The Diaspora’s ‘The Day After’ dilemma 

In Short

As a community, we have a tendency to forget. It will be our personal choice to remember the pain, anxiety, fear and hate during this moment in history and act upon those memories.

I recently met a woman at a local synagogue social event whose daughter is a first-year student at UC Berkeley. “Oy, it must be difficult to be a student there with all the antisemitic activities,” I said to her. 

“There is no antisemitism on campus,” the woman replied. Her daughter just decided to avoid walking through Sproul Plaza and other places where the anti-Israel demonstrations are located, she said. 

This indifferent and naïve response surprised me. How could she be in such a state of denial? How can she not see the parallel of her daughter’s choice to the decisions of German Jews in 1936? At that time, Jews avoided walking through specific streets or public parks to evade Nazis.  Today, Jewish students at one of the best public universities in the world feel intimidated walking through the main campus square. If this is not antisemitism, then what is it? 

The terrorist attack of Oct. 7 startled Israel and sent a global shockwave through the entire world. It took Jewish communities all over the world by surprise. The overwhelming news needed to be processed fast, because immediately after Hamas’s attack — in some places within hours — Jews became the targets of a vicious outbreak of antisemitic social media posts and violent anti-Israel demonstrations in hundreds of cities in Europe, America and Australia. While Hamas terrorists were hiding in their tunnels under Gaza, a wave of thousands of antisemites apparently got the green light to leave their “tunnels” and launch their antisemitic propaganda. Hamas succeeded to wake the antisemitic bear (or in this case, a group of creepy hyenas) from its slumber. 

Hundreds of people rally outside of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley on Oct. 26, 2023. Screenshot via YouTube

Since then, we receive bad news on a daily basis, not only from Israel but from many Jewish communities around the world as well. Jewish hate has exploded in our hands like a well-shaken can of soda. While synagogues and other Jewish institutions spent time, energy and funds to fortify their buildings and boost security, Jewish students at hundreds of universities have become the most vulnerable and most targeted group. Their classmates and roommates have turned against them, joining rallies on campuses while shouting hateful slogans. Many of these students don’t have the minimum understanding of how these slogans call for the genocide of the Jewish people.  Some Jewish students attend classes where their science or business professors express their radical views and pontificate about the situation in “Palestine” with minimal understanding of its complexity. Jewish faculty members are receiving the cold shoulder from their colleagues, and Hillel International has recorded a more than 700% increase in the number of reported incidents of hate speech, vandalism, intimidation, and physical assault directed at Jewish students. 

Meanwhile, most university administrations’ reactions range from passivity to apathy. The lack of leadership is appalling; and as we witnessed watching the congressional hearing on Dec. 5, even top scholars in the US have shown us how absurd and shameful they can be. 

University administrators were hoping that the first wave of student anger and demonstration would subside by winter break, but they were wrong. Every week students, staff and faculty continue to report new antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents on campuses around the world. Yet, university administrators continue to put their heads in the sand and pray for miracles. Only a few new educational programs were initiated of open intellectual dialogues or staff training regarding the current rise of antisemitism at an insignificant number of universities. 

Where do we go from here? 

There is a lot of talk in Israel about “the day after the war,” but Jewish communities in the Diaspora need to start to discuss their own “the day after the war” dilemmas. Will we be able to forget this period of time and move on? Can we still use the phrase “Never again,” or has it lost its meaning? Do we just see these past few months as an “inconvenient” period and start walking through Sproul Plaza after the war is over? 

These and many more questions will need answers.

After the war, we may notice that the antisemites around us will crawl back into their tunnels. They might stop shouting their propaganda slogans and reduce the number of their hateful posts on social media, but their minds won’t change. They will still move around us, in the university libraries, dorms and the dining halls, waiting for the next opportunity to lash out with their hateful propaganda publicly, to intimidate and hurt Jewish students and force them to modify their daily lives. Will we be able to tolerate this all over again? Should we?

After the war, there must be time when students and parents elevate their expectations from university administrations. The defeatist approach — “Jews have been experiencing antisemitism for thousands of years, what can we do” — can no longer stand. We must demand change that will include educational programs, enforcement of conduct policies and other measures that will ensure safe learning and living experiences for all Jewish students on campus. Moreover, university leadership must use this period as a case study for training new top university administrators. Many incidents that have been recorded locally by Hillel and/or the Anti-Defamation League must be analyzed and processed by future educational leaders. 

Additionally, we should not wait for the next generation to get to college before we educate it about antisemitism. We are now witnessing a generation of young adults who graduated from the K-12 educational system marching and spewing hateful slogans, unaware of their own ignorance. Jewish organizations, such as federations and boards of Jewish education, must designate funding to help design curricula that will be taught at local district elementary, middle and high schools. The one-time visits to local Jewish or Holocaust museums or the assigned reading of The Diary of Anne Frank or The Devil’s Arithmetic are just not enough. It was never enough. We need to stop using the cliché phrase “combating antisemites” and instead use “accepting Jews,” and start designing curricula with this core notion. Seems like a difficult task, but we must give it a try. 

As for those of you who have experienced a negative epiphany in the past few months regarding your colleagues, friends, classmates and neighbors, you have some decisions to make. Will we be able to go back to Oct. 6 and forget the hateful actions? Can we forgive antisemites? Can we mend relationships? These are just a few of the many personal dilemmas that diaspora Jews will need to face. 

A week ago, I saw an interesting painting at a local museum. Adapting a famous quote from Martin Luther King, Jr., the artist wrote in large letters on the canvas: “The Arc of Our Collective Memory is Bending and Twisting Towards Amnesia”. 

As a community, we have a tendency to forget. It will be our personal choice to remember the pain, anxiety, fear and hate during this moment in history and act upon it. For now, I can only hope that students will stand strong and proud against hate and continue to pursue their academic studies without fear. 

Eran Vaisben holds a doctorate in educational leadership from UC Davis and is the executive director of Hillel Inland and Desert, which serves California’s Riverside and San Bernadino Counties.