By: Jonathan Levin  | 

An Interview with President Berman: A Look into His Efforts Since Oct. 7

The following article is based on an interview between The Commentator and YU President Ari Berman.

Yeshiva University President Ari Berman was in Jerusalem as the rocket sirens began to wail on that fateful October day. Soon after, he sent farewell to his son, who was called up to service while IDF brass struggled to gain an understanding of the ongoing atrocities being perpetrated in the Gaza envelope. As the fog began to lift and Hamas’ atrocities began to become known, Berman knew that as president of the United States’ leading Jewish university, he was going to have a special role to play in the coming months.

“It was clear,” Berman told The Commentator, “that moral leadership and Israel advocacy would be essential in the battle in the U.S., and that the flagship Jewish university would need to play a vital role in galvanizing support during this inflection moment in Jewish history.”

As the war dragged on, and as antisemitism made dangerous inroads on college campuses across the U.S., Berman, YU’s fifth president, has used his position to do just that. He has since appeared on TV, writing op-eds, met government officials and built coalitions beyond the Jewish community to advocate for Jewish students and the Jewish state, with much of his work being done behind closed doors.

He told The Commentator that as a Jewish leader, he felt a need to speak up. “One of the key roles for Jewish leaders today is specifically a public one,” said Berman, “to spread our values and speak clearly about the moral stakes of this crisis.” 

This principle has informed Berman’s media strategy, which according to a YU communications estimate, has allowed President Berman to reach an estimated 1.5 billion people by the end of 2023 through over a hundred media appearances, as well as through interviews and op-eds in major newspapers.

One initial public step taken by Berman was a letter he led in the weeks following Hamas’ attack, which eventually gained the signatures of over 100 university and college presidents across the United States, including faith-based universities and historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Spurred by what he felt were inappropriate responses to Oct. 7, Berman made sure to build a coalition across higher education, working “to highlight a narrative overlooked by the media” and gaining momentum as more and more signatures were added.

For Berman, this letter was an example of one of his public advocacy strategies since Hamas’ attack on Israel, which he termed as “finding the angels” in his remarks to The Commentator.

“It is essential in this effort to not only identify the bad actors but also to find the angels who stand with us on the side of truth,” Berman told The Commentator, saying that the Jewish community must approach tackling antisemitism and promoting Israel advocacy through building diverse coalitions. “This cannot simply be a Jewish story but one that concerns all people of moral conscience across America. Long term success requires both efforts.”

Creating this letter, published in major newspapers throughout the U.S., was accompanied by lobbying efforts and working with government officials, efforts that brought Berman down to Washington and brought Department of Education figures to YU to speak about protecting Jewish students.

In addition to the Department of Education, Berman has also worked with the Department of Homeland Security and Department of Justice and has leveraged connections with congressional officials, including Rep. Adriano Espaillat, who represents the Wilf Campus, to advocate for the rights of Jewish students. 

Espaillat, Berman said, has done significant work for Jewish students, including leading bipartisan letters to the DOJ and FBI calling for transparency around the release of hate crime data and greater protection. Espaillat has followed up on this work, and recently proposed legislation of his, the “Combating Hate Across Campus” bill, which would require, through amending the Higher Education Act of 1965, that universities track more information on hate crimes, increasing transparency. Berman labeled Espaillat’s work in advocating for the U.S.-Israel relationship and combating antisemitism as a “bright light in our nation” in remarks to The Commentator.

Educating Jewish students on the Clery Act, which could help protect Jewish students by publicizing hate crime data, is something that Berman has repeatedly stressed, including on videos on social media, and in a meeting he held with the House Committee on Education & the Workforce Chairwoman Rep. Virginia Fox about the subject, which garnered significant coverage.

