STORRS, Connecticut — Already reeling from several antisemitic attacks that occurred this academic year, Jewish students at the University of Connecticut are on edge during the flare-up of hostilities between Israel and Hamas.
That’s why Mitchel Kuperstein, who recently graduated from the University of Connecticut (UConn), will continue pushing the university to adopt the one-credit course he developed on antisemitism.
“In light of the reactions to the conflict between Israel and Hamas, I think getting a course on combating antisemitism approved is even more important now,” Kuperstein said.
Kuperstein got the idea last year during the early weeks of lockdown when students took a mandatory one-credit course about COVID-19 public health measures, but his plan didn’t gain traction until a spate of antisemitic incidents hit the campus this year. In one instance, a giant black swastika was spray-painted on the chemistry building. It was large enough to be seen from the Hillel House across the lawn.
“Unfortunately, antisemitism is something I’ve experienced firsthand,” said Kuperstein, a double major in physiology and neurology. “Oftentimes, when something happens, we ask how we should respond. It’s one thing for us to say we’re not satisfied with the university response and another thing to show the university a way they could respond. This course is a way it could respond.”
Kuperstein’s petition, which has 320 signatures and counting, comes just as experts on antisemitism and advocates for Jewish students have begun calling on universities to introduce mandatory education about antisemitism. They see this as a way to combat the high numbers of antisemitic incidents on campuses.
Prior to the current Gaza conflict and even ahead of the COVID-19 pandemic’s lockdown measures, antisemitic incidents in schools, colleges, and universities were reported at significantly higher levels in the first months of 2020 than for the same period in 2019, according to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). And while statistics aren’t yet available for 2021, it appears the year is on track to stay high.
In most universities, incoming university students are already required to complete several training modules during orientation about topics such as sexual consent, the safe use of alcohol, and anti-racism, said Seffi Kogen, American Jewish Committee (AJC) global director for young leadership.
“The implicit messaging in this is ‘this is important, pay attention.’ Antisemitism shows no signs of abating and so universities should be teaching about antisemitism as well,” Kogen said.
According to a recent AJC report on the state of antisemitism in the United States, more than half of Americans 18 to 29 years old — the group most widely represented among college students and recent graduates — said they didn’t know what “antisemitism” meant.
“You couldn’t get away with jumping up on the cafeteria table and saying, ‘Jews to the Gas. I’m a Nazi.’ But you probably could get away with saying Israel slaughters children and Hillel needs to denounce Israel, which is antisemitic because it’s saying Jews in America need to be held personally responsible for Israel. You generally won’t be shunned for that,” Kogen said, citing sentiments that are currently being aired on campuses and social media.
‘We felt very unheard’
Growing up in Woodbridge, Connecticut, Avital Sutin attended the private Jewish Ezra Academy there. She spent summers at Camp Eisner, an overnight camp in the Berkshires.
“I did the whole nine yards,” the 20-year-old psychology major said.
So when Sutin started looking at colleges in 2018, she wanted a place where she could be fully immersed in Jewish life.
Ultimately she chose UConn. Both of her sisters attended in the early 2000s and she knew it to be a place where, despite the increasing incidents of antisemitism nationwide, racism shouldn’t be a problem.
Of the university’s 18,847 undergraduates, 11 percent, or 2,000, are Jewish. The university meal plan offers kosher food at no extra cost and Jewish organizations on campus, including Huskies for Israel, Hillel and Chabad, coexist with Students for Justice in Palestine. When SJP petitioned the university last year to cut and defund travel abroad programs to Israel, the administration rejected the idea.
“Nothing has happened on campus [since the outbreak of violence in Israel], however, Students for Justice in Palestine has been organizing rallies around Connecticut and there has definitely been a rise of students posting about the conflict on social media,” said Sutin, a rising junior and president of Hillel UConn.
However, aside from isolated episodes, nothing prepared Sutin for what happened earlier this academic year. In October 2020 came three incidents of vandalism, including the words “The Third Reich” written on the whiteboard on the door to a student’s dorm room.
Then came the four incidents in the spring semester.
Shortly before Passover, a swastika was spray-painted on the chemistry building. Passengers in a car shouted antisemitic slurs at a student walking home from a Chabad seder, matzah in hand, kippa on head. Now Sutin was scared.
“Antisemitism is one of those things that are abstract and seem far away until it’s right at your front door. That’s what happened here,” said Sutin. “In that period right after Passover we felt very unheard and unseen by the administration and other groups. It was very hurtful.”
Antisemitism is one of those things that are abstract and seem far away until it’s right at your front door
After the October episodes, when the UConn administration was drafting a statement, Hillel’s executive director Edina Oestreicher was invited to review the wording. The word antisemitism was initially missing from the statement, said Oestreicher, who is also a UConn alum.
“We as a Jewish community have a right to name it, to call it what it is. Not just call it acts of bias and hatred. Now we say anti-Black racism. A year or so ago we might not have called it that,” Oestreicher said, adding that she favors incorporating antisemitism education into freshman orientation.
Since March, Hillel has sponsored a solidarity gathering to fight antisemitism as well as several panel discussions about it.
In late April the UConn Police Department arrested and charged Kristopher Pieper, a 21-year-old junior, with intimidation based on bigotry or bias and criminal mischief for allegedly spray-painting the swastika on the chemistry building.
