Jewish Student Leader: Anti-Zionists at John Jay College Isolating Jewish Peers Over Israel
Anti-Zionist activists at John Jay College in New York City are socially ostracizing Jewish students as part of their campaign against Israel, a student leader told The Algemeiner.
The criminal justice school — whose approximately 15,000 students are part of the City University of New York system — has around 300 Jewish undergraduates and a similarly small community of pro-Israel voices, said Natalie Segev, a rising junior and incoming president of the campus Hillel.
The Jewish group makes an effort to host events that educate students about Israel — a mission made more difficult because it’s “blacklisted” at John Jay.
“There [is] a group of clubs who will not co-sponsor events with us, and the clubs who do will receive heavy push-back for collaborating with Hillel,” Segev explained. The ban — spearheaded by members of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) club — does not only impact events related to Israel or Zionism, the movement for Jewish national self-determination.
“Events promoting environmental protection, discussing the supremacy march in [Charlottesville, Virginia], and Jewish cultural events were subjected as well,” she observed.
This tactic of “anti-normalization” — which opposes any efforts to legitimize Zionism and its supporters, even in the context of Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation work — also extends to the Jewish club’s individual members, Segev said.
She recalled noticing a change in how some peers treated her after she first became involved with Hillel as a freshman — a treatment she suggested is meant to stigmatize, and thereby dehumanize, students who express dissenting political opinions.
“When I walk by people will start talking about the Zionist occupation and saying slogans like ‘Free Palestine,'” Segev explained. “Sometimes they’ll wave a [Palestinian] flag when they see [me] or sing among themselves, ‘From the river to the sea'” — a nationalistic expression encouraging the establishment of a Palestinian state in the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, in place of Israel.
While amounting to “a very uncomfortable method of intimidation,” she said these interactions are also largely indirect and therefore not among the most severe.
Other incidents stand out for their overt hostility.
This past fall, “a John Jay graduate was hanging out in club row talking to other SJP members about how she would like physically hurt an unspecified person,” Segev recounted. “When her friends saw me, they asked the graduate, ‘don’t you want to deck everyone in the face?’ She replied, while staring at me, ‘I want to deck my enemies.'”
The graduate’s friends then started to mockingly chant “Free Palestine,” she said. After filing a complaint with the Department of Public Safety, the offending individual was apparently barred from campus for two weeks.
That same year, “a Hillel member was at the gym and someone [included] her on his Snapchat with the caption, ‘This f*cking lesbian Hillel b*tch,'” Segev said.
Sometimes, she explained, the friends of Hillel members are contacted directly and told to reconsider their relationships.
“I had a friend who posted a picture with me on his social media, and he was [then] private-messaged by an SJP graduate [who claimed] that I am a bad person,” Segev said. “Another friend was pulled aside, told [of] horrible things going on in [the Gaza Strip], and then told that I support it.”
This campaign — which she learned about “from people who either always heard bad rumors about me and ended up becoming [my] friends later on, or current friends who were specifically targeted with propaganda” — has led some people to feel like they can only associate with her behind closed doors.
“I have a few friends who will not advertise our friendship because they received negative pressure,” she shared.
She said the issue also impacts other active Hillel members — some of whom had friends who “joined SJP later in their college career and completely shut them out or got really awkward around that individual in public.”
This social pressure — which SJP is able to exert due to its status among other clubs on campus — is accompanied by a hefty dose of misinformation and guilt, Segev said. “People actually believe them when they say that every hour someone else dies in Gaza.”
Ilya Bratman — executive director for the Hillels at John Jay, Baruch, and City colleges — said he has “heard some students speak of the same experience.”
“Anti-Israel sentiment is alive and well on many of the CUNY campuses,” he told The Algemeiner. “Some of the students are uncomfortable wearing kippahs and other Jewish paraphernalia.”
Segev said she has been in contact with the administration over her concerns, including when a student government representative who was set to vote on Hillel’s operational budget shared a picture of water with the inscription “white tears,” and added the caption, “when Hillel sees their budget.”
“This individual was removed from that committee and placed on a separate club related committee,” she said.
More recently, SJP placed a poster outside its office door for students to write encouraging words.
“When one of the students wrote ‘#longlivetheintifada’ we reported it, but the picture is still up,” Segev said. “All these stories end the same way: the administration seems extremely supportive, claims to take action, [but] then cannot specify the actions because of privacy laws, and we, the students see no change.”
Bratman likewise said that his team has been working with the administration in an effort to improve the situation, but noted that it can be “hard to define the line between hate speech and freedom of speech.”
As it stands, John Jay remains a difficult campus for Jewish and pro-Israel students, Segev said. “There is no kosher food, all the big parties are on Friday nights, and last year our graduation was on Shavuot,” she noted. “Zionism has no place in the students’ intersectional justice movements and they make it very clear.”
Bratman nonetheless said that Hillel was “active and growing and engages more than 100 students” — a presence Segev credited with helping some of her peers.
“Jewish students are not transferring out like they used to,” she said. “It became easier to maneuver through [the] hate.”
Arabella Meyer, a spokesperson for John Jay, told The Algemeiner that the school was committed to supporting the open exchange of diverse ideas and took “these issues very seriously.”
“We are continually working … to ensure that we are meeting our students’ dietary needs,” she said, adding that the administration does their “utmost” to avoid scheduling school events at times that conflict with days of religious observance. “We do not schedule social events on Friday evenings unless logistics require that we do so.”
As to the behavior Segev described being subjected to, Meyer said that while the school “cannot comment on any specific situations involving students,” it prohibits discrimination of any kind and investigates all complaints filed “alleging discrimination or retaliation fairly while respecting the privacy of those involved.”
“Where appropriate, we take disciplinary action,” she added. “We encourage anyone on our campus who feels uncomfortable to reach out to our faculty, staff or Student Affairs office.”
SJP did not respond to requests for comment by press time.