Jewish ‘safe spaces’ are not the answer 

Recently, prominent leaders in the American Jewish community — including William Daroff, CEO of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish American Organizations, and Mark Charendoff, president of Maimonides Fund — have openly called on Jewish students and donors to abandon Ivy League universities due to campus antisemitism and other very real problems with higher education. 

We should certainly welcome innovations and disruptions in higher education. It is even possible that these innovations could incentivize some of the most prestigious and powerful universities to address their problems and change for the better. What I find so surprising — and offensive — is that these Jewish leaders seem to be calling for a mass exodus that amounts to the creation of Jewish “safe spaces” for my generation. I believe these calls for us to run away display both a lack of courage on the part of these leaders and a lack of faith in the resiliency of the next generation of Jewish leaders. 

“If they don’t want us, we should go elsewhere,” Daroff advises the Jewish community in a December Jerusalem Post interview. Indeed, the story of the Jewish diaspora is of a nomadic people wandering from place to place until empires and countries decide to send us packing, or worse. To me, Daroff’s suggestion ignores one of the most important lessons the Jewish People have learned about ourselves and our place in the world since May 14, 1948: The story of Israel’s perseverance teaches us that we derive our power when we stand our ground in unfriendly neighborhoods. Perhaps one of the takeaways from Oct. 7 is that American Jewish Zionism demands more than just supporting a strong Israel from afar. If we are not moving to Israel, we need to fight for our place and our dignity in the unfriendly neighborhoods of the counties we live in, insisting, just as our Israeli brothers and sisters do, that we are not going anywhere.

Yes, antisemitism and illiberalism on elite college campuses are rampant and concerning. To his credit, Charendoff correctly diagnoses the issue in his op-ed this week for eJewishPhilanthropy. DEI-niks have effectively designated Zionists as “oppressors” in a zero-sum worldview that chooses and glorifies the “oppressed” and shames its “oppressors” into social pariahs. We cannot ignore or downplay these problems. 

But are we really too weak to stand our ground? This is the message Mark Charendoff sends by asserting that leaving is the only solution that can “bring about effective change” on college campuses. Charendoff’s suggestion that we create what he calls a “collegiate minyan” through basically buying financially burdened, lesser-known universities seems irresponsible and wrong. We should not deny Jewish students the opportunity to engage with the many diverse, talented and ambitious students elite schools still attract. To run away is to sacrifice a key opportunity for intellectual growth and for building networks of influential friends and allies. 

Most significantly, I find the promotion of these university “safe spaces” ironic given Charendoff’s critiques of higher education and his championing of viewpoint diversity. To shield ourselves from uncomfortable ideas — even from people who hate us — is to create an intellectually and emotionally weak generation of people who cave in the face of adversity since they have never had to face it. 

I also worry that underlying this “give up” mentality is a deep insecurity about our own narrative. Though it’s the violent rhetoric that makes the news, Jewish students’ feelings of discomfort arise most frequently when they find themselves unable to defend Israel, Zionism or Judaism against simplistic but powerful ideologies that are harmful to Israel and the Jews. 

In order to address this, the Jewish community must first double down on Jewish education and literacy — young people who do not know their own history cannot be expected to stand strong in the face of those who attack it. We must do a better job teaching Jewish students to get comfortable in the uncomfortable by introducing them to hard questions and language used about Israel before they arrive on college campuses. We should be secure enough in our Zionism to believe that it can hold its own on the ideological battlefield. 

It seems unreasonable to think that Charendoff’s educational isolationism will solve the problems we are facing on college campuses and in other spaces as well. Instead, Jewish students must do everything we can to stay and engage, and leaders of the American Jewish community should focus on supporting us. If we are successful, we will strengthen our own Jewish identities, build empathy and support for Israel and the Jewish People and play our parts in the repair of higher education. 

Elisha Baker is a sophomore at Columbia University studying Middle East history.