A campus divided against itself

Jewish institutions and individuals hold the University accountable for allegations of anti-Semitism across campus and an unwillingness to address ensuing issues.

By Farrah Anderson, Assistant Investigative News & Longform Editor

Part One: Jewish Voices

Jewish Studies professor Rachel Harris was setting up for class when a student entered her classroom visibly upset. After talking with the student, she learned he had been harassed on the quad by an anti-Semitic ranter. 

Harris urged the student to report the incident but said the student believed the University wouldn’t do anything. 

“I saw the student’s despair that nobody cared what he had been through, and that’s not a climate that we want to be promoting on campus,” Harris said. 

As hate crimes and anti-Semitic incidents rise across U.S. college campuses, the University does not find itself immune, according to a complaint filed within the Office of Civil Rights and the federal Department of Education. The University claims it “must do more” as Jewish students on campus allege widespread actions of anti-Semitism. 

After collecting incident reports over the span of five years, a group of Jewish students came forward to file a complaint against the University.

The complaint alleges Jewish students have increasingly faced anti-Semitism during their time at the University including sightings of Swastikas, vandalism of Jewish centers and feelings of exclusion from institutions across campus.

The Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion stated in an email they cannot comment on an ongoing lawsuit for this story.

Following the complaint, the University released a joint statement in November 2020 with the Jewish United Fund, Illini Hillel, Hillel International, Illini Chabad, Arnold & Porter and the Brandeis Center. 

The statement emphasizes that although members in the community may not always share the same feelings, it is the University’s goal to foster a safe environment for Jewish and pro-Israel students.

“Students who choose the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign for their college education make that decision with an expectation that they will find the freedom and security to grow, to explore and to express their whole and best selves,” the statement said. 

“But, sadly, that is not the experience of all members of the student community. Anti-Semitic acts and expressions are all too common in our country and in our world, and examples of that intolerance have occurred at this university as well. This is unacceptable. While the university has taken measures in the past to address this problem, the university must do more.”

Although many students, faculty and staff praised this statement, others said that it was just the first step in the University’s process of regaining the trust of the Jewish community on campus. 

Despite reaching out to dozens of University students, many didn’t feel comfortable describing their experiences. Lawyers defending the complaint against the University didn’t want students speaking out to the press. This complicated the reporting process.

Even after reporting incidents to administrators within University departments, some students said anti-Semitic actions were simply labeled as vandalism. During interviews, students said their experiences are common, persistent and something their families prepared them for before they left for college.

“Students don’t just go to federal authorities every other day to ask for support,” said Erez Cohen, the Director of Hillel at the University. 

The following experiences are detailed recounts of individual students who have experienced challenges as a part of the University’s Jewish community. 

Zelner

Jeremy Zelner, senior in LAS, poses for a photo on his balcony in front of his Israeli flag on April 14. Zelner is one of the many victims on campus to have experienced anti-Semitism. (Abe Baali)

With the light from his laptop illuminating his face, a University senior sat in the living room of his apartment late one night. Suddenly, a loud banging erupted from his balcony window.

Alarmed, he opened the door to find shattered eggshells and yolks running down his light blue and white Israeli flag.

Although Jeremy Zelner, senior in LAS, said he and his roommates reported the incident to the University of Illinois Police Department and the University’s Office for Diversity and Inclusion, he said nothing ever came from it. 

“It’s very obvious the school doesn’t care,” Zelner said.

“A student who would like an update on a conversation or response to an incident should not hesitate to let us know,” the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion responded. “For new information about an investigation as it evolves, students should follow up with UIPD.”

That morning Zelner said he posted photos and videos of the vandalism on his Facebook page to note the blatant act of anti-Semitism.

‘The world needs to see this,” Zelner said in the video. “This is happening in Champaign, Illinois. 1:30 in the morning.’” 

Zelner said reporters started contacting him wanting to tell the story. Although Zelner said he doesn’t mind the visibility, he wants real action to be taken by the police and the University.

“Sometimes it’s just a story,” Zelner said. “The people that could actually make a difference and do something — nothing at all.” 

Before he left for college, his dad told him to join a Jewish fraternity house. 

While he was rushing, he said he encountered fraternity members and houses he said he knew were anti-Semitic. To avoid any risk, he said he decided to join one of the three Jewish fraternities where he knew he would be safe. 

“That’s when I realized that my dad was right,” Zelner said. “He said, ‘Join a Jewish house. You will always feel safe no matter what.’” 

Now a senior set to graduate this May, Zelner said he overcame many instances of anti-Semitism.

As a bartender at Joe’s Brewery, Zelner said one night after asking a coworker to help him out at the bar, the coworker shot back a microaggression.

“They said, ‘oh, you’re being a lazy Jew’,” Zelner said. 

Zelner said he was angry, but because he was at work, he didn’t feel comfortable defending himself.

“I was like, ‘if I wasn’t working right now I would light you up,’” he said. 

