Reporter's notebookJewish student group offers respite from anti-Israel vitriol

Only those with palms painted pro-Palestinian red can enter parts of Erasmus University

In cosmopolitan Rotterdam, Jews say they feel unsafe on campus, where they endure explicit calls for their people’s ethnic cleansing alongside intimidation and antisemitic violence

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

Anti-Israel protesters conceal themselves from a photographer's lens on the campus of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on June 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/ Times of Israel)
Anti-Israel protesters conceal themselves from a photographer's lens on the campus of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on June 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/ Times of Israel)

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands — An anti-Israel protester approached this reporter while narrowly avoiding the guidelines of the 20-odd tents that dotted Erasmus University campus’s main square. Wearing a keffiyeh over her face, she asked about the purpose of my visit.

About 30 of her comrades watched while eating dinner: a rice and lentil dish served from a large pot atop a portable gas stove.

“It’s a Zionist,” she called out, upon learning the name of this publication, prompting the group to cover their faces with their keffiyehs and surgical masks. They encircled, screaming, “Intifada!” as they placed a Palestinian flag over the camera to prevent any filming of the events taking place at one of Europe’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning.

The protesters had a tray with red paint at the ready, which they use during blockages. Only those students or faculty who agree to dip a palm in the paint to show solidarity with Palestinians are let through to various campus facilities.

A man who sounded like a native Arabic speaker began drumming on a bucket. The other activists started chanting “From the river to the sea,” and the man shouted: “Falastin arabiyeh,” Arabic for “an Arab Palestine.”

Parts of the encampment were moved to a nearby park earlier in June, but sporadic unauthorized blockages and protest actions persist in what has become a part of campus life in Erasmus, an institution with tens of thousands of students, including hundreds of Jews.

Unsafe at Erasmus

Two of the Jewish students are Lisa and Nathan, 19-year-old freshmen who, in September, established the university’s first official Jewish student group.

As in other campuses across the West, since the October 7 Hamas onslaught on southern Israel that left some 1,200 murdered and 251 taken hostage to Gaza, Jews at Erasmus have endured explicit calls for their people’s ethnic cleansing in Israel, alongside intimidation and antisemitic or anti-Israel violence.

“Welcome to Erasmus,” Lisa, who came to study international business administration here from her native Switzerland, told The Times of Israel. While she spoke, anti-Israel activists hollered slogans, including “Down, down with Zionism” and “Kick out the sayanim,” Arabic for Zionists.

Lisa and Nathan, who head the Jewish Student Association Rotterdam, stand against the background of an anti-Israel encampment on the campus of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on June 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Watching the protesters from a distance, Nathan and Lisa, who asked that their last names be withheld from this article for their safety, said they did not feel safe identifying as Jews on campus.

Asked whether he would feel safe being identified as Jewish on campus, Nathan said: “No. Why would I?” He added: “The atmosphere is intimidating. We don’t feel safe stating our opinion about Israel either,” said Nathan, who is originally from Belgium.

Not all Jewish students at Erasmus share this feeling. One Jewish art student from Austria, who asked his name be withheld from this article, said he found it “good that students feel passionate about something. I like it,” he added as he watched the protesters chanting.

“The river-to-the-sea stuff is totally f**ed up, though” added the student, whose mother is Israeli.

A Jewish student from Austria stands on the campus of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on June 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

For some Jewish students, life radically changed on October 7, when the flood of about 3,000 murderous Hamas terrorists triggered Israel’s ongoing war to dismantle Hamas in Gaza. It has claimed the lives of 38,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, though the toll cannot be verified and does not distinguish between civilians and terrorists. Israel says it has killed at least some 15,000 combatants in battle and some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel during the October 7 attack.

The war prompted a wave of anti-Israel protests and antisemitic incidents on an unprecedented scale across the West. Campuses have been a major focus of this activity, with radical nationalist groups like Samidoun, an international pro-Palestinian network focused on Palestinians in Israeli jails, mobilizing students, including at Erasmus. Some of the most shocking images of campus violence came from the University of Amsterdam, where anti-Israel male protesters were filmed in May assaulting peaceful counter-protesters with wooden planks on Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The blockages at the University of Amsterdam and Erasmus are part of an ongoing cat-and-mouse campaign by anti-Israel activists on campuses across the Western world. Protesters typically occupy campus grounds demanding the university cut ties with Israel or dismiss Zionist faculty. If they are removed or agree to disperse, they often renew the blockage within a few days.

Also last month, protesters beat up and chased away a man in Erasmus because he flew an Israeli flag on campus. Across campus, walls feature posters of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wearing demon’s horns, which Lisa and Nathan regard as echoing antisemitic imagery.

Anti-Israel protesters chat on the campus of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on June 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Celebrating Jewish life — at an undisclosed location

The newly founded Jewish Student Association Rotterdam is in talks with the university’s administration on these issues, Nathan and Lisa said. But they established the group in September with a completely different goal in mind, which they continue to pursue.

“The association is not an advocacy group about Israel. It’s meant to celebrate and strengthen Jewish life,” said Lisa. The association held a Shavuot event and a Passover seder, which local media had characterized as taking place at a “secret location” for fear of hostilities.

This was an overdramatization, Lisa said.

“Like Jewish student groups all around the world, we advertised the event without stating the address on the banner advertising it. We gave the address to those who registered. This doesn’t make it a secret event,” she said.

Yet Christian and Muslim events on campus are often advertised with a time and place stated on the banner, she conceded.

“Yes, we operate under some constraints, but we haven’t gone underground. Having a vibrant, visible Jewish campus community was the reason we set up the association,” Lisa said.

The seder turned out to be the association’s best event so far, Nathan said. “We did the religious aspect, but it was also cultural,” he added. The interaction between the dozens of participants cemented the Jewish community of Erasmus, which is as eclectic as the general student population in this famously international institution.

“It was quite meaningful,” Nathan said of the seder, raising his voice slightly to be heard over the chants in the background for ethnic cleansing of Jews.

Celebrating the October 7 massacre — out in the open

One Jewish student at Erasmus, Michael Zweibach, recalled seeing spontaneous expressions of joy on October 7 by people with a Middle Eastern appearance outside his off-campus apartment in Rotterdam.

“They were handing out sweets, as they do in Gaza,” he said.

Michael Zweibach walks across the campus of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, the Netherlands on June 5, 2024. (Canaan Lidor/Times of Israel)

Zweibach, a 22-year-old student from Peru on the second year of his economics degree studies, was “disappointed,” he said, that this reality has become a defining aspect of Jewish community life in Erasmus. But he was also relieved it was up and running when October 7 happened, he said.

“Now we have a community. We’re not alone. Had this happened without the Jewish association, we wouldn’t even have somewhere to talk about our experiences and get together and do something about it,” Zweibach said.

A spokeswoman for Erasmus said that the administration does not tolerate antisemitic rhetoric, which she acknowledged has been on display at Erasmus’ anti-Israel protests. Rules against this have been made “stricter,” the spokeswoman said. She then juxtaposed wearing a kippah with flying a Palestinian flag.

“Everyone may express their opinion. So both wearing a kippah on campus and waving a Palestinian flag should be possible,” she said.

The events of the past academic year “took us by surprise,” said Lisa. But she and her fellow Jewish association members are preparing for the upcoming academic year, including by setting up a stall for the first time with other student groups trying to recruit members.

The Jewish association was born out a desire to unite the community, Lisa said. But after October 7, “we understood that this isn’t just something we wish to do, but something that must be done.”

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