Reporter's notebookChants on campus: 'We are Hamas, long live the resistance'

As they gird for worse campus vitriol, North American Jewish students plug into Israel

Initially shocked by the antisemitism and hatred they encountered, the 20 visitors are preparing to push back hard at their universities come fall

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

Alexandra Ahdoot visits Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)
Alexandra Ahdoot visits Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

University of Texas economics major Jason Diebner initially considered his chosen school merely a top institution of higher learning.

After October 7 and the explosion of anti-Israel and antisemitic agitation it triggered on his campus, Diebner began to view the university differently. Today he sees it as a battleground in a “war that pretty much every Jew around my age in America is a part of,” he told The Times of Israel during an organized visit to Tel Aviv by a delegation of pro-Israel students from North American campuses.

Diebner’s fellow delegation members shared similar experiences: While shocked by the violence and vitriol they experienced this year, they are using the summer to prepare themselves for more of the same — or worse — in the fall. The students say they are resigned to returning to campus to face more hatred and harassment — but this time without the element of surprise and with more pushback.

The events at the University of Texas, where police arrested dozens of rioters, shook Diebner up, he said during a visit to Tel Aviv’s Hostages Square by members of the student delegation sponsored by Hasbara Fellowships and

“I’ve never seen something at the scale,” he said of the anti-Israel agitation at the University of Texas, where protesters held noisy rallies for six hours straight every day during finals week, he said.

Some anti-Israel protesters screamed at him that “rape is resistance” when he faced them off in a counter-protest, he said. Others told him to “go back to Europe,” and another one ripped up Diebner’s poster of an Israeli woman and screamed at Diebner: “The Israeli army rapes babies and women all the time,” Diebner recalled.

Jason Diebner visits Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Prior to October 7, Diebner had limited time for and interest in campus politics, he said. But as anti-Israel agitation worsened, he became vocal, giving interviews to the media and showing up with other counter-protesters to anti-Israel activities on campus.

“We encountered some outright threats by people wearing keffiyehs across their face. And you see their eyes and they’re screaming, ‘We are Hamas, long live the resistance,’” he recalled.

Before deciding to take a stand, “There were days I wouldn’t go to school because I was scared. My grades have suffered. My focus suffered,” said Diebner. He is “finding the balance” between activism and maintaining a good average, he added.

The trip to Israel was part of how Diebner was preparing for the next school year, he said. The delegation toured sites affected by the Hamas onslaught on October 7, when 3,000 of the group’s terrorists invaded Israel, killing some 1,200 people and abducting 252, among other war crimes and atrocities. Israel launched a still-ongoing military operation to dismantle Hamas and says it has killed at least 15,000 combatants. Hamas-run authorities say that some 35,000 people have died as a result of Israel’s military operation.

“I came to witness and continue the fight. We’re preparing. So is the other side. I expect them to be better mobilized and more dangerous this fall,” Diebner said. Backing down, he added, is not an option.

“We can’t. Each time we did, we’ve been lambs to slaughter,” Diebner said.

Pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters walk from Columbia University down to Hunter College, May 6, 2024, in New York City. (SPENCER PLATT / Getty Images via AFP)

No more ‘naming and shaming’

“We hope for the best, but we’re preparing for worse,” said Josh Shain, a Jewish premed student at Columbia University. That institution has become a symbol for the anti-Israel agitation on US campuses after its grounds were repeatedly occupied by protesters, prompting police to raid it on May 1 and make more than 100 arrests. A campus rabbi in April advised Jewish students to stay away for fear of antisemitic assault.

The response of his university’s administration to the repeated occupation of campus grounds by anti-Israel activists, Shain said, “has not been adequate.” Pro-Israel protesters intend to “up their activity, but smartly and effectively, working with campus authorities in advance of events and getting all the permits so we can’t be ignored or silenced,” he said.

On the Israel trip, the 20-odd visiting students “educate themselves and stand together in solidarity as we prepare to fight back on our campuses next school year,” said Alan Levine, the executive director of Hasbara Fellowships, the group that co-sponsored the students’ trip.

At the University of Western Ontario, Ido Nur is experiencing what he calls “naming and shaming” exercises by anti-Israel students.

“Basically, they go through the names of students, particularly students who stand up for Israel, look them up online, find stuff on them and then call them out on megaphones, accusing them of being complicit in murdering babies,” says Nur, who was born in Israel.

His Israeli-sounding name and attendance at pro-Israel events and counter-demonstrations have made him a frequent target of the anti-Israel activists’ person-specific tactics. This has shaken his sense of personal safety but is also pushing him toward a more defiant stance, he said.

“They stalk most of us. They know all of us,” Nur said of the anti-Israel activists responsible for the intimidation. He notices hateful looks at the library and on campus.

“I feel unsafe… Then, sometimes, I have the feeling that something’s pushing me to stand up, maybe because I’m an Israeli among Jews,” Nur said.

Ido Nur tours Hostages Square in Tel Aviv on May 22, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Against this backdrop, the decision to continue attending Western, where he studies business and computer science, was not self-evident, Nur said. In weighing what to do, “I just told myself that whatever I was doing before October 7, I have to continue doing because if I stop I’m showing them that they won,” he said.

As an activist, Nur is preparing to have a more proactive approach next year.

“I was busy saying what Israel is not: not an apartheid state, not a baby killer. Next year I’m going to be focusing on yelling out what Israel is,”  Nur said. He is teaming up with StandWithUs, a pro-Israel advocacy group, and plans to set up a table at rallies to hold one-on-one talks and host arguments.

Serving Israel from afar

At Duke University in North Carolina, Alexandra Ahdoot feels that her campus “has not actually been as bad relative to other campuses, in that there have been few violent incidents,” she said. But there have “definitely been a lot of verbal harassment and targeting,” including chants about “globalizing the intifada,” a term that many understand as a call to violence against Jews, she added. It has only strengthened her resolve to speak up for Israel on campus, she said.

“If I’m not in Israel serving in the IDF, the least I could do in America is be the strongest voice on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people,” said Ahdoot, who comes from a Persian-Jewish family from Teaneck, New York, and who has visited Israel many times.

Ahdoot is waiting to see how Duke’s administration handles anti-Israel agitation next year to decide how to adapt her activism.

“If we get back to campus and our administrations are not taking adequate action to protect our rights, then the behavior of people is going to escalate on both ends,” she said.

Commencement speaker Jerry Seinfeld laughs on stage during Duke University’s graduation ceremony, May 12, 2024, in Durham, North Carolina. (Bill Snead/Duke University via AP)

The speech that comedian Jerry Seinfeld gave at Duke’s commencement ceremony earlier this month left Ahdoot with mixed feelings, she said.

“On the one hand, it’s encouraging that he was invited,” she said, noting that Seinfeld is Jewish and has expressed support for Israel and visited it during its current war with Hamas.

But dozens of students chanted “Free Palestine” and walked out of Seinfeld’s speech, which didn’t mention Israel or Gaza.

“It’s very frustrating and disappointing to see that some people cannot view Jewish people as equals and they hold us to different standards just for being Jewish,” said Ahdoot.

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