Jewish And Angry In Morningside Heights
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The View From CampusColumbia University

Jewish And Angry In Morningside Heights

A makeshift memorial near Tree of Life
Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Getty Images.
A makeshift memorial near Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh. Getty Images.

In times of stress, I watch “The West Wing.” Aaron Sorkin’s rapid-fire dialogue may not seem immediately calming to some, but I gain a measure of peace and inspiration from watching the lively, challenging and fundamentally moral politics at work in the fictitious White House of President Josiah Bartlet. (The character was largely based on President Bill Clinton.) And admittedly, it helps a lot that two of the president’s senior advisers on the show are Jews. Strong, determined, unabashed Jews, in fact, who wear their identities openly as they represent the highest office in the land to the rest of the country and the world. Their Jewishness informs their decision-making and their values, and the show celebrates this. And Toby Ziegler, the show’s senior communications director and one of the resident Jews, is angry. His voice — loud, brash, uncompromising in its convictions and with just a hint of a New York accent — sounds like the one going off in my head right now.

The Columbia/Barnard Hillel held a vigil on Oct. 28 for the victims of the Tree of Life synagogue shooting. According to an article I read the next day in the Columbia Spectator, hundreds of students attended. I say I read it, because I couldn’t bring myself to attend. On that day, I didn’t want to cry. I didn’t want to sing Jewish tunes in a minor key, and I didn’t want to offer thoughts and prayers to anyone. I felt antsy and on edge, and I was not in the mood to mourn. In fact, I’m still not.

That morning of Oct. 28, Columbia University released a statement to the community via email titled, “On yesterday’s tragedy in Pittsburgh.” It said all the things a proper condolence email is supposed to say, with one notable exception: it didn’t mention Jews. If it hadn’t referred to Tree of Life as a synagogue, there wouldn’t have been a single reference to the fact that the attack that had taken place less than 24 hours previously had been motivated by anti-Semitism. The message mentioned several hate-fueled attacks that had occurred in the last few years but said nothing about Jews. The message was clearly trying to put the attack in a larger context, but it succeeded only in sweeping the distinctly Jewish identity of the victims under the rug. I think I may have laughed out loud when I read it.

Columbia was criticized for the wording of this message and has since amended its statement to reference anti-Semitism and acknowledge Jewish people specifically. It was too little, too late.

Columbia is a campus of student advocates; in fact, we’re often teased for it. In my nearly three-and-a-half years on campus, I’ve seen students up in arms on a whole variety of causes, many of them involving mass action by groups nominally affiliated with the issues in the spirit of intersectionality. Racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry have no place at 116th and Broadway, but “anti-Semitism” is a term Columbia students rarely hear. A BDS petition at Columbia would garner statements of support from dozens of student organizations. In the wake of Pittsburgh, I’ve only seen messages from Jewish campus groups. This is a community that once summoned a collective voice so empowering and passionate that the university had to make our fall break over Election Day to deter rioting. And right now, it’s emitting the emotional equivalent of a solemn nod and a shrug. The feeling that prevented me from attending the campus vigil stemmed from how completely unsurprised I was by this. On the Columbia University campus, students and administration stand up for the oppressed, the marginalized, the murdered. Everyone’s suffering is acknowledged and validated to a baffling degree, unless the people suffering are Jews.

The Pittsburgh shooting should have yanked the Columbia community out of neutral on anti-Semitism, but it didn’t. So it has to be the thing that yanks the Jewish community out of neutral.

We need to mourn without shrinking away from this fight. We don’t need an official university message to tell us that no one else is going to advocate for the Jewish people if we don’t. So let’s not be afraid to get into the room, to raise our voices, to allow our Jewish identities to influence us and be the biggest, brashest part of who we are. When we argue, when we vote, when we participate in our society to craft the culture and policy that will define future generations, let’s refuse to hide our pain, the depth of our losses, and most importantly, ourselves.

In the words and spirit of Toby Ziegler, it’s time to get angry and suit up. Jewishly. 

Yaël D. Cohen is a senior at Columbia University. She is a 2015 Write On For Israel graduate.

This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email lily@jewishweek.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program. 

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