Colleges and universities in Westchester face pressure to protect students amid Israel-Hamas war
Antisemitism is reaching a historic level in the U.S., and these acts of hate are becoming more commonplace on college campuses across America including in Westchester County.
The nationwide spike in bias incidents since Hamas invaded Israel on Oct. 7 has struck fear into Jewish students and put pressure on schools to ensure student safety while also protecting free speech.
Most recently, a junior at Cornell University was charged federally with making antisemitic threats against his classmates. Additional incidents have also been reported of tearing down posters of Jewish hostages taken by Hamas, surrounding students in libraries, and swastikas drawn on bathroom walls.
These issues are on college campuses in Westchester, too.
"What's happening nationally is not excluded in Westchester sadly," said Rachel Klein, Hillels of Westchester executive director.
Hillels of Westchester oversees Jewish life for thousands of students across six college campuses in Westchester, including Iona University, Manhattanville College, Pace University, Purchase College, Sarah Lawrence College and SUNY Westchester Community College.
Executive Director Rachel Klein said students have reported feeling unsafe, threatened and unsupported on campuses, afraid to speak up, and isolated out of fear.
"I've been a Jewish communal professional for 20 years. I've been a Jew for a lot longer. I have never been this scared in my life."
Bias incidents are not a uniquely higher education issue either. Holocaust & Human Rights Education Center executive director Millie Jasper said her organization is seeing an uptick in incidents reported at the middle and high school levels as well.
"It doesn't matter who you speak to, Jewish, not Jewish, political, nonpolitical, everyone is on the verge of tears," said Jasper.
Hillels of Westchester is working around the clock to ensure student safety first and then assisting students to speak up when it's safe to do so.
"To be able to exercise their rights on campus just as their peers are exercising their rights," said Klein.
The organization is prepared to file Title VI federal civil rights violation lawsuits if they feel schools are not doing enough to protect the well-being of their Jewish students on campus.
"My hope is that campuses in Westchester recognize that they are no different and not immune to the trends that we're seeing across the country and that they work with us in partnership to ensure that every student is protected on campus," said Klein.
In the meantime, the organization has put forward recommendations to the leadership of all six schools it has a presence on. This includes mandatory media literacy training for all students, a review of their bias investigation and bias training protocols, and putting forth an action plan that speaks out for Jewish students.
"Since Oct. 7, we have been working closely with student leaders on campus as well as the Hillels of Westchester, while offering support via our Counseling Center, our Office of Diversity and Compliance, and our New York State University Police, who work closely with regional law enforcement partners," wrote Purchase College President Dr. Milly Pena in a statement to News 12.
Several other local schools have also released public statements on the conflict in the Middle East and its impact on their students.
"The escalation of violence over the weekend has already claimed the lives of hundreds, both Israeli and Palestinian, leaving countless families shattered and communities in anguish. The toll of this conflict is immeasurable, and my heart aches for all those affected," wrote Manhattanville College President Dr. Frank Sanchez.
"We are living in a stunning and painful moment of history: in the aftermath of the shocking and unfathomable massacre in Israel by Hamas terrorists...and bracing for the continued escalation of violence and further impact on those in Israel and in Gaza and beyond. There is not, nor can there be, any place for antisemitism or hate speech of any kind on our campus," wrote Sarah Lawrence College President Cristle Collins Judd.
On Tuesday, Gov. Kathy Hochul launched an independent review of discrimination on CUNY campuses. Klein hopes those findings, which are due next spring, are extended to SUNY schools as well.