College campuses nationwide have seen new divisions created by the Israel-Hamas war that go far beyond the classroom, as students grapple with radically different perspectives on the conflict. Depending on how long the war continues, some of the student activists who are loudly voicing their opinions may create a potentially hazardous environment for Jewish high school seniors pondering where they want to apply to college.
Jeffrey Lax, of North Woodmere, a professor at CUNY Kingsborough Community College, is a co-founder of Students and Faculty for Equality at CUNY, an organization that aims to protect and advocate for Jews on campus. In an opinion piece published in the New York Post in April, Lax described the CUNY system as America’s most antisemitic university. Since the war began with Hamas’ attack in October, parents have sought guidance from him on how to direct their children applying for college — with some saying they wouldn’t support the city schools, at which the safety of Jewish students could be jeopardized, or wouldn’t send their children to college at all.
The Anti-Defamation League, the leading anti-hate organization in the U.S., found in a study that since the start of the 2023-24 school year, 73 percent of Jewish college students have experienced or witnessed some form of antisemitism since the beginning of the school year.
“Parents are very concerned about what to do and where to send their students to college,” Lax said. “If they feel it’s unsafe to go, let’s say to their first-choice college, and they don’t want to go there, then that’s a decision they have to make for themselves.”
The conflict has sparked tensions at colleges around the country, with Harvard University being in the spotlight after students released a statement of support for Palestinians, which eventually led to Jewish alumni threatening to withdraw financial support.
Lax said that regardless of where students choose to go to college, they should not be afraid of who they are.
“I think students can go where they want to go,” he said. “I hope they will do that, and that they speak up on behalf of what they believe is right and fight the antisemitism.”
The Simon Wiesenthal Center, a human rights organization that investigates and combats antisemitism and hate, teaches young people to identify hate in school and on the internet through programs like interactive workshops and assembly-style meetings. Michael Cohen, of Hewlett, the center’s Eastern director, said that since the terror attacks by Hamas, “there exists no guarantee when it comes to fairness and inclusivity on our nation’s college campuses currently.”
Cohen said that high school seniors should evaluate the quality of Jewish life on campuses they’re considering.
“What students can look for are the vitality of identifiable student groups such as with Jewish students in a Hillel Chapter or Chabad House, as well as how the university has recently handled any issues of bias that have occurred on campus,” he wrote in an email. “Unfortunately, with the dramatic rise of anti-Semitic incidents on our nations college campuses since October 7th, we have all had our eyes wide open as to which universities protect their Jewish students, and which do not.”
In the wake of reported incidents of antisemitism, officials from Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology were scheduled to testify before Congress on Tuesday, as the Herald went to press.
Asked if seniors should continue applying to their dream schools regardless of where those schools stand on the conflict, Cohen said absolutely.
“If we teach our children to be fearful, to not chase their dreams, we have allowed the terrorists to succeed in their ambitions,” he said.
The Wiesenthal center hosts two Jewish leadership internship programs each summer, and graduates of the program become part of what is called the Wiesenthal Government Advocacy Alumni Association a network of college students across the nation sharing what is happening on campuses, how Jewish students are feeling, how they are using their voices and their political power to stand up on hate and antisemitism on campus.
State Sen. Patricia Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick, of Malverne, who represents the Five Towns, and Assemblyman Ed Ra, of Franklin Square, unveiled legislation on Nov. 29 to implement antisemitism awareness and prevention sensitivity training at colleges and universities in New York State. It would require them to report incidents of hate and discrimination to the State Education Department.
“Some institutions of higher education have become unfettered breeding grounds for antisemitic activity, with hatred building up from simple rhetoric all the way to physical acts of violence,” Canzoneri-Fitzpatrick wrote in a news release. “It has become increasingly evident that many administrations are not adequately addressing this surge and, in some instances, are failing to react appropriately regarding faculty who encourage this abhorrent behavior.
“New York State taxpayer dollars should not be used to support any education institution that is allowing such hatred to run rampant on their campuses,” she added. “This legislation would prevent any institution that fails to comply with its provisions from receiving State aid or assistance until such compliance is achieved.”
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