The Truth About Being Jewish and in College

In the summer of 2022, just freshly out of confinement from the coronavirus pandemic, I, along with two hundred others, boarded a plane to Israel, where I would spend the following six weeks of my summer vacation. The trip served as a transitional period for my time spent at summer camp, between being a camper and being a counselor.

Even though I didn’t get the full experience of Israel due to covid safety restrictions, I found my life permanently altered from my stay in the Holy Land. First of all, as a Jew who spent much of my life in a mostly Christian area, the experience of being surrounded by Jewish people who knew and understood the parts about myself that I used to have to explain to everyone around me was unlike anything I can even describe.

The summer was hot and dry and full of music and dancing in the streets. We toured museum after museum, engaged in dialogue with Bedouins, Palestinians, Circassians, and more, and explored the entire country, from the Lebanon border all the way down to the sprawling sand dunes of the Negev. I came home to California five shades tanner and eager to speak Hebrew again.

I carry that summer with me, and still regard my trip to Israel as one of the prime factors in my development into a young Jewish adult. Upon my return, I was so excited to share my experiences with just about everyone I knew. My peers were fascinated with my time spent in the Middle East. They asked questions, sometimes even about the long standing Palestinian conflict, to which I shared my view. Their responses were positive and understanding.

Just a couple years later, after one of the largest tragedies Israel had ever seen, the same people that I had spent so much time educating about Israel went radio silent or, in many cases turned hostile. Following October 7th, I noticed those same people posting on Instagram, saying things like “Globalize the Intifada,” and “From the River to The Sea, Palestine Will Be Free.” What hit me the hardest was the fact that a great deal of these people posting were friends from high school and peers from my college.

At Sarah Lawrence, my university, culture influences political stance. The students tend almost automatically to latch on to a principle of left-wing ideology. The college's most recent fad happens to be Palestinian liberation. In fact, the student body of Sarah Lawrence is so obsessed with this idea of Palestinian liberation that even the school’s one Jewish organization, Hillel, claims that they are not affiliated with Israel, providing Zionist Jews with no community whatsoever.

This isn’t just a student-organized mindset: some professors appear to be just as invested in Palestine, even to the point of excusing the atrocities committed by Hamas. I share their interest and concern for the well-being and safety of the Palestinian people, but Sarah Lawrence, in my opinion, has crossed the line. I knew what I signed up for when I committed to Sarah Lawrence; The school is notoriously radically liberal and not much of a change from my performing arts high school in California. That being said, I still expected an inclusive environment to be fostered by my professors.

The main issues began on October 9th, just two days after Hamas’s attack on Israel. Soon after sitting down for my Sociological Theory seminar, my young professor declared that class that day was optional, and that we were free to leave if we were affected by the events of the past weekend. I, naturally, assumed that my professor was referring to the terrorist attacks, and for the first time since the attacks happened, I felt seen and heard on campus. She then, however, followed with another statement. “In this class,” she proclaimed, “we will not tolerate any colonialist dialogue.” It took me a second to register what she was saying. When I did, I promptly gathered my belongings and left the classroom. At this point, Israel had not even retaliated. I was left wondering- what could she possibly mean?

Later that week, when I looked at the syllabus for the class, I saw that a whole unit dedicated to anti-Zionist rhetoric and Palestinian liberation had been added. To this day, I still wonder what that unit had to do with sociological theory and the works of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim. From then on, my professor would frequently remind us of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) meetings (she was the new faculty advisor) and for an extra credit assignment, had us write, specifically, about Palestinian liberation.

My school is now littered in white people wearing keffiyehs. Just recently, there was a drag show for Palestine. Unlike like other schools in which there are Jewish populations and organizations advocating for freedom for Palestine through the eradication Hamas and their goal of obliterating Israel, at Sarah Lawrence, the only safe spaces I’ve made are the ones I carve for myself. I cannot name a single attempt that has been made to create protections for Jewish students.

There seems to be a misconception that Jewish Zionists do not wish for the safety of the Palestinian people. A main tenant of the Jewish religion is to treat all people with dignity, respect, and kindness. Jewish people all over the world are then left questioning why so many, including those we saw as friends, ignore the crimes Hamas is committing and the damage being perpetrated, in their name, among their own people.


Hannah Kotkin is a sophomore at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville, NY.