Welcome to the New Campus Normal: A Dispatch from Ohio State

They found the graffiti in a stairwell. Protect Jewish Lives, only the words were crossed out by a red X. This was two days before the 10/7 attacks; the writing, it turns out, was on the wall. When I called campus police to learn more, they told me that the investigation was closed. There are no cameras in the stairwell, and they have no leads. This is not the first incident or the last. Welcome to the new normal.

Here at The Ohio State University, the largest school in the Big Ten, leading the league in passing yards and hate crimes, three thousand Jewish students (around 5 percent of the campus population) and their supporters are learning to live in the post-10/7 world. There is, for example, the business student who sends even-tempered emails to the administration, tamping down her fury at the lack of action; the fired-up sorority sister determined never again to back down from Jew-hate; the Hillel leader trying to hold together a coalition of Black and Jewish students; the Israeli American who no longer speaks Hebrew on the phone in public; and, of course, the freshman who gives speeches at Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) rallies. I could go on and on. Their stories are all different, but not one of them is unique.

Image of graffitied stairwell.

I am a Jewish professional at Ohio State, and now, more than ever, as the joke goes, a professional Jew. In a typical academic year, my job is—to use the Hillel lingo—to build connections with students, offer relevant programming, and generally help build a Jewish home away from home. Now I find myself, by turns, a crisis manager, a discount counselor, a mediator, a calming presence, a salaried indignant, and a professional editor of student missives. What I see day in, day out is a trial by fire for Jewish kids at college. The daily fare of hate here in Columbus is not sensational. Thirty-one student groups did not immediately band together to blame Hamas’s victims (Harvard), there have been no violent clashes (Tulane), Jewish students have not been forced to shelter in place in the library (Cooper Union), our Hillel has not been shuttered because of credible online threats (Cornell). And yet it’s real, and maybe all the more terrifying for being quotidian.

Three days after the attacks, some four hundred students, staff, and administrators gather on the Oval, the main campus green, to rally together and remember the dead. The local newspaper, inexplicably, puts our number at “about a hundred.” (Even the campus newspaper cites “at least two hundred.”) The local SJP chapter waits for us to disband and then saunters over, chanting. The bike cops cut them off before they get too close.

That evening, fifty students carpool and rideshare their way to the vigil held by the local Jewish community, where they are met by more than seven hundred fellow Jews. On the ride back, Megan (a pseudonym, like all the other student names you will read) tells me, “It’s good being around real adults. Campus is a bubble.”

Back in the bubble, the momentary high of collective embrace gives way to the banality of bad takes. Daphne sends me a screenshot. It’s a reply to a story she posted about two parents murdered on 10/7. Her high school friend writes, “sad :(, but do you know how many Palestinians have been killed from Israelis?” I meet a student for the first time when she walks into the Hillel building to show me a Snapchat post. The Snap is from an acquaintance calling Israel supporters KKK. The irony of this equation, given the depraved butchery of the Hamas massacre, is not lost on the student, but she’s not laughing. Another student tells me a friend accused her of supporting genocide for organizing a Zoom call with IDF soldiers.

The bad takes aren’t confined to friends and fellow students. Pranav Jani, a professor in the English Department who teaches postcolonial studies, gives a rambling speech at a walkout for Gaza. The highlight comes at the beginning when he informs the crowd that he fought against the university’s free speech policy because it allows “Nazis” to come speak, and because “hate speech is a thing.” “But right now,” he trills, “that policy is going to protect me and you!” Based on the cheers, I doubt anyone sees the obvious connection. Of course, the walkout wouldn’t be complete without a chant of “From the river to the sea. . . .”

Years ago, as an undergraduate here, I was a student in the campus chapter of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) advised by Pranav. He sported the same goatee and shiny baldie, which I recognize now for what it is: Lenin cosplay.

You can only guess if the kid who yells “Fuck you” at a brave clique of girls selling “I Stand with Israel” bracelets is a current disciple. Psi Tau Delta (another pseudonym) is selling the bracelets to raise money for Magen David Adom. That day, besides shouts of “Fuck you” and “Free Palestine,” they get a middle-aged woman who quickens her pace as she walks by and declares, “You know the US is supporting genocide.” Two young women selling bracelets and a third buying one get spit at.

