In the wake of this summer’s Gaza war, anti-Israel and anti-Semitic activity has spiked on campuses across the country. One spot where pro-Israel students are feeling particularly outnumbered and isolated is at John Jay College on the West Side, where the some 15 members of the school’s Hillel Club say the atmosphere has moved from uncomfortable to outright hostile.
What started with anti-Israel fliers moved to dirty looks, murmured insults and rising tensions in the Hillel Club’s shared office. It culminated last week in a “die-in” in the school’s New Building on West 58th Street so hostile that some Hillel Club members feared they would be jumped as they left the school.
It’s not clear what percentage of students are Jewish at the City University of New York’s school focusing on criminal justice, but all agree it’s miniscule. The school’s only Jewish organization is the Hillel Club, which was revived a few years ago and still has less than two-dozen members in a school of 15,000 students.
Tensions began to build last year, when members of the Hillel Club said they began seeing anti-Israel fliers around campus; a particularly memorable one claimed that Israel had separate sidewalks for Jews and Arabs. Then came dirty looks and insults. One student remembers “stupid Jew” being murmured from the back of a classroom. Other insults came more openly, they said.
“They’ve called me ‘terrorist,’ a ‘baby killer,’ every name under the sun. … It’s just a bunch of hate, with no logic,” said Hillel Club member Mark Blank, a 25-year-old international criminal justice student who came to John Jay after making aliyah at 19 and serving in the Israeli army.
“It feels like a hostile environment. There are elements of hatred that shouldn’t be in an academic setting,” he added.
The Middle Eastern Club used to have joint events with the Hillel Club. But over the summer the Middle Eastern Club changed its name to the Arab Student Union, and broke off contact with Hillel.
“The Hillel Club used to have really good connections with other groups,” said Yael Monselise, the Hillel Club’s president. But now, she said, “It’s really tough to make alliances.” The two groups that have continued to cooperate with Monselise on events are the Republican Club and the LGBTQ Alliance.
In August, tensions began rising at the Hillel Club’s office. Its members share the tiny space with the United Nations Student Assembly, which has several members who are also active in the Students for Justice in Palestine club. In late August, BDS and pro-Palestinian fliers began appearing on walls and on the outside of the office’s shared door: a graphic showing “Palestinian Loss of Land 1946 to 2000,” a Palestinian Flag and a flier announcing the International Year of Solidarity With the Palestinian People. (Those fliers were moved inside the office this week, club members said.)
“It’s supposed to be the UN club, but they had all these things on the door. … We have to face it whenever we go to Hillel, which is incredibly ironic,” Blank said.
In mid-September, Blank said, UNSA’s vice president complained to him that he put his computer and a soda on a desk on the UNSA side of the room (she also complained of a napkin, which Blank said was already there).
Soon after, the UNSA’s president and vice president yelled at Monselise when the three were alone in the offuce. First, the UNSA officers defended their right to put up any fliers they wanted, then they told Monselise to make sure her members cleaned up after themselves, calling them “dirty” and “disgusting.”
“They were screaming at her," Blank said. "She cried. The following day she was afraid to go into our own room. She literally was afraid."
Monselise then went to her club coordinator, who suggested she not return to the office right away.
“He said that for the situation not to escalate I should stay clear of the room,” she said. “I thought, ‘Why do I need to not go into the room? I didn’t start anything. I just walked in and it happened.’”
The club coordinator did not respond to email and phone messages, but John Jay College sent a statement saying that “when a member of Hillel reached out to a staff member, the student was advised of the process for reporting their concerns.”
Blank said he was “blown away that we literally could not go into our own room out of fear and intimidation.”
Other members of the Hillell Club also started to feel uncomfortable going to the office. “There’s definitely an intimidation factor. Kids don’t want to come in,” said Tomer Kornfeld, the club’s vice president. The 19-year-old sophomore is also an Emerson Fellow at StandWithUs, which gives him training and a minimal stipend to help organize pro-Israel activities on campus.
UNSA’s president, Marina Kumskova, said in an email that she didn't yell when she was talking to Monselise about the room's cleanliness. She also defended the pro-Palestinian fliers, saying they were related to the club’s mission because “Israel ignored the United Nations Security Council resolutions calling for the removal of unjustified restrictions on the movement of people and goods into and out of the Gaza Strip.”
