Jewish World

Voices from Campus: Harvard

Harvard graduate students converged on the steps of Widener Library at Harvard University for a pro-Palestinian rally. Photo: Rick Friedman/Alamy Live News


What’s it really like being a Jewish college student in the US post October 7? Students from Harvard, Cornell, Columbia, Hunter and the University of Chicago share their stories.


In early December, I walked into one of Harvard’s libraries to study, as many students do in the run-up to finals. It was later in the evening, and I was wearing a kippah, which I prefer not to do at night. But classes were finished, and for whatever reason, I didn’t feel like changing. Most of the tables in the library were taken, but I saw two people leaving and moved toward them as they gathered their things. One was a man with braids wearing a keffiyeh and a white sweatshirt that said “Free Palestine.” I wasn’t surprised to see him dressed like this. Many students around campus wear articles of clothing in support of the Palestinian people. I was thrown, though, when he looked me in the eyes, chuckled, and said, “It looks like we’re getting displaced again.” 

Although only one of my classes is related to Israel or Jewish history, almost all of my professors said something after October 7. Most were vague and nondescript, referencing the “complicated” events in the Middle East. One said something along the lines of “violence is never the answer,” which I found to be the most sympathetic of them all. None could bring themselves to name Hamas. Evidently there is strong anti-Israel bias among the faculty. Look no further than the current director of the Center for Jewish Studies, whose research centers around Israel as a colonial enterprise. The teaching assistant for his class took the opportunity to bash Benjamin Netanyahu after October 7, saying nothing about the murdered Israeli civilians. Other members of the faculty have made statements that I feel are deeply misleading. Teaching about the 1940s in Mandatory Palestine, a highly respected professor claimed a war “erupted” in 1948. No mention was made of the fact that Arab forces declared war on the newly established Jewish state after the Palestinians rejected the first of many partition plans. 

Among the Jewish students, there are classes and lecturers we know to avoid because of anti-Jewish bias. It’s not worth the risk, because grading in humanities classes is subjective. On a personal level, I am deeply interested in Middle Eastern economies and geopolitics. Before coming to Harvard, I hoped I would take classes on Arab society and interact with classmates from the region, but I can’t bring myself to do so. I don’t want to be harassed for traveling to Israel, or targeted by my professors for taking time off for the High Holidays. It’s a shame because real opportunities to build mutual understanding are being squandered. 

I’m not sure what the future holds for Jewish and Orthodox life at Harvard. Much will lie in the hands of the university.

I would argue that on our campus, there is a mix of antisemitism and ignorance relating to Jews, Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Some students genuinely don’t know what they’re talking about, having taken a passionate stance on one of the world’s most enduring conflicts after reading a few news articles. The vast majority of my peers have not set foot in Israel or the Palestinian territories, and they completely fail to grasp the reality on the ground. Others fundamentally believe Israel is a colonial, apartheid and white-supremacist state and all Jews are complicit in its actions. These are the people tearing down pictures of hostages in Harvard Square and chanting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” in the Science Center. I don’t feel that Harvard is a particularly welcoming place for Jewish students right now. There have been many hateful posts on Sidechat, an anonymous chat platform that is only accessible to students with a Harvard login. It is disheartening to see anti-Jewish and anti-Israel posts, often drawing on antisemitic tropes, receive hundreds of likes. In the beginning of December, I posted a poll on Sidechat asking, “Do you think antisemitism is an issue on campus?” Fifty-two percent of respondents said “no,” which amounted to 165 people. One comment asked for another option, “not as much as it is portrayed,” which received 41 likes. Clearly, Harvard students do not understand or recognize that antisemitism is thriving on our campus. The administration must fundamentally consider how Jewish students can be made to feel more comfortable at Harvard. They should be reaching out to provide meaningful support at this difficult time, especially because our community is small. It’s estimated that just over 5 percent of the student body is Jewish, down from 20 percent or 25 percent a few decades ago. Within this population, there are between twenty and thirty Orthodox students. We rely heavily on the local community for minyan and unfortunately do not have an OU-JLIC couple on campus. Some in the Hillel community are thinking of transferring to other Ivy League campuses with more Jewish infrastructure. These places undoubtedly have problems with antisemitism, but there is more support for religious students who feel marginalized. 

I’m not sure what the future holds for Jewish and Orthodox life at Harvard. Much will lie in the hands of the university. When the football team needs a new kicker or the orchestra a cellist, the admissions office will make space for them on campus. Maintaining a minyan at Hillel is not a priority in the same way. Every year, the university admits a handful of Orthodox Jews, just enough to keep the community alive. We desperately need more religious students in our community. A silver lining of this experience has been the level of support I’ve received from Jewish Harvard alumni. There are thousands of them who care about our experience on campus. Every few weeks, I’ll receive a text offering to speak with me about the situation, or explaining how they’re putting pressure on the administration. There wasn’t a Jewish alumni association before October 7, but now there is an official forum where they can congregate and connect with the university. The power of alumni, especially those involved in university affairs, is invaluable in this situation. 

I care deeply about Orthodox life on Ivy League campuses. I believe that many of America’s best and brightest minds are educated here, including students who will be leaders in government, science, finance and academia. It is important for them to meet and build relationships with Jewish students. I’m not convinced the situation will improve much during my time on campus, but strategic players with long-term horizons must make targeted investments in Jewish life on campus. In my opinion, the future of American Jewry appears uncertain if Jewish life diminishes in the Ivy League. 


Isaac Ohrenstein is a sophomore at Harvard University, with a concentration in social studies and a secondary in European history, politics and societies. In his spare time, he writes for the Harvard International Review and serves as a Lauder Fellow at the World Jewish Congress. An avid traveler, Isaac has visited over fifty countries and holds American, British and Austrian citizenship.


More in this Section:

Gideon Askowitz – Voices From Campus

Rebecca Massel – Voices from Campus

Adin Moskowitz – Voices from Campus

Eitan Fischer – Voices from Campus

Chizuk on Campus

How Students are Responding to Antisemitism

This article was featured in the Spring 2024 issue of Jewish Action.
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