Jewish World

Voices from Campus: Hunter College

When Fox National News came to Hunter College to interview students during the October 12 pro-Palestinian protest, Gideon Askowitz spoke up. He subsequently appeared on Fox News programs to discuss the surge of antisemitism being experienced by Jewish students on university campuses.


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.


I am a Jew.

It’s funny how that simple phrase perfectly summarizes how many of us students have felt these past few months. As of this writing in December, we are struggling to find concrete ways to contend with the growing antisemitism on campus. Some of us think, “I am not Ben Shapiro, and so no one will hear my epic monologue. My actions have no power to sway the national conversation around antisemitism.” I believe this thought process is mistaken, and to demonstrate why, I will share my story.

Last year, I transitioned from being a full-time learner at Yeshivat Shaalvim to being a student at Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College. The transition was fraught with many challenges, the least of which were academic. The social environment of a secular university was entirely foreign to me. As time went on, I grew accustomed to standing out as a visibly Orthodox Jewish person in a non-religious environment. I went about my classes as any serious student would and did not think being religious would cause significant obstacles in my academic path. 

I was mistaken. 

Various advisors at my school urged me to apply for a particular fellowship. This program partners primarily with City University of New York (CUNY) campuses and places a select group of fellows into three summer internships at prestigious government, non-profit and for-profit enterprises. I had reservations about applying because the fellowship included several events during the academic calendar that fell on Shabbos. Hunter College assured me that the program would accommodate me and nominated me for the fellowship. 

During my interview with the fellowship team, I shared that I would not be able to attend a few events for religious reasons but would make up any missed material and be a fully contributing member. They told me it was “my choice” to be religious. The interview ended with a rather palpable silence.

A few days later, the head of Hunter College’s scholarship office informed me that members of the fellowship team had called him and expressed astonishment that Hunter would even nominate a student who could not fully participate in all of its programming. 

Outraged by the blatant discrimination, I obtained help from the Brandeis Center and the ADL, and after months of negotiations, the fellowship agreed to change its policy (there are no longer events that fall on Shabbos), and I became a sitting member on the chancellor of CUNY’s Advisory Council on Jewish life. This position allowed me to influence the school when various CUNY campuses went down the rabbit hole of antisemitism post–October 7.

After the dean of Macaulay CUNY sent out a statement about the massacre that propagated a false moral equivalency between Israel and Hamas, I sent an email to the chancellor of CUNY explaining why the equivalency was fallacious and included uncensored images of the massacre. “As a member of the Advisory Council on Jewish Life, I make nothing short of a demand that you rescind this letter and send a condemnation solely of the violence against Israel . . .” I wrote. 

The chancellor responded by issuing a statement condemning Hamas’s acts of terrorism and emailing it to every CUNY student.

While I felt the statement was an improvement, the whole situation felt absurd; why had it required so much effort to get the chancellor to issue the condemnation?

The very next day in Hunter, I felt like I had stepped into an alternate reality. I knew that the Hunter Palestinian Student Alliance and other similar groups were planning a large protest that day, but it felt like it came out of nowhere. I arrived at Hunter after spending my morning uptown at Yeshiva University learning, so I was dressed like a yeshivah guy: kippah, tzitzis, button-down shirt. I could feel students’ eyes on me as I walked through the hallways. The school felt eerily calm. 

After class ended, realizing something was going to happen, I offered to walk a Jewish student to her next class. Tension was thick. We stepped into the hallway and immediately noticed keffiyehs everywhere, anti-Israel signs and students clustered by the windows looking down at the swelling protest, which could be heard from inside the building. 

My heart was in my throat. 

As I dropped my fellow Jewish student off at her class, I could still hear the calls to “Globalize the Intifada.” 

We stepped into the hallway and immediately noticed keffiyehs everywhere, anti-Israel signs and students clustered by the windows looking down at the swelling protest . . .

I sat down in my next class as the professor started her lecture, but I could not pay attention. I could still hear the chants from our mostly soundproof classroom. The anger was building inside me, and suddenly, I thought of my pregnant great-grandmother who fled Germany after a Nazi officer told her she could not sit on the park bench because the “sun should not shine on a Jew.” I thought to myself: How would I tell my grandchildren that while my classmates called for their death, I attended an econometrics lecture?

I left the class and walked toward the mob, taking out an Israeli flag while I did so. A police officer came and said, “Sir, you cannot stand here; the pro-Israel side is over there.” Excited that I would not be alone in opposing this madness, I walked around to where he told me to go.

Only no one was there. 

The New York Police Department had blocked off a large area just to the side of where hundreds of students were gathering screaming for the death of Jews, and the area was empty. So I stepped inside this pen and held the flag, facing the new Hitler youth. A TA (teaching assistant) walked past me and ripped the flag out of my hands. A police officer immediately arrested him (the TA is, of course, still working at Hunter).

After some time, a handful of Jewish students came out to show support. Many told me they were watching from inside the school and were so glad someone had stood up. They were all intimidated by the group of Hamas supporters and did not think that going out to counterprotest would make any difference. Many of them were crying. When Fox National News came down to interview students at this contentious protest, none of the Jewish students spoke up. I interviewed, schmoozed with the Fox team, and then pitched a program idea to them. Since then, I have been able to appear on many Fox programs and other media events. 

There have been many rallies at Hunter since that first one, and yet, there are usually very few individuals counterprotesting (some of those counter protesters are not even students). Students plaster “Zionism=Terrorism” stickers throughout the school. The school simply has a hostile environment. For a period, a friend of mine, who is not visibly Jewish, stopped attending one of his classes; another student told me that her professor forced a discussion of “Palestine” into an unrelated course.

While I always wanted to be involved in media and politics, I had not anticipated that antisemitism on my campus would be its impetus or that I would be involved in politics so soon. I thought I would get involved in those areas after I had a career as a constitutional litigator; I wanted to establish myself before venturing out into the public eye. That is clearly no longer possible. My parents and I had a couple of frank discussions about what the consequences of speaking out would mean for my future. I may no longer be able to attend the best law schools or be accepted to prestigious scholarships. I may be denied an interview at a firm because of my advocacy. But when I am older, I will be able to answer my grandchildren when they ask me what I did when people in our country called for their blood. 

I have no regrets.


Gideon Askowitz grew up in White Plains, New York, and attended SAR High School. He subsequently spent a year in Yeshivat Shaalvim. Currently, he is a sophomore in Macaulay Honors College at Hunter College and lives near Yeshiva University.


More in this Section:

Rebecca Massel – Voices from Campus

Adin Moskowitz – Voices from Campus

Eitan Fischer – Voices from Campus

Isaac Ohrenstein – 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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