May 24, 2024
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May 24, 2024
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Jewish Campus Leaders Share Views on Encampments

Students shared their personal experiences regarding on-campus advocacy and their experiences with the encampments.

A anti-Israel card found on Yale’s campus.
(Credit: Sahar Tartak)

Editor’s note: For an extended version of this piece with more comments from the students, visit [].

These past few weeks, campuses around the U.S, have been teeming with unchecked antisemitism, and it has reached a boiling point as pro-Palestinian protesters have set up encampments and/or checkpoints in the middle of campuses, restricting Jewish students from entering or moving through such areas. To understand better what exactly is going on and what is going through the minds of students as they confront these virulent forms of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, The Jewish Link interviewed a variety of Jewish students from across the political spectrum on a handful of campuses around the U.S. that have encampments: Harvard, University of Michigan, Yale and Columbia.

Josh Brown, a University of Michigan junior from Westchester, New York, explained that he leads the activism committee for Wolverine for Israel (Wolverine is UMichigan’s mascot), the campus’s Hillel-affiliated pro-Israel student group. Brown also attends campus pro-Palestinian events and documents the goings-on on social media. “I’m at virtually every protest and demonstration that they do,” he explained.

While Brown said that he is happy to engage with students at these protests and discuss the conflict, the students have a policy of not speaking with Zionists. “They have a very strict ‘no engaging with Zionists’ policy, so there is generally a minimal amount of dialogue at their events,” he elaborated. Brown said that this policy had existed even prior to October 7.

Harvard student Shabbos Kestenbaum replanted 1,200 Israeli flags on the Harvard campus on May 6, 2024. (Credit: X)

Brown said that UMichigan is not as aggressive as places like Columbia and Yale in terms of protests, detailing that there are no physical altercations that he’s heard of between students. “That being said, we do have an enormous amount of anti-Israel and antisemitic content on our campus,” continued Brown, calling the antisemitism “unavoidable,” especially since the students made an encampment in the center of campus. He further described incidents of anti-Israel messaging—chalk, posters and marches—that have taken place on campus recently. “There has been a complete saturation of anti-Israel and antisemitic content on campus since October 7,” said Brown.

When asked how he thought these messages are influencing the student body, Brown explained that there is a factor of social pressure to the messaging, explaining that the Tahrir Coalition—a coalition of 90+ student organizations, and one of the leading coalitions who are leading these encampments and protests—creates an “enormous amount of social pressure to absorb anti-Israel and antisemitic messaging,” due to how many student groups are involved. However, Brown continued by surmising that the majority of people on campus do not support the anti-Israel protests or movement.

Brown added that anti-Israel groups on UMichigan’s campus “have shown a consistent endorsement and support of violence and terrorism and have held various events glorifying terrorists and terrorist organizations,” detailing several examples, from before October 7, in the immediate aftermath (both on the day of and several days afterward), and several months later, in which these groups justified and celebrated both the attack and the taking of hostages, honored convicted terrorists, circulated PFLP propaganda posters, co-sponsored events with Samidoun, an Israeli-designated terror organization and worked with their affiliates.

Aharon Dardik, a sophomore at Columbia University who is from Gush Etzion, Israel, shared his more unique approach on the issue. He leads Columbia’s J Street organization, as well as Columbia University’s “Jews for Ceasefire” chapter. Dardik explained that Columbia’s J Street chapter focuses primarily on starting conversations within the Jewish community that promote more nuanced takes on the issue, and that this semester, J Street has brought in several speakers, including people who work with improving relationships and creating community dialogue between Jews and Palestinians in Yehuda and Shomron.

Harvard student Shabbos Kestenbaum speaks at a post-October 7 rally. (Credit: X)

Dardik said that Columbia’s “Jews for Ceasefire” organization, which he leads, is closely aligned with the “If Not Now” movement, explaining that they “[serve] as a bridge between the Jewish community and the much larger and more public pro-Palestinian community on campus.” Dardik’s group spreads awareness throughout campus about a bilateral ceasefire, with Dardik explaining that he is in favor of “a bilateral ceasefire that returns all of the hostages in exchange for an end of the war, involving the beginning of diplomatic processes that involve a long-term peaceful solution, including demilitarization of Hamas.”

Dardik is hesitant to label many of the people identifying as “anti-Zionists” as antisemitic; he elaborated that, in every popular definition of antisemitism, a specific clause includes a clarification that criticism of Israel, even if it is anti-Zionist in nature, is not by definition antisemitic. He then clarified that there have “definitely been antisemitic incidents on campus,” although he argued that the label of antisemitism has been used as a “cudgel” toward these anti-Zionist movements. He further insisted that students in these protests are capable of determining what they are doing that is antisemitic: “People will be able to tell the difference between antisemitism and anti-Zionism if we as a community do a better job of defining each term and differentiating between them,” concluded Dardik.

