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A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

A nonprofit, independent news source to inform, inspire, educate and connect the St. Louis Jewish community.

St. Louis Jewish Light

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‘We would like to speak in our name,’ Jewish Columbia students say in viral open letter

A Columbia student wraps tefillin, while in the background, a pro-Palestinian encampment enters its third day. (Jackie Hajdenberg)

(New York Jewish Week) — More than 400 Jewish students at Columbia University have signed an open letter defending their support for Israel and decrying harassment they’ve faced surrounding the school’s pro-Palestinian encampment.

The letter also addresses two groups that, signatories say, have purported to speak for them: their anti-Zionist Jewish peers, and pro-Israel alumni who have come to the school to protest.

“We are here, writing to you as Jewish students at Columbia University, who are connected to our community and deeply engaged with our culture and history,” the letter says. “We would like to speak in our name.”

The 1,200-word letter began making the rounds Wednesday, three weeks after pro-Palestinian students set up an encampment at the school, sparking a controversial nationwide movement calling for divestment from Israel. The encampments have spread to dozens of other campuses and led to the arrests of thousands of students, violent clashes and — Jewish groups say — a rash of harassment and hostility toward Jews. Last week, protesters at Columbia occupied a campus building before being arrested.

At Columbia and other campuses, outside groups on both sides of the debate have come to the protests, in some cases instigating physical fights or making inflammatory statements.

National politicians, including Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson, have also come to Columbia to denounce the protests.

“It’s nice that they’ve been supportive but it’s only further polarized campus,” one of the four co-authors of the letter, junior Eliana Goldin, told the New York Jewish Week about pro-Israel protesters unaffiliated with the school. “I wish the entire world stayed out of campus politics so that we could figure out our problems on our own. But since that’s not the reality, we wanted to get our voice out there.”

Goldin said that the four co-authors were inspired to write the letter when one of them said, “People have been speaking in our name to the news and saying, ‘This is what the Jews on campus believe,’ and it’s really not the case.” It was published on Saturday night.

“So we should put out a statement and show the world what we actually stand for and combat false narratives,” added Goldin, a student in Columbia’s joint undergraduate program with the Jewish Theological Seminary who is also co-chair of Columbia’s pro-Israel group.

The letter has circulated widely in the days since it was published and gained hundreds of signatories, reaching more than 450 by Wednesday afternoon. Some of the people who shared it are among the most prominent non-student activists campaigning against antisemitism at universities, such as investor Bill Ackman, who wrote on X that the letter “provides helpful perspective on how it is to be a Jewish student on campus today.”

A post sharing the letter by Israeli Columbia professor Shai Davidai, who has publicly lambasted the school for what he says is its failure to protect Jewish students, has been viewed more than a million times. “Their letter tells the story of what’s it like being a Jewish student right now better than any professor like myself could ever do,” Davidai wrote.

The letter does not focus on the encampment itself but does cites several examples of antisemitic and anti-Zionist speech surrounding the protest, from a student leader saying “the Holocaust wasn’t special” to chants of “We don’t want no Zionists here.”

Much of the letter is an explanation of why the students view support for a Jewish state as an integral part of their Judaism.

“We proudly believe in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity,” it continues. “Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief.”

It adds, “We are targeted for our belief that Israel, our ancestral and religious homeland, has a right to exist. We are targeted by those who misuse the word Zionist as a sanitized slur for Jew, synonymous with racist, oppressive, or genocidal. We know all too well that antisemitism is shapeshifting.”

Goldin said the core of the letter is its defense of Zionism.

“The most important part is that people understand why we’re Zionist,” Goldin told JTA. “There’s just a gross misunderstanding of what it means to be a Zionist.”

The letter primarily focuses on rebutting the claims of anti-Zionists, but signatories said they were concerned about external interference in the protests from across the ideological spectrum. Ezra Dayanim, a Columbia-JTS senior, said he is “not such a fan of outsiders interfering with campus affairs.”

The letter comes shortly after a statement by Jewish student leaders at UCLA sent a similar message. The UCLA letter was posted after pro-Israel activists unaffiliated with the school attacked its encampment and a pro-Palestinian activist.

“We cannot have a clearer ask for the off-campus Jewish community: stay off our campus,” the UCLA students wrote. “Do not fund any actions on campus. Do not protest on campus. Your actions are harming Jewish students.”

Dayanim specifically took issue with a Holocaust Remembrance Day event held Monday two blocks away from the university that was hosted by the Israeli-American Council and a variety of centrist and right-leaning Jewish groups.

The event was attended mostly by Israeli adults with no affiliation with Columbia. In addition to testimony from Holocaust survivor Tova Friedman, Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations Gilad Erdan addressed the crowd, saying, “The events we are witnessing today on college campuses are reminiscent of Kristallnacht in Nazi Germany.”

Dayanim attended part of the rally, which he called a “worthy cause.” But he objected to calls from non-student speakers to divest from Columbia. “I thought that the message was totally co-opted,” he said.

“We want to speak for ourselves,” he added. “We don’t appreciate when outsiders come in and totally distort our message. It cheapens our credibility.”

In an email addressed to the Columbia and Barnard community, Hillel executive director Brian Cohen wrote that the letter “clearly articulates what so many of us feel — makes me prouder than ever of the student leaders finding their voices and community during this complicated time. These students are the best of us: resilient, thoughtful, and deeply committed to the Jewish people and Israel.”

He goes on to list actions that people unaffiliated with the university can take: reaching out to the university administration and encouraging them to follow through on disciplinary actions against those involved in the Hamilton Hall takeover.

Goldin said she hopes students on opposite ends of the spectrum become more open to talking with each other. In recent years, many pro-Palestinian groups have adopted a policy of “anti-normalization” that bars them from interacting with pro-Israel groups. Hillel International also bars partnerships with anti-Zionist groups.

“We need to facilitate dialogue,” Goldin said. “We’re on a college campus, we’re at a university for a reason.”

She added. “Screaming past each other at protests is not productive.”

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