Discomfort hit a new high last week, on Oct. 8, when SPJ joined with several other organizations to hold a “Die In/Vigil For Ferguson and Gaza” on the New Building’s first floor landing, which students need to walk through to get to class.
There were the usual SJP moves: students lying on the ground covered by sheets, signs urging “Intifada,” claiming that “U.S. dollars kill one child in Gaza every hour,” and the “From the River to the Sea, Palestine Will Be Free” chant. There was also a new tactic: SJP protesters linked their cause with a cop’s shooting of an unarmed man in Ferguson, Mo., with such signs reading “We Are Ferguson, We are Gaza, Because We are Human.”
But Hillel Club members, who were holding their own “peaceful, silent counterprotest” took it in stride until an SJP protester tried to get them to leave, threatening to get the club adviser to kick them out. Then one of the speakers started railing against “Jews.” SJP members quickly stopped both incidents, but when speakers started pointing at Hillel Club members and railing against them directly, nobody stopped them.
“I know we all see the Zionists standing here with Israeli flags,” one speaker can be heard saying on a video of the protest. “Let’s be clear about what that flag stands for. What the Israeli flag stands for is genocide. It’s for killing innocent people. What it stands for is killing children.”
It was that shift in focus from Israel to individual students that really rattled Hillel Club members, Monselise said.
“They kept on just shouting, shouting, they were really aggressive. … They literally pointed at us,” she said. “I felt pretty singled out.”
Kornfeld described the incident similarly. “We were all in one corner, and they started moving in,” he said. “Yael was holding an ‘Israelis Want Peace Sign’ and they came within a foot with us. They kept closing in.”
Monselise, who is from Israel, called the incident “scary.”
“I didn’t think anything physical was going to happen but they were getting very close,” she said.
For Blank, the former IDF soldier, the most disturbing element of the protest was the student who railed against “Jews.”
“That was a new low,” he said. “Up until now they had kept it to Israel but now they’ve brought it to Jews. They definitely crossed the line from anti-Israel to anti-Semitic.”
The die-in at John Jay comes amid increasing reports of anti-Semitic vandalism on college campuses. Just in the past two weeks, swastikas have been spray painted on a Jewish fraternity house at Emory, drawn on the sidewalk at Eastern Michigan University, and, this past weekend, chalked on a dorm at Yale.
John Jay’s SPJ initially responded to an interview request made via Twitter, but didn’t reply by press time to follow-up messages.
John Jay College's statement said that the school is committed to “open discussion of social justice issues” and “to ensuring that students are free from intimidation and hostility based on their race, gender, religion, sexual orientation or any other factors.”
Yoni Kaplan, the tri-state area campus coordinator for StandWithUs, which supports pro-Israel student groups, said that while clashes between SJP and pro-Israel groups are taking place across the country, what stands out in the John Jay situation is how small and isolated the Hillel Club is.
“The difference here is that there’s a very small population of Jewish students, a lot of the clubs are not sympathetic to them and the bureaucracy is such that it’s hard for them to receive outside help (because they can’t accept funds from outside groups).”
“We are disturbingly out numbered,” agreed Blank. “But fortunately there are a lot Hillel Clubs in the CUNY system so hopefully they’ll come out and support us.”
Fay Goldstein, East Coast regional advisor for Hasbara Fellowships, which trains pro-Israel student activists and has been working with John Jay’s Hillel Club, says her group has been seeing a trend of “the quick growth of these kinds of anti-Israel activity” on campuses this fall.
But at John Jay, she said, “It’s been very, very quick.”
Deborah Guterman, a sophomore studying forensic psychology, said she wouldn’t advise Jewish students to attend John Jay unless they really wanted to major in criminal justice. She’s begun to wonder if she should continue to wear her Jewish star at school.
“At John Jay we feel like we are the oppressed, we are the discriminated against — at least we felt like that on Wednesday (at the rally). It was definitely intimidating.”
“We felt like we would be jumped when we got out of there. It was hostile,” she added.
When students left the rally they told each other to text to let each other know that they had got home safely, she said.
“And we were only half-joking,” she said.
Editor's Note: This story was updated Oct. 21 to include the club coordinator's comments and Monselise's reaction. The print version of this story incorrectly referred to the coordinator as the "advisor."