Ruckus on Campus — What is Taking Place at Colleges?

Dr. Alan Kadish, president of Touro University, speaks with Hamodia

By Ben Zion Wolff

Dr. Alan Kadish, president of Touro University.

In the aftermath of the barbaric massacre perpetrated by Hamas terrorists on Shemini Atzeres (October 7), student organizations and faculty at several universities have expressed their support for Hamas. As a result, antisemitic acts have increased at college campuses, leaving Jewish students feeling unsafe in the current environment.

Dr. Alan Kadish, president of Touro University, spoke with Hamodia about the current climate at colleges nationwide, and how it affects the Jewish students of those institutions as well as Touro College’s own students.

Can you share your own initial reaction to hearing the news of Hamas’ attack on the communities adjacent to Gaza, and how it affected your own initial statement that you released afterwards?

I first heard about the violent attack on Shemini Atzeres in the morning, and like every Jew all over the world, my first reaction was one of shock and pain. Just hearing how the terrorists slaughtered so many innocent Jewish civilians was appalling.

By the time I sat down to write my initial message to the University community, in which I wrote that “now is the time for all decent people everywhere to unite against evil and terror,” my emotions included a feeling of anger. Anger is a G-d given human emotion that, when harnessed properly, can serve a positive purpose, and in this case, it should be channeled by those fighting for Israel to eradicate the evil and terror wrought by Hamas.

Touro University has several campuses within the Orthodox Jewish community in the United States: in Brooklyn, Queens, Chicago, Los Angeles and in Miami, as well as a division in Israel. However, the university has divisions elsewhere and has a diverse student enrollment. Has Touro experienced any antisemitic incidents in any of its divisions?

Although we do have a diverse student population, as the largest Jewish-sponsored university in the United States, our students realize that we stand with Israel, and we will not tolerate antisemitism. As a result, Touro has not experienced the outbreak of public antisemitism or anti-Israel protests that other colleges have seen. There have been a few offensive posts on private social media, but nothing that was clearly in the realm of hate speech or a call to violence, which would have violated our policies. Considering the number of students we have, which is over 19,000, and the very diverse nature of our total student body, we have been extraordinarily lucky in terms of what has happened publicly.

I think that reflects the fact that the students who come to Touro University, even the ones who are not Jewish, know that we are a Jewish-sponsored institution and they read my message, and they’ve behaved appropriately.

New York police officers stand guard as pro-Israel and pro-Palestinians students demonstrate, amid the ongoing conflict in Gaza, at Columbia University in New York City, October 12, 2023. (Reuters/Jeenah Moon)

There have been numerous reports about anti-Israel and antisemitic events and acts in the world of higher education. Are the attacks on campuses unprecedented, or has this happened previously? If it has taken place before, has it ever been addressed in an effective way?

There have been scattered instances of antisemitism on college campuses forever, and I would say that statistics show there has been an increase of several hundred percent in the last decade. But there has never been the sustained, widespread publicly exposed antisemitism that is being displayed now. This new development is obviously extremely worrisome and distressing, but not entirely surprising.

I think in the past when incidents have occurred, there has been, using a medical analogy, an attempt to address the symptoms, but I do not think there has been real considered action to address the underlying disease.

When a student was threatened or attacked, those incidents have been investigated and the offenders have been sanctioned on a case-by-case basis. There was no consistent effort to try to identify why this was happening and inadequate focus on how to prevent such incidents from happening again in the future. This lack of attention to addressing the underlying issue is clear as we see the virulent antisemitism on campuses today.

With the acceleration in the past few weeks, do you feel it is only a result of the October 7 attack, or has this been simmering below the surface and the Hamas attack and its aftermath has allowed it to come out in the open?

It has certainly been simmering below the surface for several decades and getting worse all the time. If you think about it objectively, now the situation is quite complicated, but if you go back to the time of October 7th through the 12th, the entire series of events is unbelievable. Fourteen- hundred Israelis and other nationals, including women and children, are murdered, tortured, and kidnapped in the most brutal way, and there are people demonstrating against Israel! Jews are murdered in a pogrom, and you demonstrate against the Jews? It’s just mindboggling! And the only way this could happen is if this antisemitism was lurking beneath the surface all along.

There are narratives that have been propagated in American high schools and colleges over the last few years dividing the world into oppressors and oppressed, and many students have embraced the Palestinian cause as champions of the “oppressed” with very little knowledge of history or details. Progressive influencers and celebrities amplify this message on social media and students are swept up into fighting for the oppressed Palestinians and putting the attack into “context” of the many years of occupation the Palestinians had to endure.

These messages are now being said out loud and broadcast on social media platforms, but it is possible because of a fertile field of latent antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment.

You mentioned that social media played a role. Do you think it played a major role, or was just one of many factors?

I think it is hard to generalize. There are some cases where social media, and the more general media, have had a profound influence. In other cases, it has only been ancillary.

As an example, the blood libel about the hospital bombing was clearly driven in a major way by social media and by the general media. Nothing that was initially reported was true. The social media, generated by computer AI response was clearly evident because fifteen minutes after the explosion they were counting hundreds of dead, up until an exact number of 457, which is kind of ridiculous. There is no way that could have happened; Israel still has not identified all the dead of the October 7th massacre. To think all this information could be available and verified immediately after the explosion is absurd. That was surely driven by the Hamas press releases and the AI social media agitation.

