UT students face antisemitism, advocate for Israel
Photos: Courtesy of Orly Cohen
UT students gather at a vigil for Israeli victims on Oct. 9, 2023, organized by Chabad.

By Dina Barrish

Nearly 40 protesters interrupted Bari Weiss’ “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” lecture at The University of Texas at Austin, shouting “Free, free Palestine.”

“She was saying ‘My name is Bari Weiss, I am a former editor of The New York Times’ when they started protesting. Nothing about being Jewish or having any connection to Israel at all,” said Natalie Turner, one of approximately 300 UT students who attended Weiss’ speech on Dec. 6. “I was shocked, but I was not surprised.”

UT police swiftly ushered the protesters, all wearing masks, outside the auditorium, but Turner said it sounded like more joined behind closed doors. They used drums to continue chanting throughout The Free Press founder’s entire presentation.

“I heard a girl say, ‘You’re all going to lose.’ And it just perplexes me that they see this (lecture) as an opportunity to strike, when it has nothing to do with Israel,” Turner said. “That’s the ultimate slap in the face to the Jewish community and people who are really hurting right now. Their antisemitism is not covert.”

As the fall semester comes to a close, UT students are facing a number of antisemitic and anti-Israel incidents. Many students said they still feel safe on campus but are more aware of negative sentiment toward them for being Jewish.

Returning from Rosh Hashanah dinner at Chabad, members of Alpha Epsilon Phi, UT’s only Jewish sorority, found a swastika spray-painted on their door. Since Oct. 7, UT continues to see vandalism, including anti-Israel graffiti on the Hillel building and “stop the genocide” on campus.

Rabbi Zev Johnson speaks about the importance of Hanukkah in front of the UT Tower and Littlefield Fountain on the first night of Hanukkah.

“After Oct. 7, the lines between concern, fear and danger got a little bit blurry,” said Rabbi Zev Johnson, UT Chabad’s director. “I think it’s very important that we don’t have fear, and we are proud and we are vocal about being Jewish.”

Encouraging students to walk out of their classes at noon on Nov. 9 to “demand an end to UT’s funding of genocide,” UT’s Student Government Instagram reposted a graphic from Austin’s Palestinian Solidarity Committee. Jacob Sanders and Tyler Winter, both student leaders in UT’s Jewish community, brought up the issue to the UTSG council, citing that “speaking on behalf of all students or the University” violates the council’s bylaws.

“It’s my understanding that the Student Government doesn’t believe what they did was necessarily picking a side, rather than just promoting something that they’re asked to promote,” Sanders said. “But it still felt like we were being isolated and almost targeted. I feel good that we said something, at least for clearing my own conscience.”

When the Daily Texan reported on the incident and quoted Winter as calling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict “nuanced,” Winter received hateful Instagram comments — such as “how can genocide be nuanced, Tyler?” and “the centering on self-victimhood is crazy.”

“If people want to have a conversation with me, I’m always open to it,” Winter said. “But most people on campus don’t care. They’re indifferent or uneducated. And of those who are educated, most don’t want to have conversations. They just want to say their point and run away.”

Orly Cohen, a UT junior on Chabad’s executive board, said her friend hung up hostage posters around campus that were gone the next day. Before Chabad’s annual candlelighting for the first night of Hanukkah at the center of campus, she said she feared protesters might disrupt, as they had the night before at Bari Weiss’ lecture.

“(The candlelighting) ended up being very powerful, especially with it being at the Tower, which is our North Star on campus,” Cohen said. “Being at that spot at UT really showed the sense of community we have. It was very, very important that we were able to do that.”

Johnson said that while Chabad traditionally acts as “salesmen for spirituality,” he’s witnessed more students approaching him to take on mitzvot, like hanging up mezuzot, wrapping tefillin and joining Shabbat dinner, than ever before.

“There’s an awakening of Jewish identity and spirituality that I’ve never seen in my entire life,” Johnson said. “We’ve seen our students just want to produce soulful connections, soulful experiences and bring more light into this world. It’s been one of the best semesters in 17 years.”

Both UT Chabad and Hillel sent cohorts of students to the “March for Israel” in Washington, D.C., on Nov. 14. Johnson said no matter the cost, he wanted to grant students the opportunity to advocate for the safety of Israel and the Jewish people and for bringing home the hostages. “When Jews are united, there’s maybe nothing stronger in this world,” Johnson said.

Moving forward, Turner said she hopes to see more outspoken administrative support for Israel and intends to follow Weiss’ advice to “be loud, be proud and stand your ground” when combating antisemitism.

“We’re not going to tremble at the knees,” Turner said. “We are going to stand up for ourselves. We’re going to be strong.”

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