Sahar Tartak, a sophomore at Yale from Great Neck, New York, recently was in the news after being physically assaulted at a Yale protest. She described her activism as being primarily writing-based, saying that she released a controversial article in Yale Daily News shortly after October 7 called, “Is Yalies4Palestine a Hate Group?” She wrote this article following large celebrations and justifications of October 7 by Yale’s student body, in which they chanted “resistance is justified” and called on other students to celebrate the “resistance” as a success. “Yale censored [my] article a few weeks later by cutting out references of Hamas raping and beheading people,” continued Tartak, “so I came out with an article about in Washington Free Beacon about them denying this atrocity.”

Tartak also testified to Congress in mid-November about her experiences on campus and wrote a piece in Tablet in early January that was “a more extensive discussion of how journalism, especially student journalism, has been corrupted by an ‘oppressor/oppressed’ dichotomy like the thing that happened in Yale Daily News with the denial of Hamas atrocities.” She said she writes mostly articles in newspapers and magazines, and sometimes on Twitter, as well as appearing on the national news fairly often.

“More recently, I was assaulted at one of these rallies while being blockaded, and I was interviewed by The Free Press,” said Tartak. “Earlier this year, I ran a small paper magazine called The Yale Free Press that is delivered door-to-door, in which I wrote a defense of Israel.” Tartak explained that the paper is more well-distributed than any other campus papers, as it hits nearly every door on campus. Tartak wrote an article in this paper about the process of Israel giving up the Gaza Strip, and how Hamas manipulates the media and the Western world about Israel, and another article in which she interviewed a Yale student who was born and raised in Iran and called the Yale student keffiyeh-wearers “privileged,” comparing their rallies to the ones in Iran in which people were shot.

Yale student Sahar Tartak’s article was censored by the Yale Daily News, saying that Hamas barbarism crimes were “unsubstantiated.” (Credit: Sahar Tartak)

Tartak said the encampments are impossible to avoid, as they are located at the entrance of the central library and central dining hall on Yale’s campus. She explained that students either have to walk around the encampment or take a back door, as the students in the encampment won’t let others through. Tartak continued that, when she would record these encampments, she was tailed by members of the encampment afterward on multiple occasions. “The encampment in front of the library, they’d ask whether you agreed with the community guidelines, and at one point kicked out multiple Yale Daily News reporters from the encampment,” she said.

Shabbos Kestenbaum, a second-year graduate student at Harvard from Riverdale, New York, is the founder and president of the Harvard Divinity School Student Association, as well as being an active member of Harvard’s Hillel and Chabad. “During October 7, [Harvard] had 34 student groups representing more than 1,000 students claim that Israel was responsible for October 7,” said Kestenbaum.

Kestenbaum said that he planted 1,200 Israeli and American flags in the center of Harvard Community School “to draw attention to the plight of the hostages and to draw attention to the fact that American and Jewish values align.” He has given speeches at rallies, and on the night of May 7, will be saying the names of all victims of October 7 in the center of the encampments through a loudspeaker. “I’ve organized and prayed in front of the illegal encampments with my tefillin and said Tehillim for the hostages,” said Kestenbaum.

Kestenbaum said that he, along with five other unnamed students, filed a lawsuit against Harvard in January alleging that “Harvard has allowed pervasive and systemic antisemitism across campus generally, and in a way that has been inescapable since October 7.”

Tartak and Kestenbaum both said that they think non-Jewish American media is downplaying the intensity and violence in these protests. “When I was at MIT on Friday, I wanted to walk through [the encampment], and seven alleged ‘safety marshals’ who were students with no authority physically prevented me, initially, from walking in,” said Kestenbaum. “I know students who don’t wear kippahs anymore, who don’t talk about their Israeli identity in classes. These are real, ongoing threats.” Tartak said that, although many people believe these groups to be peaceful, “they are clearly not,” continuing that the practice of creating human blockades to stop Jews upon arrival to the encampments “is a step toward violence” and restricts people’s freedom of movement. Tartak explained that the human blockades are common and have been happening on campuses across the U.S., and also said that people at these encampments will chant things like, “From water to water, Palestine is Arab”—a call for genocide. However, Dardik disagreed that Western media has been downplaying the protests, arguing instead that the media has exaggerated the rallies and encampments at Columbia, elaborating that “something big…is made massive,” because the media cannot accurately capture the nuances of an on-campus experience and merely wants to dramatize the protests. Although the media tries to create a general picture, it became clear that students living with encampments right now are having a large variety of experiences that cannot be painted with a broad brush.

Brooke Schwartz Bass is a junior at Brandeis University. Originally from Englewood, she is a graduate of The Frisch School and studied at Midreshet Amudim in Israel. She is also a former Jewish Link intern and staff member.

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