(JTA) — I am a non-religious, 20-year-old-Jewish student in New York City. I have not been to Israel since I was 9. I was raised in what you might call a “naturally occurring Jewish community”: Riverdale, in the Bronx. I attended Modern Orthodox schools through high school. Once I graduated, I left for Binghamton University, which boasts a massive Jewish community. It wasn’t until I transferred this fall to Hunter College, part of the City University of New York, that I left the Jewish bubble.
The last month has been the worst of my life. The horrors of Oct. 7 left me — along with my whole community — in a state of shock. While going through the videos and firsthand accounts, I couldn’t help but think about the losses yet to come: Hamas laid a trap so horrific that Israel would respond with overwhelming force. I knew there would be angry, difficult discourse in response. Sure enough, even before Israel launched retaliatory attacks, denial and outright celebration of the atrocities spread rampant online.
I was hoping to find more compassion in person. But I soon realized that if I expected to find it in one of my classes in the media department at Hunter, I’d come to the wrong place.
CUNY, a diverse public university system with 25 colleges spread across the city, has often been a hotbed for pro-Palestinian activism even as it has a deep Jewish history and many Jewish students today. Jews and pro-Israel activists, both inside and beyond the university, have complained that the school has tolerated expressions of antisemitism and anti-Zionism from faculty and students — allegations that led, in 2016, to a probe by the university.
On Monday, Oct. 16, I went to my Interview Techniques class. As an exercise, my teacher decided to record the lesson while he interviewed each of us in front of the class. He decided, perhaps not understanding the raw emotions of the week or perhaps because of them, to ask us about the Hamas attacks. Out of the eight students, I am the only Jew; the rest are Christian or not religious. What followed was a dialogue devoid of compassion for the perceptions of Israelis and Jews, or curiosity about the facts of the situation.
As tensions over this conflict rise on college campuses around the country, attention has largely gone toward protests, rallies and open letters. But the recording from my class illustrates a different frontier for Jewish students — discourse within the classroom. The quotes that follow are directly from the recording.
When the teacher asked, “How have you been following the news?” one student said they had been watching ABC and CNN. “It’s horrible … Just the devastation, especially in Palestine,” said the student. Another student added: “I don’t really like what’s going on in this war. I know it’s been going on for 75 years. I guess I see Palestine’s side more.”
“The Palestinian people?” asked the teacher.
“Yeah,” said the same student. “I don’t want to say I don’t understand the other side, but I understand the Palestinian side more.”
Later on, the conversation turned to the more than 200 Israelis taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7.
“Because of where I stand on this issue… I don’t think we should be bombing people’s homes to get the hostages,” said a third student. “I mean, me specifically, I don’t think Israel is a legitimate country. Let’s start from there. They are a colonial country.”
“What do you mean?” asked the teacher.
“Israel is not legitimate,” the student went on. “The U.N. placed them there. … They literally took people’s homes in order for them to be a country.”
According to the student, Jews had no claims on any part of the region when, in November 1947, the United Nations voted to divide Great Britain’s former Palestinian mandate into Jewish and Arab states. “I mean, the U.N. did that for them,” said the same student. “And then they kept expanding and taking people’s homes and lives.”
No mention was made of the Arabs’ rejection of the partition plan, or the war they launched the following year to destroy the newly independent Jewish state.
“And the Hamas are reiterating… I mean, I don’t support terrorism but — there has always been conflict before Hamas bombed Israel. Palestinian lives have been lost for 75 years and no one cares. But then when they retaliate on Israel, suddenly it’s making headlines. That just doesn’t… I don’t know — the U.N. and every country in the U.N. partook in the taking of the land.”
When the same speaker was asked about the Holocaust, they dismissed any notion that it had proven a need for a Jewish refuge, or that the Hamas slaughter of Jews might trigger traumatic memories for Jews. “Israel being made may have something to do with the Holocaust, but I’m saying the Palestine and Israel war right now has nothing to do with the Holocaust,” they said.
Nine days after Hamas killed 1,400 Israelis in a single day of bloodshed, another student was ready to move on.
“This sounds like old news,” they said. “How did this all begin again? Didn’t they have a truce? The news shows Palestinians in here, in New York who are protesting the war, and they wore signs saying ‘Palestine’s not for sale.’ My guess is that might have something to do with why this whole thing started up again.”
“There was a massacre,” the teacher pointed out.
“Who massacred who?” asked the student.
“Don’t you have qualms with Hamas?” asked the teacher.
“No, I have no qualms about anything,” said the student.
“Don’t you know what Hamas did?” the teacher pressed.
“No,” said the student. “I have no idea.”
Later, it was my turn. “I am trying to do my breathing exercises, but I feel a bit attacked,” I explained. “I am not trying to fight anyone here. This is incredibly personal to me. It’s not you I am angry at, It’s the situation.”
What is not shown in the transcript are the dirty looks and fierce head shakes I received. One student sitting two seats to my left vigorously shook their head at everything I said. My one friend in the class remained silent. After attending a pro-Israel rally in front of the U.N. and posting about it on social media, the same friend was bombarded with condemnation. They got blocked by former friends and ghosted by others. After class, my friend told me they could no longer support Israel publicly from fear of losing more friends.
A few days later, at a protest of Hunter College students in the school’s courtyard, protesters cheered “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” “Globalize the Intifada” and “It is right to rebel, Israel go to hell.” On the side, I ran into a friend from high school who was proudly wearing an Israeli flag. As I spoke to him, protesters took photos of us.
At the end of this terrible week, however, I had some reasons for hope. As I ate in the cafeteria, sobbing over the lack of human compassion, I saw a text saying that someone had set up a booth on the third floor of the main building with a sign reading “let’s talk about Hamas.” When I walked over to the booth, there sat my aforementioned friend from high school. On one side sat three Jewish students; on the other were five Muslim women wearing hijabs. Some people on both sides clearly just wanted to argue, but I just wanted to talk to people.
On the outskirts of the conversation, a Muslim woman said to one Jewish student, “I can’t talk with you until you answer: Is Israel doing a genocide?” My friend kept arguing with her, which clearly kept their conversation from going anywhere. I took a different approach by saying, “First of all, I feel so awful for the civilians in Gaza. This isn’t their war and they don’t deserve to be punished. I am sure there are radical racist Israelis who would love nothing more than to kill all Palestinians. I am not on their side at all, they don’t represent me or the vast majority of Jews and Israelis. I had been protesting Bibi my whole life. We all hate him. Neither side’s civilians are responsible for the radicals in their government.”
After this concession, our conversation continued for another couple of hours as we continued to explore common ground. The Muslim students talked about their hatred for all the Arab governments including those in Egypt, Lebanon and others. They recognized that the victims of the Oct. 7 attacks are not their enemy; they don’t bear responsibility for their government’s actions nor deserve to be punished for them. By the end, four Jews and five Muslims became friends by realizing our similarities outweigh our differences.
These weeks have taught me some difficult truths. Uninformed, incurious people can easily be radicalized past the point of human compassion. No groups are immune from blind rage: I have Jewish friends too who have forgotten empathy, who are blinded by our pain and can’t see the suffering and fear of other students; however, once we take our blindfolds off and see each other as humans, even the most treacherous field still has common ground.