The hate is actually in the minority; a determined indifference is the reigning attitude. People avert their faces and pretend they can’t hear, just as they do when passing all homeless people and advocates of social causes. But there is also plenty of love. A guy walks over with four pieces of blue-and-white blown glass. “I don’t have any money, but I want you to have these. This is the color of the country you love, isn’t it?”

 When I get back from standing with Psi Tau Delta, I see Abe, who tells me about an incident in his class. In discussion, a student said, “If I have to listen to one more of these pro-Israel idiots, I’m going to kill them.” The professor kicked her out of the classroom. Abe says he doesn’t want to make a big deal out of it. A few days later, he sends me an announcement for a lecture in the International Affairs scholars program. This time he is fuming. A postdoc in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies, hosted by SJP, is giving a talk on Israel and Gaza. A quick look at her work reveals a charlatan, if not a conspiracy theorist. The first paragraph of her only academic article repeats a fabricated claim about the Israeli Ministry of Health, which has been definitively debunked.

Posters of the kidnapped Israelis go up. Just as quickly they get torn down. When new ones go up, someone gets clever and starts covering the hostage’s face with a Palestinian flag sticker. The students hang fresh posters over the defaced ones.

Classic antisemitism rears its head too. As Jewish girls walk by, frat boys throw pennies at them. A grown man carrying a sign that reads “The Moon Landing Was Fake” harasses a student outside the main library, telling her she has a Jewish nose.

As the mishigas unfolds, Hillel and Chabad are buzzing. Before the rally, everyone is making signs and writing speeches. For days after they’re penning open letters and crafting petitions. Anyone who knows anyone is reaching out to see if they can leverage something. Several homegrown donation operations materialize overnight. Jared, for instance, coordinates with his boss to get, at cost, as many Israel t-shirts as he can sell, donating the profits. They end up giving Magen David Adom six thousand dollars. Some 250 handwritten letters (some in Hebrew, French, and Russian) are sent to soldiers. The group chat explodes with plans and counterplans, appeals and platitudes, flyers, polls, and warnings. A second vigil is planned. Unity Shabbat. Israel Week. All hands are on deck and, for better and for worse, every cook is in the kitchen.

Rally for Israel at OSU on October 9. Photo provided by the author.

Still, the atmosphere on campus is heavy. At a pumpkin painting event to take the load off, Ben tells me about an encounter in his dorm. Before he headed out for Hillel, he was standing in the hallway when he overheard a phone conversation. “Jews are bloodthirsty. . . all they want to do is kill Palestinians.” His dorm mate went on like this until he looked at Ben and saw his Jewish star. “I can’t have this conversation right now,” he whispered into the phone, and left the room. Pumpkins painted, Ben and his friends go to leave the event, but they see a group of guys who seem to be taking pictures of the Hillel building. They leave by the back door.

Not too long after everything began, Ohio State published a statement condemning Hamas. The statement wasn’t sent out to students and alumni, but instead hidden in a dropdown box on an obscure page of the university website. A week later, following student pressure, the statement was moved to a prominent position on the main webpage. A small victory. George, who has Jewish ancestry but isn’t Jewish himself, attends the community vigil and several other events. When I ask him why, he tells me, “It’s amazing seeing you all come together as a community. It’s nice to be a part of that.” I wonder if George’s attitude—multiplied by ten or a hundred thousand similar yet undramatic encounters—isn’t the bigger victory.

If you go back to look at the graffiti in the stairwell, you’ll notice something. I don’t know when they were written—before or after the anti-Jewish graffiti—but two additional markings seem to comment on it. The first, in very faint pencil, says simply, “I hate this.” The second, bolder in every sense, reads, “Nazi punks fuck off.”

Pervasive, unselfconscious antisemitism—the new campus normal—is a painful reality, but it is not uncontested.


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