Students and Hillel associates paint and chat during commUNITY, a session of healing through art and prayer, at SF Hillel in San Francisco on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
Students and Hillel associates paint and chat during commUNITY, a session of healing through art and prayer, at SF Hillel in San Francisco on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Jewish college students can’t escape the politics of Oct. 7

A visiting colleague asked to observe the pro-Palestinian “shut it down” protest on Nov. 9 at the University of San Francisco. About 200 students shouted phrases such as “No peace on stolen land.”

Nearby, we spent a few moments with three Jewish students standing silently with an Israeli flag and posters of hostages held by Hamas. They were subdued and scared, yet full of courage. The pro-Palestinian protesters had their backs to us. But in one swift movement, they rotated and their eyes bore into us as they accused us of genocide.

This is but one example of what Jewish college students are experiencing. It’s not entirely clear if campus administrators understand the threat underneath the rhetoric — rhetoric that can already intimidate Jewish students into hiding their identity.

Here are some other examples from students we work with at SF Hillel, which operates at multiple S.F. colleges.

A student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music reported that the mezuzah was violently ripped off the front door of the Jewish-owned building where she lives. Now, she is scared to display any sign of her Jewish identity in her home and worries every time she leaves the house.

A San Francisco State University student and recent IDF veteran doesn’t feel safe talking about her service or her Israeli heritage. She has had many people jump to conclusions about her, so now she keeps that part of herself a secret.

An Israeli student at USF was doxxed by a fellow student on Instagram. Doxxing exposes confidential information, including someone’s identity, on social media with the intent of drawing attention or harm to the person. As the student told us, “I didn’t leave my house for a week. I didn’t even go to my backyard. I was terrified that someone would find me and do something to me.”

In an email survey of 22 Jewish students on one San Francisco campus, respondents were asked whether they felt physically safe on campus. Twelve said they felt safe, and seven were unsure. Twelve said they felt comfortable expressing their views, while seven did not.

The SF Hillel house on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)
The SF Hillel house on Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023. (Photo/Aaron Levy-Wolins)

Some students actually felt less comfortable expressing their views in Jewish spaces, particularly for Jewish students who are not Zionists or have mixed feelings about Israel.

“In Palestinian places I feel if I don’t express extreme support, I am at risk of facing antisemitism, while if I critique Israel in Jewish spaces I am viewed as a ‘traitor’ or ‘not Jewish enough,’” one wrote.

Another wrote, “The safety issue actually lies within the Jewish community itself, as I’ve actually felt less safe WITHIN the Jewish community.”

This is our starting point.

In the weeks following the Oct. 7 Hamas massacre, we hosted several processing sessions as counter-programming to campus rallies. While many students appreciated this and our engagement doubled from the same time last year, some students can feel conflicted by the desire to support both Israelis and Palestinians.

In one of our Jewish Learning Fellowship cohort sessions, we hosted a two-sided discussion with Jewish students who seemed to leave feeling supported regardless of their beliefs.

As the meaning of the term “Zionism” has been muddied, it takes some patience to understand that in some cases a Jewish student who says they are anti-Zionist actually means they are strongly against the policies and actions of the State of Israel, not that Israel shouldn’t exist, as a true anti-Zionist would. They want to feel safe expressing that criticism, as they should.

Recently, a local Hebrew teacher, who is Israeli, hosted a Shabbat dinner that drew 30 students, many Israeli, for an evening of processing in a group setting. Students joined in text study, Shabbat blessings and a meal made by local Jewish chefs. Students were free to express their emotions, whatever they may be. While much of the conversation at the event was somber, the overall energy of the room was swelling with Jewish joy.

This is a reminder that it takes great intentionality to create safe places for Jewish students, even at a Hillel.

Roger Feigelson
Roger Feigelson

Roger Feigelson is the executive director of S.F. Hillel.