By Stacey Dresner
AMHERST – When Noam Borensztajn began attending the University of Massachusetts Amherst two years ago, he was looking forward to having interesting and thoughtful discussions with people who have different opinions on different subjects.
But he has found that having thoughtful conversations about Israel and antisemitism hasn’t been that easy.
“I really thought I would come to college and people would be open and you know, empathetic, and it’s just not the case,” Borensztajn said.
Last month Borensztajn, now president of the Student Alliance for Israel (SAFI) and fellow student Ben Alvarez Dobrusin wrote a letter to UMass’s Daily Collegian to reflect on the atmosphere at UMass one year after the word “Palestine” was spray-painted on the UMass Hillel building on Holocaust Remembrance Day.
“One year since the vandalism at Hillel, the Jewish community at UMass still feels afraid of rising antisemitism,” the letter stated. “While we greatly appreciate the university administration speaking out against this hatred, we need tangible actions to help Jewish students feel safe.”
Just one week after their letter was published, the messages “From the River 2 the Sea” – known to be a call for the destruction of Israel – and “Palestine will be free” were spray-painted on a tunnel on campus.
The graffiti was painted over and the vandalism is being investigated, according to the UMass administration.
UMass Hillel posted a statement on Facebook regarding the vandalism.
“While we support free speech, we condemn the use of inflammatory language and the defacement of public or private property. And we continue to call for a constructive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict through promotion of dialogue, working for peace and affirmation of the humanity of both Israelis and Palestinians.”
While calling for dialogue and peace is important, Borensztajn told the Jewish Ledger that he and many Jewish students at UMass are concerned, if not downright afraid, when it comes to these incidents, which they see as not only anti-Zionist, but also antisemitic.
“I’d say it’s a combination between fear and anger, because we’re not sure what the next thing is going to be, or when it’s going to come. But we know that it’s going to happen. And we don’t feel like there’s anything really being done to stop it and I think that makes us very nervous,” he said. “At the same time, all of these things have been sort of a rallying cry and I think the Jewish community has also come together, and we want to be active and do something about it.”
Besides the vandalism and some pro-Boycott, Divestment and Sanction (BDS) events hosted by UMass in recent years (Mass. Jewish Ledger, Nov. 25, 2019), some Jewish students have also met with disapproval from fellow students on campus for supporting or having ties to Israel.
“I have this Jewish identity, which is an amazingly complex identity and a huge part of that is being from Israel,” said Borensztajn, who was born in Jerusalem and came to the United States when he was two years old. “So, when I see this stuff exists all over campus, it makes me nervous to, for example, tell people my name. My name is an Israeli name and when people ask me where I’m from, I feel like I can’t even tell them because who knows what kind of reactions I’m going to get.
“I’ve had bad experiences where people decide to just walk away and not talk to me anymore. It just makes it harder for me to be a student on this campus because I can’t just say who I am without it having this added political connotation. Yes, I understand that there’s all this political stuff but I also just can’t change where I was born and where my name comes from.”
Tamar Stollman, a rising senior at UMass, will serve as vice president of UMass’s
J Street club next fall, and she is the founder of “Jew Talk,” a club where Jewish students get together “to talk about Jewish life and being Jewish.”
Stollman describes herself as progressive.
“I was pretty involved with progressive student groups on campus until I started to feel like I was unwelcome because I was Jewish. It was just very uncomfortable to be a Jew in a progressive space,” she said. “I’m not directly offended by this graffiti, but I feel like it shows a bigger picture of what it means to be a Jew on a college campus. It’s just uncomfortable and unsafe.
“It is okay to be anti-Zionist and respectful of Jews,” Stollman added, “but I think the line is really thin, and it has crossed the line very often on college campuses because I think students are not the most well-versed in Jewish history.”
And when the line is crossed and discussion about the subject gets heated, that’s when antisemitic sentiment grows on college campuses, including UMass.
“The more intense it gets,” Stollman said, “the more antisemitic it gets as well.”
Stollman was one of the students who helped to organize an April Zoom meeting of various representatives of UMass.’s Jewish student community and the Student Government Association (SGA) focusing on antisemitism. The meeting was open to the public and members of the Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) joined the Zoom event.
“We were able to kind of have a conversation, which didn’t go well,” Borensztajn said. “We wanted to have a conversation about antisemitism generally and talk about how we can combat antisemitism at UMass. And we were explicitly not just talking about Israel. Israel was a part of it, but we also wanted to talk about swastikas that had gone up on campus before and Jews not feeling safe on campus. And some of the SJP students came on and basically said ‘we can’t have this conversation on antisemitism unless you acknowledge that antisemitism and anti-Zionism are different.’ It was super frustrating for non-Jews to come in and say that they should be able to define this conversation on antisemitism. It sort of derailed from there.”
“Jews should be deciding what antisemitism is,” Stollman said. “You never see any other marginalized group not deciding what their oppression looks like. So, it is like a slap in the face to have people who don’t experience antisemitism come and say, ‘well this isn’t antisemitism’ — to say, ‘we don’t believe Israel should exist, but that isn’t antisemitism. It’s not antisemitism because I said it’s not antisemitism.’ That’s not how it works.”
One of the steps Borensztajn hopes to take as president of SAFI next fall is working with the UMass student government to officially adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism — “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”
“That’s something that started brewing this semester and we’re hoping to find an opportunity in the next semester to really pick it up. I think that is a good first step in really addressing the crisis,” Borensztajn said.
Main Photo: Anti-Israel graffiti spray painted on a tunnel at UMass Amherst late last month. Credit: StopAntisemitism.org.