Head of School Message: College Campus Unrest

Dear GOA Community,
This year’s celebration of Passover, “our season of freedom” was marred for many by intense anti-Israel activism on college campuses across the country, sparked by a student encampment and then building takeover at Columbia University. I live just three blocks from this Morningside Heights campus, and I walked the perimeter in dismay as the citadel of learned discourse devolved into an intolerant sea of angry chants. I wasn’t frightened for my safety walking about in my kippah, but I was shaken deeply. Amid the sound of helicopters overhead, the sight of young people wearing keffiyehs, waving Palestinian flags and chanting “free Palestine” was all around. In the closing hours of the holiday on Tuesday evening, we watched from our rooftop as the NYPD moved onto campus and arrested hundreds of students who had refused to evacuate — a sad, if necessary, outcome. 
What are we at Golda Och Academy to make of this? As a school that proudly declares “love of Israel” as a core value, how shall we respond to those who demonize the Jewish state and ignore the horrific crimes of Hamas? As Americans who promote freedom of expression, how shall we view expressions of hatred for Israel, at times morphing into crude expressions of antisemitism? And as families that cherish higher education, how shall we regard the universities where so many students and faculty speak not of peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians, but of replacing one nation with the other?
First, it does no good to create a mirror image of the hatred and intolerance expressed toward Israel by many of the protestors (some of whom are in fact Jewish). Hamas launched this war, Hamas committed horrific crimes against Israelis, and Hamas has used its own people as a shield. Yet, it gives us only sorrow to see others suffer. We are not full of hatred toward Palestinians or any other people, and we recognize their human rights. The suffering of non-combatants in Gaza is a human tragedy. The Jewish people self-identifies as rahmanim b’nai rahmanim, “merciful people, from merciful people,” and we should never give up this legacy. 
Second, we cannot ignore the fact that the Palestinian leadership, lately of Hamas, but previously of the PLO and others, has employed grotesque violence against Israeli and Jewish civilians around the world, especially when there was a chance for peace. This was the case during the Oslo process of the 1990s, and this was the case again this year when talks between the United States, Israel and Saudi Arabia were focusing on a peaceful resolution to the conflict. As Julian E. Barnes reported regarding the current hold-up in negotiations (The New York Times, May 1, 2024, “The Morning Newsletter”), “​​But some involved in the discussions — Americans, Egyptians and Qataris have been mediating — worry that Hamas appears willing to sacrifice even more Palestinian civilians. Its officials believe that the deaths in Gaza erode support for Israel around the world.”
Third, we dare not disengage from the debate on campus, unpleasant and frightening though it may be. While some of the protesters genuinely hate Israel and want to see it destroyed, others are just appalled by the vast suffering caused by this war. I do not know why they were not similarly moved by the initial massacre of Jews on October 7, nor do I understand why they do not protest the deaths caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which are about 10 times as high (estimated at over 500,000). Still, if we who love Israel withdraw from the debate, then an entire generation of young people may conclude that Israel must be entirely to blame for this ongoing conflict and that America should discontinue its support for the Jewish state. 
Fourth, we also must not concede our place at universities, research institutions, and the professions and corporations where the future is forged. Many of my close friends are Hillel rabbis and other campus professionals, and I am in awe of their work. This is a time to support the work of Jews on campus — students, staff, and faculty — to strengthen them and give them the resources needed to reach hearts and minds, not only of Jews, but of all people who genuinely care about a just and peaceful future for all people. Many Jewish families are asking whether a given campus is safe for their students. My advice is to speak with current students and Hillel staff at that school, to learn what the challenges have been, and how the administration has managed the conflict. We must be strong enough to encounter disagreement with courage, but no student should be expected to suffer harassment or intimidation for their identity or views. 
Fifth, we should continue to reach out to our Israeli family and friends, some of whom are more worried about us than about themselves. One Israeli cousin of mine contacted me today from India to make sure that I was okay. The essential fact is that we rely on one another. We rely on the Israeli government to make difficult decisions to secure a more peaceful future for all. Our Israeli family and friends need our support and solidarity now more than ever. They rely on us for encouragement and to bolster their resilience.
To do this, we must be well-informed, deeply rooted, and resilient. We must confront hatred — from whatever direction — with moral clarity. We must invest in Jewish education and recruit other families to join us at Golda Och Academy, so that their children may also have the benefit of a deep, joyous, kind, and proud Jewish identity. I am so pleased that our seniors on Neshama have nearly completed three months in Israel and that our 9th grade students are preparing to go on Na’ale. Our students return from these trips with a depth of knowledge and identification with Israel that allow them to advocate for a better future for Israelis, and indeed for all people who are willing to live together in peace. 
Shabbat Shalom — May God bless Israel and all the world with peace.
Rabbi Danny Nevins
Head of School