Students at a UC Berkeley Hillel event in 2019.
Students at a UC Berkeley Hillel event in 2019.

Jewish college students don’t belong on the front lines of fighting antisemitism

I got a call the other day from a supporter asking me about antisemitism on campus, offering her support and insisting that the campus administration needed to do more.

When she asked what our Berkeley Hillel was doing, I paused for a moment and said, “What are we doing to fight antisemitism? Our mere existence, day in and day out, is the constant buttress to the rise of antisemitism on campus today.”

College students did not come to campus to fight antisemitism. They came to explore and thrive, both within a Jewish community and the greater campus community. They came to meet people of other backgrounds, push their boundaries, and enter conversations that challenge and cause just enough discomfort to make them think deeply. It is in these spaces that students begin to discover and continue their Jewish journeys, as generations of Jewish students have before them.

But today, antisemitism is more prevalent on college campuses than at any time in my 16 years as a Hillel director.

This past May, during the Gaza violence, there was an onslaught of antisemitic vitriol against Jewish students. This only highlighted what many were sensing — the upward trend of antisemitism on college campuses in recent years. Students share experiences of being denied entrance to different groups because of their connection to Israel. Students report more incidents of swastikas and Nazi symbolism on campus. And a greater number of students have shared they don’t feel comfortable wearing a Star of David necklace around campus.

These anecdotes are affirmed by a comprehensive new survey conducted by Hillel International and the Anti-Defamation League, which found one in three students personally experienced antisemitic hate directed at them in the last academic year. Additional findings from the survey included: 31 percent of Jewish students witnessed antisemitic activity on campus that was not directed at them; Jewish students expressed concern about antisemitism from the political left, center and right; 15 percent of students reported that they felt the need to hide their Jewish identity from others on campus.

Jewish students need our universities to address this increase in antisemitic incidents and bullying of Jewish students on campus by quickly responding to these incidents with steadfast conviction and forthright statements that make clear that hatred and bias against Jewish students on campus will not be tolerated.

To get there, Hillels around the country are strengthening relationships with university administrators through the Campus Climate Initiative, offering support and training to help understand and address incidents as they come up, and educating campus administrators about what modern antisemitism looks like. Together with the ADL, Hillel is also developing an educational curriculum for Jewish and non-Jewish students, and making it easier for students to report antisemitic incidents and receive immediate support.

But a deeper look into the recent survey shows that education on antisemitism and how to prevent it is not the only answer.

The study points out that 74 percent of students who participated in Jewish activities reported feeling safe on campus as a Jew — compared to 65 percent of students who did not participate in Jewish activities. The more Jewish communal opportunities and experiences a Jewish student can find on campus, the safer they feel as a Jew.

This all makes sense — if I have a community that celebrates who I am, gives me opportunities to learn about my culture and traditions and to share in celebration with my peers, then I’ll feel safe.

The report explains, “This affirms the need for building thriving Jewish life on college campuses to offer Jewish students a safe space free of antisemitism and to provide them the tools and resources to address antisemitism if and when they experience it.”

It is through building vibrant and thriving Jewish communities on campus that we can both build a positive and meaningful Jewish identity for every Jewish student while addressing antisemitism.

My colleagues and I fight antisemitism day in and day out by creating opportunities for Jewish students to be proud of who they are, and engage with a place in which they learn and experiment with their Jewish expression in a warm and safe environment. Shabbat dinners, weekly BBQ gatherings, leadership development opportunities, holiday celebrations, study groups, klezmer bands, and the myriad of creative and innovative Jewish expressions created by student leaders give Jewish students at Berkeley a positive place to connect to the Jewish community and build lifelong connections to Jewish life.

We’re doing so much to fight antisemitism on campus, and the work will never come to fruition without a dynamic and vibrant Jewish community on campus to diminish the darkness of those trying to stop Jewish students from fully expressing their whole Jewish selves.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of J.

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman
Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman

Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman is executive director of UC Berkeley Hillel.