“Whenever there are incidents we have to take them seriously,” said Carl Lejuez, UConn’s provost and executive vice president for academic affairs. “We always have to make a decision about what to respond to. We’ve made a decision to respond more forcefully than less when things happen. Students need to know that it matters when you report something.”
‘The only people who seem to care are other Jews’
The United States isn’t the only nation seeing a rise of antisemitism on college campuses.
In Canada, the number of antisemitic incidents rose in 2019 for the fourth consecutive year, according to B’nai Brith Canada. That’s not news for Shoshana Rose Cohen, who graduated from Concordia University in Montreal in May 2020.
Cohen, 26, is now pursuing a master’s degree in communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, but her experience as an undergraduate at Concordia left her reeling. Of the 31,693 undergraduates, 825 are Jewish. While that’s under three percent of the undergrad population, Cohen thought she could freely practice Judaism and get a fulfilling education there, she said.
“From the day I was accepted to the day I left there were numerous incidents. Most of it was religious discrimination and some of it was racist, like someone yelling ‘Why don’t Jews get over the Holocaust,’” said Cohen, who grew up in an observant home in Toronto.
During the last few years Cohen approached university officials several times about faculty resistance to her requests for religious accommodation regarding exams and other due dates, according to emails made available to The Times of Israel. Only once did a faculty member intercede on her behalf, she said.
Eventually, Cohen emailed the Quebec Human Rights Commission (QHRC) and the Concordia Office of Rights and Responsibilities. QHRC advised her to drop the case since the exam date had since changed. As for the university, Cohen said she received an email saying the matter would be investigated. She never heard from them again.
Though Cohen graduated last spring, she didn’t leave Concordia behind.
Shortly after International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Cohen logged onto a virtual chat with fellow Concordia alum and students.
During the chat she said she hoped the school would adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) language on antisemitism. In response, someone posted a reference to the November 2014 Har Nof massacre, in which two Palestinian men burst into a Jerusalem synagogue and killed six people.
The post distressed Cohen and she felt the discomfort of the past several years resurface.
During my time there, we had a lot of social justice awareness things discussing anti-Black racism or Islamophobia. Why didn’t I ever hear antisemitism being raised?
“During my time there, we had a lot of social justice awareness things discussing anti-Black racism or Islamophobia,” she said. “Why didn’t I ever hear antisemitism being raised? It’s very isolating and there is a lot of frustration in not being heard. You end up feeling very alone because the only people who seem to care are other Jews.”
Although Cohen never heard from Concordia’s administration, she said she was pleased to learn that the Concordia Student Union (CSU) recently voted unanimously to apologize to the Jewish community for its “Indifference to one of the world’s oldest forms of discrimination. Indifference to the concerns of our Jewish students. Indifference to the struggles they have faced.”
CSU councilor and incoming Hillel Concordia president Nicole Nashen also welcomed the apology.
“When I first read through the apology to the Jewish community, I was speechless. We felt seen for the first time. We felt heard for the first time,” Nashen said in an email. “A CSU that has spent far too many years not only ignoring the discrimination that Jewish students faced, but actually perpetuating the oppression of Jewish students, owned up to their antisemitic past and apologized.”
The CSU also announced plans to start yearly antisemitism training for councilors and executives.
According to Mark Rotenberg, Hillel International’s vice president of university initiatives and legal affairs, there is a dire need for education about antisemitism.
“There has been an enormous upsurge in antisemitic attacks on campus in the past six years. It’s increased six-fold — not six percent, but 600%,” said Rotenberg, who is also a law professor at American University. “Academic leadership needs training and education — not only to understand what Jewish students face, but also to learn what constitutes antisemitism.”
As such, Hillel International, together with the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), launched the Campus Climate Initiative in February. The pilot program teaches university leaders how to address and prevent antisemitic incidents. University of California Berkley and San Francisco State University are among the participating private and public universities. Additionally, the Adademic Engagement Network launched a similar program, the Improving the Campus Climate Initiative.
Rotenberg thinks a one-credit, semester-long course like the one Kuperstein developed is the right idea. While UConn supports the concept of Kuperstein’s course, it notes it hasn’t made any official decisions yet.
“We are working to ensure a range of opportunities for an increasingly diverse campus. That’s always a challenge. Teaching about antisemitism will be a part of that,” said Dr. Frank Tuitt, UConn’s chief diversity officer.
No matter what shape this education takes, one must first name the problem, said AJC’s Kogen.
“We need to define antisemitism. That’s something that 53% of 18- to 29-year-olds can’t do,” Kogen said.
To that end, schools should adopt the IHRA language on antisemitism, which says schools should respect the right of Jewish students to define antisemitism for themselves and defer to the lived experience of Jewish students, Kogen said.
Danny Goldberg, a third-year law student at Arizona State University (ASU), agrees.
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Goldberg said he was “very comfortable” in his Judaism. At ASU, where he also did his undergraduate work, he was involved in various Jewish organizations including AIPAC.
Yet, as disturbed as Goldberg is about increasing campus antisemitism, including several incidents at ASU last year, he’s skeptical about introducing antisemitism education during orientation.
“You’ve got a roomful of nervous incoming students thinking about a lot of different things. They are going to wonder why they have to listen to that and will likely tune it out,” he said.
Regardless of whether and when such education is adopted, universities must not only be vocal about their support for Jewish students, they must act on that support.
“We can try to fight campus fires one by one, but a more comprehensive strategy is needed. We have to stop playing whack-a-mole,” said Miriam Elman, executive director of the Academic Engagement Network.
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