Tired of hiding: Jews at U.S. colleges face rising antisemitism from left and right

"I just noticed your ring."

To Maya Satnick, it had seemed like a compliment. As the first-year student walked across the campus of San Diego State University four years ago, another student, a stranger, had approached her.

Satnick's silver ring bore a Star of David, a symbol of the 18-year-old's Jewish faith. It had been a gift from her grandmother, who had connected her to her family's traditions.

But the moment quickly turned menacing.

A group of students with the questioner began to surround her, Satnick recalled. "You don't belong here!" they yelled. "K---!" taunted another, using a slur against Jews. Satnick froze, then recovered and got out of there. For the rest of the day, she couldn't focus. Growing up in the suburbs outside L.A., she'd never experienced antisemitism personally.

Maya Satnick, 21, of West Hills, California, graduated recently from San Diego State University. A Star of David ring from her grandmother sparked an frightening response in her freshman year, she said.

The shock would stay with her: "I took off my ring and began hiding the fact that I was Jewish," Satnick said in a recent interview. When she headed to synagogue or the campus Jewish center, she kept it to herself. She worried about how other students would react.

For Jews on American campuses, it's become an all-too-familiar tale.

Tracking a surge in antisemitism across the culture, U.S. colleges and universities have seen a rapid rise in anti-Jewish activity, according to government agencies and private watchdogs that track bias incidents. In April, the Anti-Defamation League said such reports had spiked by 41% in 2022 compared with the previous year, with incidents recorded at more than 130 schools.

In more than three dozen recent interviews with NorthJersey.com, Jewish students shared stories of harassment that bring those statistics to disturbing life. They spoke of slurs endured in class, expulsions from campus clubs and eggs thrown at Jewish fraternities. Of swastikas carved into their dorm walls, Holocaust-denying flyers and a growing feeling that they needed to conceal their Jewish identities to be accepted.

More: ‘Fighting with love:’ Jewish students stand up, push back against campus antisemitism

'Looming presence of antisemitism'

At Tufts University, outside Boston, Micah Gritz said he feels "a looming presence of antisemitism ... I always have to evaluate where I feel safe as a Jew."

Gritz, an international security major from Rockville, Maryland, who just finished his junior year, said he's been told he must be rich if he's a Jew, and that he also bears responsibility for the deaths of Palestinian children. A psychology professor told him Israel had too much influence over the field, Gritz added.

Tufts University junior Micah Gritz poses for a photo on campus, Wednesday, May 10, 2023. Jewish students around the country say that they are experiencing antisemitism on college campus in a variety of ways and from right wing as well as left wing forces.
(Photo: Wicked Local Staff Photo/David Sokol)

"My father, who passed away last year, wore a Star of David necklace," said the 20-year-old. "I wear it now but find myself tucking it in in certain classes because I have to worry about what my professor might think of me or what classmates might say. It's a balancing act every day."

The federal Department of Education has opened several investigations into whether U.S. colleges have violated Jewish students' civil rights by allowing a poisonous environment to fester. The agency has opened reviews at at least 10 schools, including the City University of New York and its law school, UCLA, UC Berkeley, George Washington University, the University of Vermont, the State University of New York at New Paltz and the University of Illinois.

Last week, the White House unveiled what it called the first-ever national strategy aimed at combating antisemitism in America, and college campuses played a prominent role in the plan. The Biden administration called on colleges to condemn all forms of hate, to implement clearer mechanisms for reporting incidents and to create task forces to combat religious bias and ensure Jewish students are included in campus diversity, equity and inclusion programs.

While the concept earned wide praise from Jewish groups, some complained that it lacked the substance to be effective. Alyza Lewin, president and attorney at the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, a nonprofit that combats antisemitism on campus, applauded the Biden administration for the initiative because it "demonstrates that they take antisemitism seriously" and recognize "that it's not just a Jewish problem, but one that needs to be addressed by the entire society."

But she also said the document was undermined by not embracing a definition of antisemitism that includes denials of Israel's right to exist. "Targeting Jews on the basis of their connection to the state of Israel is just as antisemitic as targeting them on the basis of their Sabbath observance. Both are components of their Jewish identity,” she said.

