By: Nadav Heller  | 

Don’t Flee to YU

I’ve always thought that the term “secular college” was kind of funny and backwards. Outside of our community, it’s just called “college.” Why would YU be the foil for every other educational institution? And yet, in the past month, this term has begun to feel strangely apropos. As student bodies around the country unite against Israel, Jewish students feel alienated from their friends, teachers and ideals. When their peers cheer “global intifada” and “glory to our martyrs,” Jewish students have to grapple with the deeply non-Jewish and in some cases explicitly anti-Jewish attitudes of their “secular” colleges.

A Jewish friend at Columbia University recently expressed doubts about finishing her degree there. “If you asked me four weeks ago, I’d have said I believe in the value of attending secular college, but now I’m not so sure.” Another friend at York University said she worries for her children when they eventually attend college. “I no longer feel a need for my kids to go to a secular college and learn to be proud Jews in a non-Jewish space. I now think that's overrated.” Israeli professor Shai Davidai proclaimed that “if my 2-year-old daughter was now 18 years old I would never, never send her to Columbia, because I know that she will not be protected.” 

This is not only true among the student body, but among alumni and donors as well. Philanthropists have halted funding to or cut ties with prestigious universities, and some have even refused to hire graduates who openly supported Hamas. There is a growing feeling that prestigious universities are especially hostile spaces for Jews. We have never been as disenchanted with institutions of higher learning as we are now.

In contrast to their peers, students at YU feel safe on campus. We do not fear assault by fellow students; we do not worry that teachers will assign extra credit for attending pro-Palestine rallies or that student organizations will blame Israel for the massacre of its own civilians. In the wake of the past month’s events, we should expect that more and more Jewish students will recognize that when the Ivy League rebuffs and threatens them, Yeshiva University provides a reassuring alternative.

But YU cannot become a refuge for students fleeing hostility on college campuses. Jewish fear only weakens us and emboldens our enemies. If campuses become places where there are no Jews to protest and no dissenting voices, hatred will continue to fester. There is nothing that hatred loves more than a timid victim.

When the Jewish people went to war in biblical times, the priest would address the nation and say “Listen, Israel! Today you approach war with your enemies. Do not allow your hearts to soften! Do not be in fear, panic, or dread before them! For it is Hashem your God who marches with you to fight for you against your enemies to save you” (Devarim 20:3-4). The Mishnah (Sotah 8:5) commands all Israel to fight in an obligatory war (milchemet mitzvah), even a groom from his room and bride from her wedding canopy, and Maimonides clarifies that an obligatory war is any war which is waged to “assist Israel from an enemy which attacks them” (Laws of Kings 5:1). He further writes that it is a biblical commandment for soldiers not to fear or become frightened of the enemy during war (Book of Mitzvot, Negative Mitzvot 58). This means that according to Maimonides, all of us are obligated in the war effort, and all of us are forbidden to be intimidated. When Israel’s enemies converge against her, she must stand up and hold her head high with the greatest zeal, pride, and fervor she can muster.

I recognize that this is a lot of talk from my cushy ivory tower here at YU, and I hope I don’t seem insensitive to the plight of students on other campuses. I understand that there are real dangers, that safety comes first and that it can be unimaginably isolating to be surrounded by detractors. I understand that students experience real trauma and that it’s essential for us to provide one another with robust and loving support systems. I understand that some individuals have unique circumstances (unharvested vineyards, unconsummated marriages…) that may make on-campus life impossible at this time. I do not address these students. I respect and support their efforts to take care of themselves, and would not criticize any one person’s decision. And nonetheless, I feel it is critical that those of us who are able remain steadfast.

As students, we are not equipped to go to war in the conventional sense; we have no training and belong to no army. Part of the way we contribute is by fighting the culture war waged every day on college campuses. We cannot afford to abandon our universities, allowing them to become strongholds of antisemitic sentiment. It is especially at times like these when Jewish people must maintain a presence in the places we are least welcome. A friend of mine attending Brown University told me that she bought a dozen Israeli-army-themed sweatshirts and wore a different one every day as an expression of her indomitable solidarity. A friend at Yale sent me pictures of a Jewish student, wrapped in tefillin and an Israeli flag, singing and praying amid a sea of Palestinian flags and anti-Israel posters. This is what it means for students to join the milchemet mitzvah we now face. This is what we mean when we say it is forbidden to be intimidated.

Incoming students: if you want to come to YU because you think it’s the best place for your emotional, spiritual, and intellectual development, welcome. I love Yeshiva University, I’m proud to call myself a student here, and I wouldn’t discourage you from joining me. If, however, you want to come to YU because you fear discrimination and threats elsewhere, I beg you to reconsider. If Jews flee at every sign of conflict, we perpetuate an internal narrative of ghettoized fearfulness and defeat ourselves before our enemies get the chance. We cannot grant hatred any more victories than it has already won. 

Am Yisrael Chai.


Photo Caption: The Yeshiva University emblem near Belfer Hall, emblazoned with the dual values of Torah and Madda (general studies)

Photo Credit: Yeshiva University