Berman, who as of late as last week met with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and led a delegation of several university presidents in the March for the Living, where he also issued the keynote address, has also made sure that YU can be a welcoming place for Jewish students on other campuses. “We are being asked by Jewish students to transfer,” Berman told Fox News last week, saying that wait lists are at the “longest [YU] ever had,” with enrollment growing beyond YU’s capacity to house them. Yet Berman still believes Jews should be able to stay at other campuses, including Columbia, where campus protests in recent weeks have made many Jews feel unsafe.

“We cannot fit all the Jewish students at Yeshiva University and it won’t be good for America … or our society. Campuses should not be free from Jews, they should be safe for Jews.”

Berman has been outspoken about the failures of campus leadership to protect students. “Families and students in our community should understand that this failure of the vaunted institutions of higher education to respond in defense of their Jewish students and against antisemitism is not simply a momentary lapse in judgment but reveals a more profound defect at the heart of the enterprise,” Berman told The Commentator. “The current prevailing ethos in universities of viewing the world through the lens of identity instead of facts and truth has eaten away at the intellectual integrity that used to be the hallmarks of excellent academic institutions. The narrative that has supplanted the quest for truth is not just damaging to Jews but to America and western civilization.”

Pursuing truth is something that Berman has spoken about for years, saying that unlike other institutions, which no longer champion that value, YU does. 

 “The first and most basic of our core Torah values is to ‘Seek Truth,’” said Berman. “We see it as our mission to help our students on their journey to find truth. All of our academic research and certainly all of our Torah studies is based on the principle that truth exists and the pursuit of it is holy and worthy.

“Hamas raped, butchered, beheaded and burned alive defenseless Israelis and foreign nationals. Their savagery against their Jewish victims, unseen since the Holocaust, is a fulfillment of their charter and mission which calls for the destruction of Israel and the annihilation of all of its Jewish citizens. The fact that leadership of top tier universities did not (and do not) have the courage to speak the obvious truth about the evil represented by Hamas speaks to how core and powerful this false narrative is to their respective institutions.”

“Generally,” said Berman, “my stance aligns with the belief that it is preferable for university presidents to refrain from making political statements. However, consistency is key. Presidents must uphold this principle across the board. They cannot selectively issue moral statements on certain current issues while neglecting to do so when the Jewish community is targeted by acts of atrocity.”

Berman said universities' lack of effective responses to antisemitism has led him to see a sea change in how Jews interact with elite institutions, being more hesitant to send their children there and with donations — though Berman said he “generally counsel[s]” donors to remain involved in their alma maters and effect policy from within. Overall, Berman told The Commentator that he believed lesser involvement in institutions would be a net negative for American Jewry and for America as a whole.

Besides “finding the angels” and fighting for Jewish students nationally, Berman also sees YU students as key figures in the fight for Israel and against antisemitism and has been in touch with national Jewish organizations that cater to pro-Israel college students.

“My most important role is to help inspire our students to a life of values, service and leadership,” said Berman. “More important than anything is that our students locate their lives within the context of Jewish history and recognize the critical role they play for the Jewish people and our broader society.”

Berman pointed to work done by YU students, such as Global Day of Love and Kindness, political work like YUPAC’s trips, events hosting Israeli soldiers and religious self-improvement, saying they were integral to YU’s mission.

  “By living according to our Torah values and consciously representing to others what we stand for, our students are sanctifying Hashem’s name in the public square. This is the best way we can fend off rising antisemitism. We combat hate with truth, and broadcast our positive values to the world.”

Berman told The Commentator that he believed that student advocacy for Israel is “not a choice,” but a “responsibility,” and felt YU students, despite the trauma everyone felt from Oct. 7, rose to the occasion this year.

“This bodes well for the Jewish future. I think you have seen this year how your leadership matters. At Yeshiva University, we believe that you are not accidents of history but drivers of history. And the choices you make today not only impact your own self development but can change the world.”

“When I think of this year,” said Berman, “I think of President Theodore Roosevelt’s famous talk, the Man in the Arena:

  ‘It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.’”


Photo caption: President Berman at Auschwitz with a delegation of university presidents he led during the 2024 International March of the Living

Photo credit: Yeshiva University