Israel-Palestine at the heart of the rancor

While antisemitism has come from both right- and left-wing sources, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is at the heart of much of the rancor. Students said they are often blamed collectively for missteps by Israel's government, although they themselves may disagree with those policies. The ADL said it received a sharp increase in complaints during a deadly flare-up between Israel and Palestinian forces in May 2021.

Ten years ago, such incidents were rare at U.S. colleges, said Matthew Berger, executive director of the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, a nonprofit founded by New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft.

"Many college campuses have been experiencing these incidents now for the first time," said Berger, who previously worked at Hillel International, a Jewish campus organization.

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, a Jewish fraternity reported being targeted four times in the past two years. The Alpha Epsilon Pi house in New Brunswick was vandalized during a 2021 observance of Holocaust Remembrance Day in which the house was egged by unidentified perpetrators. A year later, in April 2022, eggs were thrown at the building during another memorial event, police records show.

Alpha Epsilion Pi, a Jewish fraternity at Rutgers University, has experienced a string of antisemitic incidents in recent years.

Days later, students told police that four carloads of people waving Palestinian flags stopped in front of the frat and yelled antisemitic slurs. After that report, the Rutgers chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine issued a statement saying it joined “the myriad voices in unequivocal opposition to antisemitism and all forms of racism and violence…The actions conducted were lone acts by individuals that have no formal or informal affiliation to our organization.”

Last September, another egging at the fraternity was reported on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year. There was no indication of who was responsible.

Investigations into all of the incidents are closed and resulted in no arrests or charges, said Dory Devlin, a Rutgers spokesperson.

In a report last October, the ADL tallied 359 anti-Israel incidents on American campuses overall during the 2021-22 school year. The group said the tally included one physical assault, 11 instances of vandalism, 19 instances of harassment, 143 events, 165 protests/actions and 20 resolutions and referenda on proposals to boycott or divest from Israel. “Many but not all incidents may be characterized as antisemitic,” the ADL said.

Swastikas on campus

Antisemitic vandalism has also increased on campus, the group found. In 2022, there were 90 incidents of anti-Jewish vandalism at colleges nationwide, 60% involving the use of a Nazi swastika, according to the ADL. The symbol of the regime that killed 6 million Jews in the Holocaust was spotted across the country, from William Paterson University in North Jersey to Ithaca College in upstate New York, Stanford University in California, the University of Delaware and Georgetown, in the nation's capital.

The most recent incidents occurred at the University of California-San Diego in May, when swastikas were found drawn in a dorm bathroom using human feces, and in April at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where a group of students allegedly gathered to celebrate Adolf Hitler's birthday.

The FBI's most recent statistics show that hate crimes against many groups are rising. But Jews, who make up less than 2% of the U.S. population, are the most targeted minority group in America on a per-capita basis. In 2021, over half of all crimes motivated by religious hatred were anti-Jewish, 51% of the total 1,590 incidents, according to the FBI, which compiles the reports from local law enforcement. There were no FBI statistics available for college campuses.

The numbers likely undercount the problem, because many incidents go unreported, the ADL says.

Hate turns deadly

At the University of Arizona last fall, the hatred allegedly turned deadly.

On Oct. 5 of last year — Yom Kippur, the most solemn day on the Jewish calendar — Professor Thomas Meixner was shot to death on the university's Tucson campus by a former student, police said. The student, Murad Dervish, had expressed antisemitic beliefs online and allegedly targeted Meixner because he wrongly believed the professor was Jewish.

Eyad Atallah, another instructor whom Dervish allegedly threatened, said in an interview that Dervish didn't believe him when he said Meixner, the head of the school's hydrology and atmospheric sciences department, was not Jewish. "I really can't blame you. They've very deceptive," Dervish told him.

"I have numerous texts from him indicating antisemitic as well as anti-Asian sentiment," Atallah said, adding that he would describe Dervish's sentiments as "white nationalist."

Dervish was charged with murder. A trial is scheduled for September. His attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

In another incident, a group of demonstrators descended on Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton in January and set up a table at a campus club fair with a banner that declared "Ye is Right. Change my Mind," said Ariana Hoblin, an FAU senior. The sign referred to Kanye West, the entertainer who now calls himself Ye, who was criticized for his antisemitic rants last year.

