By William Kavy
November 1, 2023
“We literally had a man with a knife outside our front door on campus. So, people are scared,” said a member of SMU AEPi leadership who asked to remain anonymous. (AEPi, Alpha Epsilon Pi, is a national Jewish fraternity with chapters on many college campuses.)
Jewish students at the University of North Texas (UNT), University of Texas at Dallas (UTD) and Southern Methodist University (SMU) — all located in or around Dallas — have reported bullying at the hands of non-Jewish student groups, harassment from campus visitors and a lack of support from their institutions.
SMU, located right in the heart of Dallas, has faced harassment from outside of its community.
Shortly after the attacks, the campus’ chapter of AEPi hung an Israeli flag outside their front door as a show of support.
On Saturday, Oct. 21, a delivery driver for the app PostMates tore the flag down and sliced through it with a knife. The action was caught on video and the SMU police department was on the scene in minutes.
Rabbi Heidi Coretz, SMU’s Jewish chaplain and director of Hillel at SMU, drew a comparison between this incident at SMU and the recent arrest of a Cornell student for alleged online hate speech.
“Yesterday there was an arrest made at Cornell and they are charging a person who is a member of their community, a fellow student,” said Rabbi Coretz. “The flag at the AEPi house was ripped down by somebody off campus. We haven’t had that level of vitriol and hatred from our campus, even with the stabbing and ripping down of that flag. It was from a delivery driver from off campus, so I feel fortunate for that.”
Rabbi Coretz was impressed with students’ response to the incident, citing it as an example of students’ ability to come together during difficult times.
“Our reaction was to put a bigger flag back up immediately,” said the member of AEPi leadership.
“That’s a loaded question,” the AEPi leader said when asked about Jewish student safety on campus. “Do I feel safe on the SMU campus right now? Yes. But look at what it is to be a Jewish student in America right now. I just saw a story about a Tulane Jewish student being beaten on campus and another one about ‘Kill All the Jews’ being painted across the bricks at Cornell. I feel scared as a Jewish student in America.”
Rabbi Coretz alluded to a feeling of security on SMU’s campus, too, at least in comparison to other universities.
“The level of vitriol and hatred and the angry protesting against Israel that we see on other campuses has not been part of the culture at SMU,” said Rabbi Coretz.
SMU released a statement shortly after the Oct. 7 attacks which referred to them as a “war.” Then, last Friday, SMU President R. Gerald Turner (RGT) signed a coalition of private universities condemning Hamas.
“I don’t know why President Turner’s statement wasn’t more forceful in the first place. What he did sign onto seems much more congruent to the person that I know, to the man who can call out the kind of obvious terrorism that Hamas perpetrated on the Jewish people on Oct. 7,” said Rabbi Coretz.
The AEPi leader finished his thoughts with a simple message, that “Jewish students feel like they need a voice on campus.”
University of Texas at Dallas and University of North Texas
North Texas Hillel serves the Jewish students of UNT and UTD, two large campuses with especially small Jewish student populations.
“Since Oct. 7, it’s been very challenging for Jewish students on UNT and UTD’s campuses, like we’re seeing on many campuses, but especially at UTD. There has been a lot of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish sentiment,” said Melissa Friedensohn, executive director of North Texas Hillel.
One especially troubling instance was shared by Friedensohn and students alike, involving UTD’s spirit rocks. Spirit rocks are a UTD institution, placed around campus for individuals and student groups to paint whatever messages they believe need to be shared.
A group of unnamed Jewish students on the UTD campus painted one of the rocks with an Israeli flag shortly after the attacks on Oct. 7. Quickly, a group of unknown students painted over the flag with that of Palestine. Jewish students reacted by painting one side of the flag over with Israel’s and leaving the other half white. Those Jewish students who painted the half-flag were reported to campus police, who were apparently unfamiliar with the spirit rocks and who questioned the Jewish students involved under suspicion of vandalism.
While the instance might seem inconsequential, it is representative of the lived experience of Jewish students on the UTD campus since Oct. 7. The campus climate has given way to a space where Jewish students do not feel able to express their loss — or their Judaism.
Friedensohn provided more examples of high tensions involving these spirit rocks.
“At least three times over, there have been antisemitic messages on the spirit rocks, including ‘Zionism = Nazism’ and ‘terrorist’ with the Israeli flag,” said Friedensohn.
Jade Steinberg, a first-year Jewish student at UTD, shared another recent experience during which he was asked his religion in a public campus space.
“I hesitated when saying that I am Jewish, because just saying that out loud might alert people who would direct hostility — or just negative emotions — toward me. I did end up saying I was Jewish, and I felt that wave of — not just stares, but almost disdain,” said Steinberg.
North Texas Hillel came together with UTD Chabad Wednesday, Oct. 11, to pray, write notes and donate supplies to Israelis.
“It was very difficult. Some students noticed watchful eyes and people recording the gathering, as well as individuals stopping people who had come by to ask what’s going on and saying ‘Here, let me tell you the real story of what’s happening,’” shared Friedensohn.
Steinberg summed up the experience of Jewish students on the UTD campus right now.
“I’m alert. I’m trying to understand everyone. The biggest thing I would say to describe everything is that I feel separated from fellow students,” said Steinberg.