Until the Storm Subsides: The Resilience of Hillel and Other Cultural Jewish Spaces
When a historian came to my college a few years back and told us all, a table of Jewish students, that antisemitism was dead — something shifted inside of me. Her premise was that antisemitism faded out after the Holocaust, and has since been weaponized by Jews and supporters of Israel.
Throughout my time in college, I saw how students today are so willing to negate the pain and wherewithal of the Jewish community. We were bargaining chips; our trauma was exchanged for the solidification of each social movement. But that moment proved to me the futurity of progressive antisemitism — how the poison had been legitimized in public life.
Despite a long history of civil rights work, I was barred from working with several activism groups on campus due to my Jewish advocacy. Social media forums have become a place for anonymous slurs and threats hurled at our Jewish community. Peers confide in me that they’re too afraid to share their identity with others. Professors who celebrate the work of anti-Jewish terrorists are put on academic pedestals, untouched by criticism. I was repeatedly called a white supremacist, despite my father being Syrian.
This problem is not isolated to my school — Occidental College. Of the many hate crimes committed against the Jewish community during my time in college, some are emblazoned in my mind, such as the burning of the University of Delaware’s Chabad twice, or the stabbing of the Hasidic Jewish man in London. The horrific killing of Sarah Halimi wasn’t a wake up call; it was the consequence of too many people hitting snooze on the alarm.
And yet, the college space serves as a platform for people to try on many hats. Antisemitism is perfect for it; it allows students to feel like they’re contributing to a cause that persecutes Jews for a better world — a new iteration of the hate we’ve seen before.
The College Democrats of America this year elected a Vice President with a history of antisemitic tweets, who doubled down on her sentiments. I unknowingly voted for her slate, because they hid her past from College Democrat presidents, including myself, across the country. These same students will go on to become Congresspeople, work for the DNC, and will continue to legitimize antisemitism.
There has been one exception to all of the chaos — and for me, that was the Hillel on my campus. It became clear to me that the administration would not solve these deep-seated problems, many which myself and others had raised. So I started to build a community that could withstand the trials and tribulations of the Jewish college experience.
The more blocks people at my school hurled, the more we could build. My last semester at college as Hillel president, which is entirely student run, I was constantly in awe of the resilience of the Jewish community. Despite not having an official Hillel building, not being allowed to serve food at our events, and the school’s history of antisemitism, we had a record turnout this semester. Bigots beget prejudice; cultural spaces withstand their harms.
There have been calls to defund Hillels, and other prominent Jewish organizations on college campuses. For some of us, these are the communities we call home, the last safe places we have. The most vigorous proponents of these calls cite these organizations’ relationship to Israel, although it’s becoming more apparent that these advocates can’t handle the idea of a thriving Jewish community.
The issue on college campuses is that there is a fundamental difference between those who choose to believe our pain still exists — and those who don’t. On college campuses, antisemitism is sycophantic. It’s a chameleon with the political fashions of the era, willing to blend in with the trends and adapt to what is most appealing to the masses.
Jewish spaces like Hillel cannot solve antisemitism, but they can see through its shades, providing community and empathy until the storm subsides. And they give us permission to be ourselves, to process our trauma, and to stand up to the most ugly parts of college life.
Occidental College is a microcosm for how others behave when confronted with knowledge that challenges their worldview. On college campuses across the country, students and professors refuse to believe that they could be progressive and complicit in antisemitism. At our school, people shrugged about the mock apartheid wall that was put up on our quad on admitted students day. They shrugged when students debated the significance of the Holocaust in auditoriums. They shrugged when a house was vandalized, discrimination complaints were filed for various incidents, and when an annual antisemitism training event that students organized was squashed.
We, too, were expected to shrug our shoulders– to compromise the most integral parts of ourselves. But this tenable spirit kept the Jewish community on campus alive. We stood up to the hate, and instead tried to educate. We kept our pride. And we’re no longer shrugging our shoulders. We’re saying no.
Maddie Solomon is a recent graduate from Occidental College, originally from Denver, CO. Her work has been published in The Denver Post, The Jewish Journal, and Women’s Media Center.