"A lot of Jewish students were upset," said Hoblin, president of the campus chapter of Students Supporting Israel. "When there's a threat and students don't feel safe, it is no longer free speech."

Do colleges take antisemitism seriously?

While colleges usually issue condemnations after antisemitic incidents, many students who shared their stories with the USA Today Network said they didn't feel that administrators take their concerns as seriously as biases involving other groups.

Tessa Veksler, a Jewish student at the University of California-Santa Barbara, questioned whether the school community took antisemitism as seriously as other biases.

Tessa Veksler, who is completing her junior year at the University of California-Santa Barbara, said she noticed the difference during a painful 48 hours in January.

Veksler, a political science and communications major from San Francisco, said she walked into her Middle East politics class on Jan. 30 to find that someone had written "F--- Israel" on the chalkboard, as well as "From the River to the Sea." The latter phrase refers to demands for a Palestinian state stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. Many Jews see it as a call for the expulsion or extermination of Jewish people from Israel, though Palestinian activists say it expresses only a desire for self-rule.

"We ended up having to switch classroom locations," Veksler said.

The next morning, she woke to another affront. Someone had distributed hundreds of antisemitic flyers in her neighborhood just off campus. They were filled with propaganda associating Jews with racism and pedophilia as well as Holocaust denial, tropes popular with right-wing hate groups.

Veksler and her roommate spent the morning biking through the streets to collect the pamphlets.

Both episodes were traumatic, but she felt they weren't treated the same way by the campus community.

"The antisemitism in the classroom came from a left-wing contingent, and the flyers were from a right-wing extremist group," she said in an interview. "Everyone was quick to condemn the flyers, but fewer people would condemn what happened in the classroom."

Kicked out of support group

Ofek Preis, a student at the State University of New York in New Palt, said she was kicked out of a support group for sexual assault survivors that disagreed with her stance on Israel.

Ofek Preis, an Israeli student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, said she and another Jewish student, Cassandra Blotner, were kicked out of a support group for sexual assault survivors in 2021. Blotner had written an Instagram post, which Preis shared online, describing the historical ties between Jews and the land of Israel.

"Israel is not a ‘colonial’ state and Israelis aren’t ‘settlers.’ You cannot colonize the land your ancestors are from," Blotner wrote.

Blotner had helped found the support group, known as New Paltz Accountability, but she and Preis were expelled by the other members, accused of white supremacy and harassed online and on campus, according to a complaint filed in October with the U.S. Department of Education on the women's behalf. (The department has yet to rule on the case.)

Preis, in an interview, said she was told, "Zionism can't exist with fighting sexual violence. That was a huge shock to me. That felt violating. I should not have to choose between being Israeli or being a survivor. They didn't even let me explain my opinion.

"I went to the administration, and they were reluctant to get involved," she added. "We are left unsupported within our institutions."

In an Instagram post in early 2022, New Paltz Accountability said: "As a political organization, having unity among our members is necessary to successfully organize. Justifying the occupation of Palestine, in any way, condones the violence used to acquire the land. This does not mean that we do not support survivors of students with different political beliefs."

'I don't want to hide who I am anymore'

As the threats multiply, Jewish students said they are tired of hiding their true selves.

Satnick, the San Diego State student harassed because of her Star of David ring, recently graduated. She no longer conceals her Judaism.

"I decided I don't want to hide who I am anymore," she said.

Maya Satnick, 21,  of West Hills wears a Hebrew chai necklace to honor her Jewish faith on Wednesday, May 17, 2023. She recently organized an event to counter antisemitism at San Diego State University campus.

Satnick said she immersed herself in Jewish life at college and helped organize a campus event to counter antisemitism. It featured both entertainment and lessons about the ancient hatred.

She wanted to wear her ring again, but now she's working as an EMT and needs to wear gloves.

So several months ago, she said, she bought herself a silver necklace bearing a "chai," the Jewish symbol for life.

"I wear it every day."

Deena Yellin covers religion for NorthJersey.com. For unlimited access to her work covering how the spiritual intersects with our daily lives, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: yellin@northjersey.com 

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This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Rise in antisemitism seen firsthand at Rutgers, colleges around U.S.