Inside a US college Gaza camp: ‘No one cares about how this is affecting Jewish students’

Rutgers university in New Jersey is one of America’s most Jewish schools, but how do Jewish students feel about the campus protests?


As the clock ticked down to 4pm on Thursday, curious students at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey, began walking en masse to Voorhees Mall, a large green space in the middle of the College Avenue campus. With helicopters buzzing overhead, the question on everyone’s mind was would the police be called in to dismantle a tent city that had popped on Monday as part of the wave of anti-Israel protests sweeping colleges and universities across the United States, or would the demonstrators dissemble the camp themselves by the 4pm deadline?

At the entrance to the encampment a placard outlining the organisers’ demands lay against a folding table. To left was a sign: “Israel checkpoint.” Beyond that, a small cluster of tents with students wearing keffiyehs and facemasks, some carrying Palestinian flags.

Around the perimeter of the encampment stood other members of the Rutgers community: curious onlookers, Rutgers Police officers, a Chabad rabbi offering to help students put on tefillin.

And, of course, pro-Israel, proudly Jewish students. Some wore kippot or Star of David necklaces. At least one came draped in an Israeli flag.

Some students, buoyed by the presence of an American flag, rallied around it and began singing “God Bless America” and the US national anthem as the protesters nearby shouted “Free Palestine” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.”

It was a scene reminiscent of those from other campuses across the country – Columbia University in New York; the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA); the University of Pennsylvania; and Northwestern University, in Illinois, to name a few. In each case, students who claim to oppose Israel’s actions in Gaza have created an environment that is, at best, hostile to Jewish students.

Rutgers is home to one of the largest Jewish student bodies in the US, with more than 6,400 Jewish undergraduates, yet it is not immune to antisemitism and anti-Israel hate.

As one Jewish student watching the protesters said: “I never thought it would come to this.”

“It’s incredibly stressful on campus,” said a member of the Jewish fraternity, AEPi, as he watched on. “Jews do feel fearful about what might happen.”

On the patio of the Rutgers Hillel building just a block away from the encampment, a group of students spoke with the Jewish Chronicle about their college and the atmosphere on campus. They made clear that they had experienced antisemitism there, and not enough is being done to prevent it.

“This behaviour has been tolerated for years, but in the wake of October 7 it’s been more blatantly tolerated,” said 19-year-old Taylor, a second-year student at Rutgers, who did not give her last name.

“It’s [reached] the point where it’s in every space and people are very open about it… They are chanting ‘Globalise the intifada’ a block from my house.”

Julia, a 20-year-old third-year student, “You think antisemitism is in the past but it’s still ongoing… Honestly, no one is doing anything about it. No one cares … none of my friends who aren’t Jewish have asked me how I’m doing.”

Another student, Dana, 19, noted that there appeared to be concerns for the wellbeing of the protesters demonstrating at Rutgers and asked: “What about the Jewish students who feel personally attacked by knowing their classmates want intifada?”

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles away at Northwestern, a college just outside Chicago, where there are between 1,200 and 1,600 Jewish students, the campus’s Hillel’s executive director Michael Simon and six others resigned earlier this week from the college’s advisory committee on preventing antisemitism and hate after the school agreed to some demands by anti-Israel protesters who had set up an encampment on campus.

The Illinois college, led by its president Michael Schill, agreed to allow demonstrations to continue on campus with one tent remaining where the larger encampment had been. Members of the advisory committee had reportedly not been consulted on the agreement with the protesters.

In a letter announcing his decision, Simon wrote that he had joined the committee “with the expectation that we would make a good-faith effort” toward ensuring that students can walking through campus without hearing hate-filled speech or experiencing harassment for their religious or political beliefs.

“Over time,” he wrote, “it has become apparent that the committee is not able to do so.”

Wendy Khabie, who has a son at Northwestern, said she believed the antisemitism on campus has gone unchecked for a while as the administration did not seem to be taking it “seriously enough to get in front of it or do anything to stop it.”

She is among a group of parents and concerned supporters of the university who have banded together to create a group named the Coalition Against Antisemitism at Northwestern.

“I think the encampments were an absolute encroachment and horrible distraction,” she said. “There were times [my son] and his peers had to walk through protests or over protesters, who had literally laid down on the ground, in order to get to class.”

For her, the school’s agreement with the anti-Israel protesters represents “total capitulation”.

Back at Rutgers, shortly after 4pm, the tents began to come down. Rumours spread that the demands of the protesters had been met.

That wasn’t entirely true, though the school has made some concessions. Officials agreed to review the school’s investment policy in response to a demands to divest from companies doing business with Israel. The school has also agreed to accept at least 10 displaced Gazan students to finish their education at Rutgers.

Furthermore, it made clear that no student or staff member who participated in the encampment will face “retaliation” from the university, such as termination of employment or reduction in compensation.

The agreement was met with disappointment from Jewish students.

As one student put it: “It’s frustrating that they will have some of their demands met because they are acting like children.”

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