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‘We are living in a climate of hatred and fear’: Students discuss rooting out antisemitism on campus

Students hold a rally in support of Israel and demand greater protection from antisemitism on campus at Columbia University, February 14, 2024 in New York City. (Photo by Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — Nine college students opened up to U.S. lawmakers on Capitol Hill on Thursday, saying they are in fear over the rise in antisemitism on university campuses since the start of the Israel-Hamas war.

The students, from mostly elite universities including Harvard and Stanford, told members of the House of Representatives’ Committee on Education and the Workforce that they were using Thursday’s discussion to issue a wake-up call to America: Jewish students are being harassed and discriminated against at school.

“It’s open season on Jews on our campus, and continued inaction is unacceptable,” University of Pennsylvania junior Noah Rubin said to the committee, which included Harvard alum-turned-GOP Rep. Elise Stefanik. “It’s time to wake up, America. This is the story of Jews on U-Penn’s campus and students across the country. We are living in a climate of hatred and fear.”

In the nearly two-hour roundtable discussion, Jewish students shared harrowing stories about alleged antisemitic incidents on campus in the wake of the latest outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that governs the neighboring Gaza Strip.

Yasmeen Ohebsion, of Tulane University, told the bipartisan committee that she has had slurs like “F— you, Jew,” shouted at her since the war began on Oct. 7.

“This is the reality as a Jewish student who wears the Star of David,” Ohebsion said.

Ohebsion was one of several students to recount for lawmakers their stories of having slurs hurled at them on campus. Online harassment has also been a problem, some of the students said.

Rubin, of University of Pennsylvania, said acts of antisemitism have left him fearful even while attending meetings with other Jewish students.

“I find myself looking over my shoulder even in Hillel,” Rubin said. “Our Jewish institutions still don’t get reliable and basic university support on security.”

Talia Khan, a Ph.D. student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who attended the hearing, said it is a scary time at her school and that nothing is being done to combat physical violence against Jews.

“Now is the time to act to make sure federal dollars are not being used to spread hate and discourage Jewish academics,” Khan said.

Thursday’s discussion followed the committee’s December 2023 headline-making hearing — “Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism.” In that hearing, Stefanik pressed the presidents of Harvard University and the University of Pennsylvania on whether calling for the genocide of Jews was deemed hate speech on their campuses. Harvard’s then-president,Claudine Gay, answered by saying the university gives “a wide berth to free expression,” while the University of Pennsylvania’s then-president, Elizabeth Magill, said it was a context-dependent answer. Both Gay and Magill have since resigned.

On Thursday, Harvard University graduate student Shabbos Kestenbaum called Stefanik a “hero” for standing up for the school’s Jewish community. Stefanik said more must be done to address the issue.

“We need to continue to make sure that there is accountability to root out this antisemitism,” Stefanik said. “It is clear it’s not just Harvard, Penn and MIT, but each of these university leaders have failed. It is atrocious to hear the experiences that each of you have faced, whether it’s threats of violent acts or the horrific antisemitic statements.”

Shabbos Kestenbaum at Harvard railed against his university and doubled down on calls to subpoena the school’s departments. (The education committee sent subpoenas to Harvard earlier this month. The deadline to respond is Monday, March 4.)

He said Congress is his last hope because he believes Harvard has failed to adequately condemn antisemitism.

“By inviting me, you have actually already done more than Harvard University has ever done for its students, which is listening to us,” Kestenbaum said.

Following the meeting, one student told ABC News that inaction has made them feel less valued on campus.

“It’s really disheartening to feel like we are not valued members of the community at Columbia, especially because … such a large percentage of my university is Jewish,” Columbia University Junior Eden Yadegar told ABC News after Thursday’s event.

Rep. Kathy Manning, a Jewish committee member, applauded the students for alerting the public about their campus experiences.

“As I hear your stories, I can’t help but wonder, Is this 1932 Germany all over again? Is this Russia in 1903 when my grandparents fled … and came to this country seeking refuge from antisemites?” Manning said. “Everyone in Congress should be asking themselves how did we get here and what can we do to stop this?”

Palestinian students at Harvard University told U.S. lawmakers last year that they believe Islamophobia has been treated with far less gravity than antisemitism.

“We have nothing equivalent for Palestinian, Arab, Muslim students or supporters of Palestine to address or combat the very obvious, very public, very targeted harassment campaigns that we’ve been facing,” said Tala Aloha, a Palestinian-American law student at Harvard.

ABC News’ Ayesha Ali contributed to this report.

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