed a five-year joint bachelor’s and master’s program. She is a member of Northeastern “Huskies for Israel,” and was at one of the ceremonies that was interrupted. She said that she had warned the administration in advance of the student who ended up protesting. He had come into a class she was taking with a Jewish, Zionist professor earlier in the year, shouting and trying to hand out pamphlets about Palestine, she said.

At the graduation ceremony, the student stood up with painted red hands to resemble blood, wearing a keffiyeh – a garment that has become a symbol of Palestinian liberation – and a shirt that read “NEU [Northeastern University] Kills.” In videos shared on social media, he started shouting “Free Palestine,” and was joined by cheers and shouts from the audience.

Mandelbaum, who had received her degree before the protester took to the stage, was holding an Israeli flag and wearing a graduation cap decorated in blue and white with the words “Master’s in Zionism.” She was one of the only students holding an Israeli flag, she said.

“It very much upset me, but I hate to say, I’m used to it from the last six, seven months,” she said. “I wasn’t very surprised.”

Leah receiving an honor as a graduating senior at a UMass Hillel graduation ceremony on May 5./COURTESY PHOTO

At UMass Amherst, graduation plans are moving forward following student arrests and a police disbandment of the encampment there. But Colson Whitehead, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author set to be the school’s commencement speaker, has announced he won’t be speaking at the May 18 ceremony because, as he wrote in a social media post, “calling the cops on peaceful protesters is a shameful act.”

Leah, 21, is a graduating Jewish senior at UMass Amherst who asked that her last name not be used. She hopes she’ll get to walk at graduation – something she didn’t get to do at her high school graduation, which happened during the peak of the COVID pandemic.

“That’d be really sad to go from COVID in 2020 to not having a graduation in 2024,” she said. “I’m hoping for the best.”

Leah’s fall semester freshman year in college, due to COVID, was held online; she took classes from her home outside of Boston. By the time she arrived at the UMass campus in Amherst that spring, she was looking to branch out. “I wanted to get out of my Jewish bubble,” she said. “I wanted to meet non-Jewish people, because I really had no non-Jewish friends.” She made some great friends – non-Jews who she still lives with today.

Then came Oct. 7.

Despite the media spotlight UMass has received – most recently facing a Title VI complaint by the Anti-Defamation League and the Brandeis Center alleging a “pervasive antisemitic climate for Jewish students” – Leah said she hasn’t faced a terrible wave of antisemitism in her time at UMass. She has regularly worn her Star of David on campus, and no one has said or done anything.

There have been some incidents, however. Earlier in the year, Leah was standing near a Students for Justice in Palestine rally – watching – when a protester came up to her and started taking pictures of her, persisting even after she asked him to stop.

The incident shook her, and she went back to the house she shared with those friends she made her freshman year, friends who – it quickly became clear – were not Zionists. Things had been tense for weeks, and Leah was having panic attacks and often crying herself to sleep. It had been hard to connect with her friends; though they didn’t talk about Israel in person, she saw the anti-Israel things they posted online, and felt betrayed and hurt.

That day, when she came home, clearly crying, they asked her what was up. She told them what happened: That she’d had a hard day, and felt unsafe and uncomfortable because of the protests. “They totally got that,” Leah said. “They were like ‘Wow, that’s really sucky, I’m sorry that happened to you.’”

Leah has found this was a way to connect with friends she otherwise isn’t really able to talk to about Israel stuff – to make it personal, to talk about her direct experiences. Beyond that, she just avoids the topic. “I was definitely more angry and betrayed toward the beginning,” she said. “And I still feel betrayed. But I told myself: Anger isn’t going to do anything for me.”

After graduation, Leah will be taking a job as a mental health counselor in Massachusetts. “I just love working with people, and noticing how we’re all the same, but our brains just work so differently,” she said. “They’re all made up of the same components, but the way that we perceive different things that happen to us is so different. That really, really interests me.” Θ

One Response

  1. I would like to see a follow up article with more information about Shayna Mandelbaum and a picture of her graduation cap.
    That is one brave girl. Kol HaKavode

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