The Israel-Gaza conflict that took place over the summer has had a ripple effect onto U.S. college campuses, with reported incidents of anti-Semitism there rising sharply after the war.
Neili Eggert, a junior at University of North Carolina Charlotte, has seen this firsthand. In September, three male students spit in her direction when she wore a “Stand With Israel” T-shirt; two weeks later, a female student told her to “burn in an oven” when she was sitting in the school’s student union. Eggert believes the woman was reacting to an Israeli flag sticker on her laptop. Others have called her a terrorist, an occupier, a woman-killer and baby-killer.
Eggert’s experience is not an isolated one. According to a report by the Anti-Defamation League published on Oct. 27, more than 90 anti-Israel events have taken place on U.S. college campuses so far this year, double what was reported during the same period last year. The acceleration came after “Operation Protective Edge,” as the Israeli government labeled it, the conflict between Israel and the radical Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Israeli air attacks on Gaza, Palestinian rocket fire and ground combat killed more than 2,100 Palestinians and 66 Israeli soldiers between July 8 and Aug. 27.
The Charlotte incident took place out of the school’s security cameras’ range. Since Eggert did not recognize the student, the college could not reprimand her under its Student Code of Conduct.
“It feels like every time I walk somewhere or go down a hallway I am going to be verbally attacked,” Eggert said. “I am extremely worried about my safety because these people are coming up to me in groups when I am alone.” Eggert said she is rarely on campus anymore and that the verbal assaults have affected her grades, classes and how she views the school she used to love.
Chabad on Campus, a college outreach arm of the Hasidic Jewish Lubavitch movement, has decided to take a proactive response. This weekend, the organization expects 1,000 students to participate in an event that celebrates Jewish pride and identity at its headquarters in Brooklyn. The annual event known as a Shabbaton — which hit a record number this year — will also host its first “Israel Advocacy Conference.” The interactive workshop is designed to teach students how to address anti-Israel allegations they are met with on campus by their peers. Chabad says this along with similar discussions on campus anti-Semitism that will take place over the weekend are related to the increasing tensions reported by students since the Israel-Gaza conflict.
“Our hope is that each student return from this weekend’s Shabbaton that much stronger as Jewish individuals, thereby naturally combating any adversity they may face,” said Rabbi Yossy Gordon, executive vice president of Chabad on Campus International. “As the age-old Jewish adage goes — a little bit of light can dispel a great deal of darkness.”
Melissa Sacks, a senior at Penn State University, is attending the Chabad event this weekend. Her campus experienced a high-profile anti-Semitic incident in 2012 when two students spray-painted 12 vehicles with swastikas, anti-Semitic language, the initials “K.K.K.” and random scribbling, according to police. While there have not been any major incidents since then, Sacks said she experiences “subtle anti-Semitism” from time to time.
“A few weeks ago someone in my apartment building was sitting his balcony and started screaming, ‘Hey Jews!’” Sacks said, explaining the comments were directed at her and her friends. During her freshman year, Sacks said, a student asked her where her horns were. “I said they were retractable and I didn’t put them up today,” she said.
Sacks, who is majoring in international politics and Middle East studies, speaks fluent Arabic and spent last semester studying in Israel. She said the offensive remarks could be chalked up to college students being youths whose social lives or next exam often take precedence over studying current affairs.
For Alpha Epsilon Pi, an international Jewish fraternity with 185 chapters and 10,000 active undergraduates, the rising anti-Semitic incidents have led to phone calls from parents and alumni fearful for the safety of Jewish students on campus, said spokesman Jon Pierce.
On Oct. 5, swastikas were spray-painted onto a chapter’s house at Emory University in Atlanta. The incident took place the day after Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year. In July, mailboxes outside an Alpha Epsilon Pi house at the University of Oregon were also vandalized with swastikas. An Alpha Epsilon Pi brother at Ohio Universtiy had a mezuzah, a case containing religious texts mounted onto the doorposts of Jewish homes, ripped down twice from his door. His car was also spray-painted. A brother at SUNY Oneonta had his car keyed with a swatiska.
The fraternity says it works with campus security to ensure the safety of its brothers. It has also had chapters encourage brothers to avoid entering dangerous confrontations with students and groups that hold contrary beliefs to their own.
“We’re dealing with 18-21-year-old men. Sometimes their first inclination is to wade into a crowd of anti-Israel sympathizers and yell and scream,” Pierce said.
A recent case that showed some level of hope took place at Ohio University. On Sept. 2 the university’s Student Senate president poured red-tinted water over her head, in a political response to the viral ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. In a video posted on Vimeo, Megan Marzec wore a “Ohio U Divest From Israel” T-shirt and said the act was to show “concern of the genocide in Gaza and the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli state.”
Two weeks ago, Alpha Epsilon Pi brothers at Ohio University invited Marzec to a philanthropy event they were hosting, and she went. “I’m proud our guys have begun to bridge that gap,” Pierce said.
Alpha Epsilon Pi and other Jewish organizations on college campuses, including Hillel and the Israel on Campus Coalition, have worked with administrators, security officials, and other student groups to combat anti-Semitism. In October the Simon Wiesenthal Center unveiled a new mobile app, CombatHateU, for students to report anti-Semitic incidents on campus. So far, six legitimate reports have been made using the app. Most are from Eastern U.S. schools including CUNY, Ohio State, Yale and Penn State.
“It is an uphill battle right now,” Pierce said about the current climate.
At UNC Charlotte, Eggert does not have a Hillel, Chabad or a religious life center to go to. She says she knows plenty of Jewish students who have decided to hide their faith or support for Israel on campus. While she remains fearful of future verbal assaults, Eggert said she continues to wear pro-Israel and Jewish-themed T-shirts.
“I will not change who I am because I am afraid or being verbally threatened,” she said. “I want to be able to love this campus like I used to and not be afraid or worried anymore.”