After watching most of the five-plus hours of the December 5th congressional hearing on the state of antisemitism at three of the U.S.’ top universities – Harvard, University of Pennsylvania, and MIT – I’ve concluded that unfortunately, the sound bites replayed in the media are not one-liners taken out of context, but spot-on summations.
As my husband and I prepare for our oldest son to reach a tremendous milestone in less than a year – his freshman year in college – we find we lack the usual excitement and anticipation or even the typical frustrations that are part and parcel of the college application process.
Instead, we’ve been overcome by ambivalence – which is confusing for two people who’ve made the pursuit of higher education a fundamental goal. We’ve spent most of our adult life in academic training. We met, married, and had both of our children while still in the midst of pursuing our medical education. Historically, I would say we would have greater ambivalence (and fear) about taking a camping trip than leading a lecture series.
But here we are, asking ourselves if it’s responsible of us to send our oldest to any university in the U.S. now, let alone some of the ones he had previously picked as top choices.
And I started asking myself these questions from the day I saw high school students walking out in the middle of the day in San Francisco to “demand” a ceasefire. I found it bold but uninformed, fundamentally impulsive – acting out in lieu of engaging in dialogue. That is a dangerous foundation to build a movement on.
The university protests that have since followed go beyond bold-but-uninformed. As someone born in one of the most tumultuous areas of the Middle East – and, for what’s it worth, having majored in political science as an undergraduate – many of the campus protests are so paradoxical (to call for the destruction of one nation while demanding a ceasefire) they are almost nonsensical. They are not principles born of knowledge gathered from research or first-hand regional experience but rather the byproduct of TikTok stories sewn together like a gigantic quilt made of dissolvable thread. No matter how big it grows, it isn’t going to hold. There are no references to back it up, just other TikTok videos.
While that presents its own existential dilemma, it seemed at least limited to one demographic. Then came the presidents of Harvard, Penn, and MIT all stating unequivocally that a call for the genocide of Jews on their respective campuses was protected speech based on “context.” Thus, it was not hate speech, it was not deemed threatening or harassment in and of itself. For this, I can’t blame TikTok.
What I do know is that I’m no longer just ambivalent about my son starting college; I’m now afraid. The grown-ups in charge are not going to protect them from the mobs – that much is clear.
And even beyond physical security, what is perhaps more nuanced and more damaging long term are the effects it will have on how and who our Jewish kids develop into on college campuses. As a psychiatrist, I can’t help but wonder, what will the effect of self-segregation be like? And even more so, the effects of trying to hide visible signs of being Jewish, which my sons have already started doing by not wearing their kippot, with the goal of “passing” as a non-Jew. How does this inform a young adult’s sense of self-worth?
After all, from the age of 18 to 22, while these are considered young adults, they are in terms of human development, very much still in a very important phase of defining and refining a sense of who they are, their self-worth, and establishing their anchor in a community. It is not an easy phase of life, especially for this post-pandemic generation which has seen one of the highest estimated rates of suicide in this age group.
It begs the question, what does the qualifier of “context” or “actionable act” being necessary for the call for genocide of Jews on a campus to be considered “harassment” or “hate speech” communicate to Jewish students on campuses about the worth of their lives?
Perhaps we’ll send him to Israel for a gap year, where he’ll likely be safer – or at least, he’ll have the opportunity to develop as a young adult without repressing and suppressing or apologizing for who he is. Otherwise, the best I can hope for at a U.S. campus is perhaps what we saw at Cooper Union – an offer to hide in the basement in the midst of genocidal chants. Who knows, maybe they’ll even throw in a diary for him to write in.
Torie Sepah is a psychiatrist and can be reached at her self-titled site, Torie Sepah, MD, and on Twitter @toriesepahmd. She is also founder, Physician to Physician: Healing the Practice of Medicine.