The deaths caused by the errant missile is tragic, but the fallout of the press frenzy was the death knell of the progress that was being made to bring together a coalition of nations to resolve the situation and release the hostages in a reasonable way. It was all torpedoed by this absolute lie. The number of people killed was nowhere near the amount reported, it wasn’t a hospital but a parking lot, and Israel didn’t do it. There are certainly cases where social media has accelerated antisemitic and anti-Israel events.

Has social media amplified the antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiment in the college community?

I believe that in the college community social media has been particularly influential. College students are generally immersed in social media, and it is not going away. We must figure out ways to counter false information and the inappropriate influence it has. College students are highly focused on social media, and, in some cases, they use it as their exclusive means of communication. It is particularly problematic when the lies are spread, and people are riled up, on the college campus via social media.

Students demonstrate against Israel at Columbia University in New York City, October 12. (Reuters/Jeenah Moon)

In the more recent protests we have seen on college campuses, in your opinion have college leaders responded properly to the events, or has their reaction been a disappointment?

It is impossible to generalize because there has been a spectrum of responses. Many institutions have condemned Hamas terrorism, and a much smaller number have translated that into specific actions. I think that, ideally, what one would want them to say is that after this Hamas terrorist attack, whatever the complex issues are historically in the Middle East, this is not the time to celebrate mass murderers. We know things are complicated and there is time for a discussion, but during the days of October 8th through the 12th, this is not the time to be engaging in statements that can be interpreted as supporting killing Jews or eradicating Israel.

That’s what I would have liked to see, and there were very few colleges that went that far.

Some refused to call out Hamas specifically and some refused to call it terror. But even those who did call it Hamas terror, their statements can be summarized as, “Hamas committed terror, let us discuss.” I think that is an inadequate response to mass murder.

More recently, there has been a more concerted effort to treat what I have called “the symptoms,” which is specific physical protection of Jewish students.

You are at the helm of one of the largest institutions of higher education. At this juncture, what is it like being in such a position?

It’s extraordinarily complicated. From an institutional standpoint, I want to make sure that we respect all our students, but we also stand firmly with the Jewish people and Israel — That is who we are! That is not an easy row to hoe. I want to make sure that people know where we stand, and they know that the campuses are basically supportive and quiet. There are certainly students who felt very anxious about the rare incidents I described, but overall, I think we’ve done alright with that.

There is an effort to interact with college presidents elsewhere. My colleague Rabbi Dr. Ari Berman, president of YU, led an effort and we partnered as family members, to get other college presidents to sign on against terror. I would say that that effort was somewhat successful, but certainly not as successful as we had hoped.

On top of that, I am experiencing what Jews all over the world are experiencing, which is a terrible sense of dread, both at the Hamas attack and the resurgence of antisemitism. This has been one of the most difficult few weeks that I can remember.

You have mentioned that things have been basically quiet at Touro compared to other institutions. How does the environment at Touro, which is a Jewish-sponsored college, compare to secular colleges?

All our divisions are shomer Shabbos, all have kosher food, all program schedules are designed around Jewish holidays, and everyone knows that we are a Jewish-sponsored institution that is respectful of Jewish values. I believe all of that taken together creates a different atmosphere. Although there is a lot of diversity of political opinion on our campus, overall we have far fewer people, both on the faculty and the student level, who are adherents of some of the trends like intersectionality which I think have spurred antisemitism on campuses.

I know that the environment is certainly welcoming for Jewish students, and indeed welcoming for all students, and is a respectful environment for education and scholarship. While making sure we do not tolerate discrimination against anyone, we are particularly focused on fighting bias and calling out antisemitism.

We have been receiving many inquiries from students at other universities interested in transferring to Touro’s undergraduate programs at this time. Touro was created as an oasis for Jewish students to be fully engaged in their education and career preparation without compromising on their religious identity and observance …at no time has that been more important.

Do you feel students at Touro feel supported and comfortable as they pursue their studies and their training?

Generally, yes, but particularly at this time when things are so hypersensitive, when any remark by a classmate can understandably produce anxiety, I do think that students feel supported. Does that mean that they are not feeling stressed and reacting to every minor statement? No, I think that every one of us, even those not attending university, feels incredible stress and vulnerability at this time. Yet we are trying to do our best to support our students.

If you were addressing another college president, what would you recommend they do to make their Jewish students feel safe and supported?

I think there are two things. One is what I mentioned earlier, which I believe many of the colleges, even the ones who were reluctant to do so previously, are doing now in reaction to the spate of antisemitism and that is making sure the students are physically safe and have support services. What is not happening is what I alluded to earlier, which is I’d like to see colleges say, “Supporting Hamas is not legitimate exercise of free speech at this point. They have committed mass murder and horrible crimes, and supporting them is supporting those acts, and it mustn’t be done at this time.” It is the message that I included in my statement, and I have reiterated in every interview I have given in the media, but very, very few have said that.

That’s what should be done in the short term. In the long term, I think some of the factors which have led to a rise in antisemitism and radicalism on campus need to be managed, albeit without impeding free speech. That is not an easy task, but I believe it can be done, particularly by looking carefully at the faculty and the messages they are passing on to students.

These are very difficult times. May Hakadosh Baruch Hu hear our tefillos and bring us from distress to relief, from darkness to light and from upheaval to Geulah.

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