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A non-Jewish friend sent me a piece about Jewish billionaire Henry Sweica’s resignation from the Columbia University board over concerns that the university allowed pro-Hamas protesters to engage in hate speech on campus. My friend wrote: “These don’t help anyone.” I don’t agree or disagree. I don’t know Mr. Sweica. I don’t know what it will achieve. But I understand why he did so. What follows is my reply to her, edited only slightly for readability.
It’s hard to explain how unnerved American Jews are right now. Our sense of security has given way to not understanding how we didn’t realize so much antisemitism was right below the surface, and where it was lurking. Our sense of security was grounded in knowing friend from foe. That has been upended.
I don’t know what it’s like to be the child of Holocaust survivors. Or to lose both those parents as a teenager. Or to be married to an Israeli. Certainly, I don’t know what it’s like to be a billionaire. But this is no different from any alum turning off their monthly donation to their alma mater. Not because there’s protesting on campus.
But because of the way university administrators are handling two things: 1. Security of Jewish students, and, 2. Faculty making incendiary statements or other aggressive actions that any reasonable person would believe is outside the bounds of their positions and employment. Whether law firms and employees should be blackballing student protesters is one thing. (Though I also think that is a reaction borne of fear more than retribution.) But faculty is another. It’s resulting in many major donors concluding the recipients of their donations are exhibiting poor judgment and are undeserving, often after making their appeals in private.
He doesn’t have a requirement to donate to Columbia as a graduate any more than I do as a Columbia graduate. The difference between he and I is simply a matter of scale. And why would someone continue contributing to an institution that in part uses their money to pay these very administrators and faculty? Because if you really look, not simply at Columbia, but across the country, it’s shocking what faculty is getting away with, the leeway they are being given is beyond the simple question of whether something is free speech or hate speech.
I don’t say this as an argument stopper: but you just can’t fully appreciate where our heads are right now. Certainly not any more than I’m able to fully appreciate questions of race.
And while nobody in my circles has considered Israel a potential refuge if need be, its cloak of invincibility now exposed as a mirage leaves us feeling very naked. And a belief that because the ultimate protector of Jews worldwide is no longer that, even if only temporarily, it’s a license for a free for all. Not that domestic anti-Semites are kept in check by fear of a Mossad agent on a motorcycle attaching a magnet bomb to their cars while driving on I-95. But the idea that all Jews are protected by the concept of an all-powerful Israel, by the highest levels of the like-minded American political establishment, and yes, by institutions we financially support. All three legs of that stool have collapsed under us.
Lastly, we’re not bloodthirsty and turning a blind eye to what’s happening in Gaza, whether Israel is going too far, whether their tactics can be dialed down and refined. Few people I know don’t think it’s a problem when Israel uses a 2,000-pound bomb to kill a single Hamas leader that also kills 99 innocents. The best we can offer is the reality that it’s Hamas that has embedded itself among its fellow Gazans exactly for this reason. But beyond that, we keep coming back to a simple question:
OK, so what are you suggesting Israel do?
And the answer, after a long pause, is invariably some version of “stop.” Maybe they call it a pause or even a ceasefire. But they mean stop. Nobody is calling for the Hamas political leadership to surrender those responsible for October 7. Of course they wouldn’t, but it shows how it’s Israel alone that is expected to resolve this issue. And you’d never know dozens of Americans were killed that day and dozens more still held hostage. I understand the political hesitance to become Jimmy Carter bogged down by those facts. But they are facts nonetheless. Yes, we’re making efforts privately. But the attacks on Americans alone is probably the greatest single-day loss of non-military American citizens overseas in decades, since I don’t know when.
But it’s Israel that is supposed to figure this all out and apparently the only way to figure it out is to pause or cease or stop pursuing those responsible because they are sacrificing their own people who they’ve never fought to protect. Their goal in life has been and remains to kill Israelis and destroy Israel, not protect Gazans and create an independent state of Gaza.
That’s a million words that goes far afield of one guy taking one step. But maybe he’s in the same mindset and this is the one thing he feels he can do to express his feelings.
One thing I will do now is attend this week’s march for Israel in Washington, D.C. As I think about being there, and beyond, I find myself coming back to two words never before part of my emotional range: I’m scared.