29 November 2023
What is it like being a Jewish student right now at Yale? How could we, as Jewish alumni, help? I sat with several dozen students at Chabad one evening before Thanksgiving break to support and to learn.Students made hearts with their hands as they recalled faculty members who had reached out to express support. But they winced as they shared their pain at hearing Oct. 7 described as an “extraordinary day” by an associate professor, at hearing the hateful phrase “river to the sea” chanted by Yale students threatening the dissolution of Israel and at seeing a campus dance troupe raise funds for a Hamas-associated Palestinian militant group.

Is some form of intervention needed? Most said yes, insisting that calls for genocide require unmitigated condemnation rather than silence. Some felt disciplinary action was needed. Others almost apologetically explained that being from Europe, where antisemitism has raged far more violently than here, their first instinct was to keep their heads down. There was considerable interest in the pending alumni letter pressuring the administration for action. Students expressed their appreciation that alumni were showing up.

But the question I heard students grappling with was how to engage with former friends suddenly repeating propaganda designed to isolate and harm the Jewish people.

Your sharp, curious minds and open, brave hearts are all you need.

Engage with facts. If it isn’t commonly known that Israel sought peace with the Palestinians in 19472000 and 2008 and was rejected each time, it needs to become commonly known. The same goes for sharing the history of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from Gaza in 2006.

Ask open-ended questions.

Engage with empathy. When my father taught at Yale in 1982, his class tackled head-on the failure of the Israeli Defence Forces to prevent atrocities against innocent Palestinians by the South Lebanese Army at Sabra and Shatila.

Voice anger that we are on trial for existing.

The Talmud says that when challenging someone,  “לְעוֹלָם תְּהֵא שְׂמֹאל דּוֹחָה וְיָמִין מְקָרֶבֶת”: the left hand should push away and the right hand should draw near.

Hear the story of my friends Derek Black and Matthew Stevenson:

Derek was the heir apparent to Stormfront, the premier neo-Nazi Internet forum. As the child of the site maintainer, they were raised to promote hatred. They went to college in Florida, intending to remain anonymous while they studied. They hosted radio shows in secret which railed against immigrants and Jews.

On campus, they met Matthew Stevenson, an observant Jew and fellow student. Derek discovered the magic warmth of Shabbat dinners at Matthew’s apartment, and they built a friendship grounded in everything from country music to Tolkien. Not long after, Derek was discovered and outed for their racist double life. They were ostracized by almost all who encountered them.

Except for Matthew, who kept talking to them. And Allison Gornik, Matthew’s friend, who at first stormed away from the Shabbat table, but then returned to it week after week, insistent on hammering through point after logical point to probe the defects in Derek’s thinking.

Derek’s wheels turned.

After some time, Derek issued a manifesto rejecting the hate they’d helped spread and publicly declared their Stormfront account closed. They told me the push and pull together drove their profound change.

To fight antisemitism is to fight ignorance.

At Yale, students are fighting the ignorance of those calling to “globalize the intifada”. The ignorance of the educated class comes from the pain of seeing Gazan people suffer deeply from their tragic electoral choices. It’s a different ignorance than that shown by white supremacists who wave tiki torches and chant “Jews will not replace us,” but it is no less dangerous. It is as much of a lie that we prey on Palestinians as it is that we prey on the white man.

It hurt to hear students ask on Thursday night: Why doesn’t the university see us?

I don’t know that it doesn’t. But I know for a fact that many Jewish alumni see you, including me. You shine brighter than you realize.

We’re proud of you who talk to those with different perspectives, even if they are Hamas defenders or appeasers or fellow Jews who consciously stand in opposition to our people. Your right handed embrace is a strength.

We’re proud of you who assert a harder line, who are demanding action from Congress or exposing double standards in national papers, who are pushing with the left hand.

We’re proud of you who try different approaches in different situations.

And proud of you who fight ignorance simply by standing strong and going about your lives, refusing to let grief and fear overwhelm you.

We’re proud of you and know that each of you has the power to make heartfelt, impactful choices as you fight ignorance, demonstrate Jewish values and share your light in the darkness.

ELISHA WIESEL graduated from Davenport College in 1994. His father, Elie Wiesel, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and author of the Holocaust memoir “Night,” was the visiting Henry Luce scholar at Yale College in 1982. Contact him at [email protected].

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