When I decided to come to the University of Illinois, I was expecting quite legitimately a repeat of high school in terms of diversity. One of the things I loved most about high school was the large diversity the student population had, yet at the same time, there were still so many students that I felt that I could relate to. Being Jewish was definitely in the minority, but by no means did I ever feel alone or isolated because of it. And I really appreciated that balance, which made going to a school that I felt had that same experience was that much more important to me.
Since coming to Illinois, I have been fortunate to have that same level of diversity that my high school had, while also still feeling connected to my Jewish identity. I lived in a dorm with a lot of Jewish people, joined a sorority with a large amount of Jewish girls, participate in Jewish life and learning through Chabad and Hillel, and have made lifelong friends that I can share in these experiences with.
However, for maybe the first time in my life, that was put to the test.
A few weeks ago, the student body received an email from the chancellor, calling attention to an alarming event. He explained that a swastika was written across one of the academic buildings on campus. Following the news, he assured the students that this act is intolerable on this campus and that he does not condone any act of anti-semitism or any sort of discriminatory act. I appreciated that he made note of the issue and sent out his support to the Jewish community, but I didn't think much of it after that.
Little did I know that this controversy would turn into much more than that. At my sorority's chapter this past Monday, we learned that this issue was about more than just swastikas, but a bigger issue of how anti-semitism is viewed on this campus.
We were told that as a result of the chancellor's email, a pro-Palestine student group had begun a protest in response to the email's content. The group had prevented the chancellor from setting foot in his office and demanded his resignation from the university.
This was something that was completely confusing to me. I assumed that as the chancellor, he had a responsibility to apologize for any sort of discrimination on campus, regardless of their race, religion, or identity. So although these students may not agree with what the chancellor said, I would assume that they'd understand that he has a job to remain impartial and respectful to all students on this campus.
This divide, though, has created a bigger issue at hand.
For a few years, the Illinois Student Senate has been pushing a policy that defines anti-semitism on campus, but it has yet to be signed. In light of this controversy surrounding antisemitism on campus, the senate has finally decided to go through with the policy and vote on it. The problem with this policy, though, is that none of the authors of the resolution were Jewish, nor were any Jewish organizations or Jewish students on campus consulted about the policy. This is unacceptable.
As a Jewish student, I should be able to decide what kinds of things should constitute as anti-semitic and overall offensive to my identity. Any minority, for that matter, should determine what is hurtful to them. The fact that this government organization, which is supposed to represent the student population as a whole, is not doing that, is absolutely ridiculous and unfair.
Throughout the past week, there have been a series of meetings with Chabad, Hillel, and many Jewish organizations on campus prior to the senate meeting to vote on this policy that took place this past Wednesday. At my chapter meeting, the president urged that whether we are Jewish or not, we all must go to support the community. The future of the Jewish community rests on our shoulders and merely our presence alone at this conference would make a difference and demonstrate to our school that the Jewish presence on campus is alive, strong, and large.
My friends and I arrived at the senate meeting on Wednesday apprehensive, but also interested to see what it was all about. Walking into the conference room, I was pleased to see a large number of people I recognized in attendance (what I learned was more than 400 Jewish students). So many Jewish students wrapped in Israeli flags, holding signs that read "we don't negotiate anti-semitism" across it. I felt very inspired.
But then I looked the other direction, reading signs that said "fuck Nazis, support Palestine" and I was disgusted. Though I felt slightly uncomfortable, I tried to remain relaxed and realized that I was going to be fine.
The senate meeting began and it was one of those experiences that are exactly like you'd imagine them being. Students dressed in professional suits, snapping when they agreed, and signaling motions and seconds with the hit of a gavel. At that moment, I felt as though my AP government teacher would've been proud of my civic duty because it quite literally felt like I was channeling my inner political side. The first person to debate the policy was a Jewish student from a nearby hometown to mine. Her speech was extremely powerful. She shared stories of her grandparents who were Holocaust survivors, relating their horrifying experience to the kinds of discrimination we would face if this policy was implemented. She shared the unjust and malicious nature behind the creation of the policy, and how it is a display of anti-semitism.
She ended her speech, calling all the Jews to stand up to this policy and walk out with her, as we will not further tolerate the embarrassment and ridiculousness that is behind this policy. So that's what we did, literally all 400 students quietly following her out of the room.
At first, I didn't understand why we would walk out and not try to negotiate changes to the policy, but what I was told later was that the resolution was already 75% signed, so whatever we would've done wouldn't have mattered. It would be more impactful for us to walk out and demonstrate how big of a Jewish presence there is on campus. It was quite an empowering experience to be a part of, and I was amazed at how many people were actually left in the meeting after we all left. Because let me tell ya, it wasn't many.
After we walked out, we stood in the middle of campus to host a vigil in memory of all victims of anti-semitism worldwide this past year such as the massacre in the Pittsburgh synagogue. The rabbi and other Chabad members thanked us for what we had done. He emphasized that the Jewish Illini on campus are strong and will show prospective students what a supportive and large community we have. We all put our arms around one another as we sang the "Hatikvah," Israel's national anthem. It was an extremely special moment that I feel proud to have taken part of.
I have no clue what the future holds in terms of where the Jewish community stands here at the University of Illinois, but I am hopeful.
Despite the lack of education and spite that others may have towards the Jewish people, we have proven time and time again just how resilient we are. However, I am still disappointed as to why fighting against antisemitism on a college campus, a culture that is supposed to celebrate diversity. It's honestly sickening and even makes me concerned about my safety and well being here at U of I.
Nevertheless, being a part of this experience was eye-opening and reminded me just how important it is for me to be proud of my religious identity and stand up to anyone who doesn't allow me to feel comfortable with who I am. I am proud to be a Jewish Illini, and more than ever hope that my school can one day create an environment where all students can feel free to be who they are.