A Message of Support

May 15, 2024Rabbi Rick Jacobs

Dear Reform College Students,

As the tumultuous school year ends, I write to you with a message of support. So many campuses are still hotbeds of protest, including some that cancelled their graduation ceremonies for fear of harsh disruptions. Leaving campus for good or for the summer has got to be a combination of disappointment and relief.

The current reality on college campuses isn’t what anyone imagined. I think we can all agree that it shouldn’t be unsettling, let alone dangerous, to be a Jewish student on any North American college campus - or anywhere, for that matter - but for many students like you, it has been just that.

Certainly not all college campuses have been embroiled in intense protests like we’ve seen at Columbia University or UCLA, but we know too many students who are feeling intimidated or vulnerable simply because of the mere fact that they are Jewish.

A few weeks ago, I went up to Columbia to experience the protests directly. I heard disparate voices. On the one hand, I heard some of the same hateful, vile antisemitic taunts from non-student agitators that strongly supported Hamas’ rhetoric calling for the elimination of Israel and harming Jews wherever we live.

I also heard students from the encampment protesting the enormous toll the war in Gaza is exacting on innocent Gazan civilians. Their protest most closely resembled a 1960s non-violent civil rights or peace protest. Freedom of speech is an essential right, while incitement to violence is not.

Sadly, the different voices have been melded together. But we know that expressing pro-Palestinian solidarity should be distinct from affirming pro-Hamas hate speech. It does not make one love Israel any less to be pained by the loss of life and suffering among innocent Gazans and wish for it to end.

Yet slogans like, “We don’t want no 2 states, we want '48” are not calls for peace, but rather for a Middle East without Israel. Just because someone says Israel is the product of settler colonialism doesn’t make it true. Jews and Palestinians are both indigenous to the territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea. That is why we have, for decades, called for and worked toward a two-state solution. And though there are plenty of Israelis and Palestinians who reject two states for two peoples, especially in this time of war, that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be the long-term goal.

This moment requires more than dueling slogans. As a college student, your critical thinking skills are exactly what are needed to interrogate the various claims as you assess what you support and oppose. When you and others do, we pray that college students of all faiths have their minds stretched by engaging with those who, seeing the world through different lived experiences, are building their spiritual practice of empathy.

The Jewish tradition implores us to hold universal and particularist commitments simultaneously. Indeed, Rachel Goldberg-Polin, the mother of Hersh Goldberg-Polin who is one of the 132 hostages being held in Gaza, includes in her speeches that we must not turn a blind eye to the suffering of the hostages along with the suffering of all innocents in Gaza. If Rachel has room in her heart for the innocent suffering of both peoples, then we can as well.

Being a supporter of Israel does not have to mean opposing the legitimate aspirations of the Palestinian people to live in freedom in an independent state alongside the State of Israel.

Being a supporter of Israel does not mean that you must support every policy of its government, especially the current extremist coalition.

For decades, the Reform Movement has supported the idea of two states, one Jewish and one Palestinian, living side by side in security and peace.

We wholeheartedly believe in the safety, dignity, and humanity of Israelis, Palestinians, and their supporters -- indeed, all those impacted by this war. We do not support demonization of or violence toward Jews, Muslims, Israelis, or Palestinians.

When you return to campus (or if you remain engaged in addressing the crisis this summer), if you wish to support Israel, we hope you will turn to your Hillel for opportunities and guidance. If you wish to criticize Israel’s policies of occupation of the Palestinians, you can do so as a supporter of Israel’s democracy and long-term security. If you wish to protest Israel’s policies in prosecuting the war in Gaza, we hope you will do so in a manner that affirms Israel’s right to exist as a secure, democratic, and Jewish state and not do so in a way that legitimizes calls for an end to Israel’s existence.

While we recognize that the deep conflict between Israelis and Palestinians will not be resolved over the summer, we believe that come the fall, college campuses must once again be safe for all students - and this includes Jewish students living their Jewish commitments openly and proudly.

We hope for a future when both peoples can live safely on their shared land. That future is surely not imminent, but a better tomorrow begins with the awareness that the current reality is untenable. We pray that, during the hot summer, the 132 hostages will go free, that humanitarian aid will reach all innocent Palestinians in desperate need, and that a negotiated truce will lead to better days ahead.

Like you, I long for slogans, chants, and placards on campuses that call for the day when the children of Isaac and the children of Ishmael fulfill the prophecy of Micah: that they will, “Sit under their vines and their fig trees and none shall make them afraid” (Micah 4:4).

Related Posts

Israel: A Toolkit

At the URJ, we aim to provide you with timely tools you can use in your congregations and communities. In this moment, we know that resources for discussing and understanding Israel are more important than ever.