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Opinion: I’m a Jewish student at Yale. Here’s what everyone is getting wrong about the protests

Opinion by Ian Berlin

(CNN) — Last week, I sat in Yale University’s Beinecke Plaza leading around 50 classmates in nigunim — wordless melodies from the Jewish Hasidic tradition — and other Jewish songs and prayers. As is typical when I sing nigunim, I went home that day feeling spiritually rejuvenated, but, unlike usual, most of those singing with me that day were not Jewish.

That’s because both Jewish and non-Jewish students, inspired by anti-Apartheid protests in Beinecke Plaza decades earlier, had gathered for a week-long sit-in to demand that Yale divest the portion of its endowment invested in the stocks of military contractors, which make the weapons Israel is currently using in its war with Hamas in Gaza. The students were protesting under the Occupy Beinecke coalition, which includes Yale Jews for Ceasefire, a group of Jewish students dedicated to fighting for a ceasefire in Gaza as well as sustainable peace and equality within the region.

In light of student arrests Monday morning — along with similar arrests at Columbia last week — campus clashes and concerns around antisemitism are once again in the news.

I do not deny that there has been a shocking and upsetting rise in antisemitism over the last few months, including several instances of antisemitism right at Yale and in New Haven. Last fall, one professor’s post on X (formerly Twitter) appearing to praise Hamas’ October 7th attack sparked a petition for her to be fired.

I have had countless painful conversations with close friends trying to explain to them how their rhetoric has at times minimized the killing and hostage-taking of Israeli Jews and how that language hurts their Jewish classmates, myself included.

But when people see pro-Palestinian protesters arrested at the same time as President Joe Biden and others are warning about a surge of antisemitism on college campuses, they apply the same tired framework — supposedly antisemitic pro-Palestine activists pitted against Jewish pro-Israel activists — to Yale. As a fourth-year Yale student, I find this characterization to be deeply frustrating, as it could not be further from the truth. At every turn, I have encountered a community of activists and organizers that is eager to listen, ready to learn and committed to including Jewish voices and perspectives.

For example, as part of the difficult work of building a pluralistic protest environment, the coalition has listened to Jewish voices in the collective decision-making on what language to use, ultimately agreeing to not lead chants such as, “There is only one solution: Intifada revolution,” that made some Jewish students feel unsafe. Although this chant has been heard on Yale’s campus, it was not approved or started by protest organizers as a result of this ongoing dialogue.

Last semester, I lit Chanukah candles outside Yale President Peter Salovey’s house each night of the holiday, followed by communal singing and praying until the candles finished burning. We were demanding that Yale call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and commit to protecting campus free speech after Columbia University banned pro-Palestinian student groups. This semester, students have gathered weekly on Friday afternoons in Beinecke Plaza as Jewish classmates led even more singing and prayer in protest of the war in Gaza.

Throughout this past week, large student groups of many faiths frequently joined in singing “Mi Shebeirach,” the Jewish prayer for healing, and “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” which calls for building a world where compassion leads. Last Saturday evening, fellow students led those assembled in havdalah, marking the end of Shabbat. And Monday night, students and New Haven residents collaborated to lead the community in a Passover seder — all on Yale’s campus.

These experiences have been deeply meaningful for me, not just on a political level, but also on a fundamentally spiritual one. To see Yale protests once again swept up in accusations of antisemitism denies this experience and invalidates the Jewishness of those calling for an end to the violence in Gaza.

Indeed, Yale Jews for Ceasefire exists because of — not in spite of — our Jewish values. On the issue of divestment, for example, the Talmud teaches us that we may not sell weapons to those we suspect of using them criminally. Therefore, we have a duty to disrupt the manufacture and sale of military weapons that kill others, including those killing Palestinians.

More than 1 million people in Gaza are on the brink of starvation, according to a recent UN report, and aid workers are still reeling after seven World Central Kitchen workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike earlier this month.

On Passover of all holidays, Jews are compelled to feel the suffering of oppressed people. We eat bitter herbs to remind ourselves of the bitterness of slavery in Egypt, and we dip parsley in salt water to symbolize the tears of our ancestors. The story of oppression is all too familiar to the Jewish people — and it is our duty to combat oppression in all its forms, for Jews and non-Jews alike.

We also teach the story of Nachshon, who took the first brave steps into the stormy Red Sea as the Jewish people fled Egypt. He did not know what would happen, but he had faith that he would make it to the other side. By stepping up in a precarious moment, he became a leader of his people, convincing them to follow in his footsteps — literally — into the unknown.

Our present moment is a precarious one for the Jewish people, fraught with disagreement about what our Jewish values mean to us. But Nachshon teaches us that when we have the courage to lead, we can encourage others to move forward with us, toward a world free of oppression and violence. At Yale, organizers of all faiths continue to build a community that is dedicated to moving forward in collaboration with, not opposition to, Jewish students.

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