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MSU Jewish community faces grief, antisemitism as turmoil continues in the Middle East

November 24, 2023
<p>Candles surround the base of Spartan Statue during a vigil held for the war in Israel-Gaza on Oct. 9, 2023, in East Lansing.</p>

Candles surround the base of Spartan Statue during a vigil held for the war in Israel-Gaza on Oct. 9, 2023, in East Lansing.

For many Jewish students and faculty at Michigan State University, connections with Israel are strong

Andrew Schulman, co-president of MSU Chabad, has visited the country five times, taking on internships and participating in study abroad opportunities. In the process, he’s made countless connections.

Ilana Diskin, a horticulture junior and member of MSU Hillel, grew up going to Jewish day schools and still keeps in touch with friends she’s made on several trips to Israel.

Amy Simon, a professor in MSU’s Serling Institute for Jewish Studies and Modern Israel, said the institute feels in some way connected to Israel. Simon researches Holocaust diaries and teaches a course on antisemitism.

So when the militant group Hamas began their ground invasion of Israel on Oct. 7, killing and kidnapping citizens, the community was devastated. Since then, the Israeli Defense Force has attacked the Gaza Strip, displacing and killing citizens.

“How do we even go on?” Simon said. “You know, what do we even say in the face of this just horrible tragedy?”

Simon said the Serling Institute hears first-hand about the trauma coming out of Israel

“We've had other people connected with the program who've lost family members,” Simon said. “People killed, and then of course all kinds of people that we know that are now fighting, have been called up, and of course spending nights in bomb shelters every night.”

One victim is Shoshan Haran, who the Serling Institute sponsored to speak at MSU a few years ago. Haran, along with seven members of her family, were taken hostage on Oct. 7 by Hamas. Her husband, Avshalom Haran, was killed, as were her sister and brother-in-law.

On Nov. 25, Haran, her daughter, granddaughter, and grandson were released. Her daughter’s husband, Tal Shosham, remains in captivity.

Haran is the founder of Fair Planet, a non-profit organization tackling food insecurity across East Africa.

Another is Ilan Troen, an Israeli historian who also gave a lecture at MSU a year ago. Troen’s daughter and son-in-law were murdered by Hamas militants on Oct 7. His grandson was also shot and survived. 

“When I called Dr. Troen three weeks after the attack, his phone kept giving him alerts about the location of rockets that were being fired near him from Gaza,” Yael Aronoff, director of the institute, wrote in an email to The State News. “...So this all hit very close to home for many of our faculty and students and that was felt immediately on and after October 7 – and got increasingly painful over the next couple of weeks as we heard more and more news of the victims and the horrifying details of the attacks became more clear."

The month that followed, Schulman said, was “intense” for the Jewish community.

Antisemitic hate crimes increased by 25% between 2021-2022, and they have again spiked since Oct. 7 — especially on college campuses.

In East Lansing, an Israeli flag was stolen off the lawn of Jewish fraternity AEPi, Schulman said.

And a pre-game trivia question involving Adolf Hitler displayed on the Spartan Stadium scoreboard before the MSU vs. University of Michigan football game, shocking the university. MSU quickly apologized, pinning the event on a third-party vendor that supplied the trivia set. The university is currently conducting an investigation of the incident, Aronoff said. 

“It shouldn’t have been there in the first place,” Diskin said. “I know that sitting in the stadium and seeing that was really upsetting to me.” 

Given those recent events, Aronoff said “it is difficult in this atmosphere for Jews not to fear that these perhaps were intentional and antisemitic.” 

“I think that the university needs to speak out and support the Jewish students more than they have,” Diskin said

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Diskin said the university’s original statement on the attacks did little to support Jewish students

Simon said she was initially frustrated the statement didn’t come out earlier and explicitly condemn the attacks, but she understands the administration is trying to consider all perspectives and not provoke anybody

As a result, the statement was too vague to properly address the situation, Simon said.

“What that means, then, is that both Jews and Palestinians, they're not being heard,” Simon said. “So, it's a really complicated situation.”

Jewish students said they also felt threatened when The Rock was painted with a portion of the phrase, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” 

“You're going to hear different stories about what that term means, and it depends on two things: The perspective of the person saying it and the perspective of the person hearing it,” Simon said

Simon said that while those who painted it might assign it a different meaning, “it's interpreted by a lot of Jewish students as a call for the violent destruction of Israel.”

Simon also said that MSU scheduled this year’s spring semester exams on Passover, a major Jewish holiday

Passover is one of several holidays on the Jewish calendar deemed a “non-work day,” according to Simon. Those that observe Passover strictly don’t work, drive or exchange money, among other practices.

“Certainly the vast majority of Jews are not going to feel comfortable or feel like it's appropriate within the religion to take finals on those holy days,” Simon said.

Schulman said antisemitism at MSU hasn’t affected him and his friends personally. However, recent trends make him wary

“We're monitoring, right?” Schulman said. “We're cautious. We're aware.”

“I think we've been pretty calm, which is good, but it doesn't mean that students aren't worried, and, you know, certainly seeing some of this rhetoric as inflammatory,” Simon said.

Coming together

As grief and tension swells, Jewish students and faculty say they’ve come together as a community.

Diskin said she was grateful to attend an Oct. 10 vigil to honor Israeli lives lost. Hillel, a Jewish student group she’s an active member of, has also offered her mental health resources and held information sessions.

Schulman said his professors routinely check in on his well-being. 

“If I see them in the hallway, they take a moment to stop me and say, ‘Hey, how are you?’” Schulman said.

Aronoff said the institute has been working hard to make sure students feel safe

“We have had several formal gatherings of faculty, staff and students, in order to grieve and support one another, and in addition, many are emailing, texting, and calling one another to check in and give emotional support,” Aronoff wrote.

The Serling Institute is hosting several workshops and seminars on antisemitism and Islamophobia alongside the the Muslim Studies Program to promote discussion and understanding on the subjects. The events are promoted by MSU's Office for Institutional Diversity and Inclusion.

Aronoff will be co-hosting a webinar next Wednesday on “empathetic complexity, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and efforts to resolve it.”

Schulman said it’s important for students to be able to take a break from thinking about the situation. He recommended students “step back from (the conflict) every so often, if you can.”

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