Although Zelner said nothing ever came from the statement, he said as a Jewish person, it’s common to be in conflict with people. 

He said some of the things he’s seen throughout his time at the University raise concerns for future Jewish students. 

“We’ve had bricks go through our house,” Zelner said. “People throw stuff at us. I’ve seen Swastikas in bathrooms, stuff like that, and is that concerning? Yeah.” 

Zelner said anti-Semitism isn’t something new to Jewish people. However, he said it’s now necessary for that to change.

“We’ve lived a history where persecution has been the name of the game for a very long time.” 

The Raabs

After moving into Hopkins Hall his freshman year, Daniel Raab, now a senior in MCB, hung a mezuzah, a traditional Jewish greeting decoration, on the outside of his door. 

Two months later, Daniel Raab said it was ripped off. 

After reporting it to the Residential Director of Ikenberry, Raab said there was an email sent out saying that vandalism would not be tolerated. To him, it wasn’t just vandalism.

“The University had nothing to define the action as anti-Semitic and therefore it was classified as vandalism,” Raab said.

To show whoever it was that he wasn’t afraid, Raab hung an Israeli flag on the door. After that, Raab said he was the target of a relentless anti-Semitic harassment campaign. 

For the next few months, Raab said people would bang on his door in the middle of the night while shouting anti-Semitic slurs about him and his support for Israel. 

Although Raab said he had his suspicions about who it could be, he said he never caught them. 

“I’d have to run out in my pajamas just to catch a glimpse of who was pounding on my door at two in the morning,” Raab said.

Raab became heavily involved with Jewish and pro-Israel organizations when he came to campus. He said this has drawn anti-Semitic attention to him, threatening his safety.

Raab sat behind a white folding table waiting to tell students about the Students Supporting Israel RSO at the University’s annual Quad Day. 

Raab said a man suddenly came up to him, spit in his face and started harassing him.

“An individual came up to me, spit in my face and started saying slurs about how I’m a murderer, Zionist and I stole a country,” Raab said. 

Later that day, Raab said someone attempted to run him over with a bicycle while screaming, ‘free Palestine.’” 

Raab said he suspects that those who have lashed out at him are in or affiliated with the Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. Personally, Raab said he believes their actions incite anti-Semitism on campus and that the University should take action. 

“There’s a bar that the University has that’s the standard of what goes too far,” Raab said. “Unfortunately, that standard is too low.”

Daniel’s younger sister Nina, a sophomore in Business, said she witnessed “appalling” behavior by SJP while visiting her brother on campus before she had officially committed. 

Walking past Alma Mater, Raab said SJP’s ‘Apartheid Week’ demonstration involved dipping their hands in red paint and placing their handprints on the Israeli flag. 

Finally, the word ‘Genocide’ was scrawled across the flag’s star. 

Although Nina said seeing something like that could deter some Jewish students from coming to the University, she said it only inspired her.

“That doesn’t deter me,” Nina said. “It lights a fire under me because I know this is why we as Jewish students need to be strong and stand up for ourselves.”

Many students including Daniel and Nina mentioned several times that legislation brought up in the Illinois Student Government resulted in Jewish student uprisings. This included passionate public comments and planned walk-outs.

At one Illinois Student Government meeting, a resolution resembling the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement was up for a vote. 

Although she was only a freshman, Nina stood up and spoke to the senators in a room of hundreds of people. But, she said she wasn’t sure it would even make a difference.

“It’s like being on a jury full of people who are fully against you,” Nina said. 

In her speech, she acknowledged the fact that she had seen someone hold up a sign that said ‘Fuck Nazis’ in reference to Zionist, Jewish students.

Suddenly, someone at the meeting interrupted her speech to yell, ‘That’s right!’

As the granddaughter of two Holocaust survivors, Nina said she was appalled. SJP later denounced the statement and said that whoever it was is not affiliated with their group. However, Nina said the actions of SJP incite anti-Semitism on campus. 

“It’s more dangerous than if there’s a Swastika drawn in a bathroom stall,” Nina said. “Because what they’re doing is active and it’s relevant.” 

Despite reporting the incident to the Bias Assessment and Response Team and meeting with an officer, Nina said that nothing ever came from her complaint. 

“I felt helpless,” Nina said. “No matter who you go to it doesn’t matter.”

“The reporter and reported parties are generally reached out to by a member of the team, but what happens beyond that is specific to the case,” the Bias Assessment and Response Team said in an emailed statement.

Her speech at the meeting was recorded and posted to Twitter, gaining over 2,000 views.

But after the video started gaining traction online, Nina said it made her and her family wonder if she would be safe on campus. And once more people saw it, people started asking her if she would speak at different functions.

Although she’s passionate about speaking out, Nina said it got to be too overwhelming for her. But she said it wasn’t always easy to make the choice.

“Jewish students shouldn’t have to choose between going to stand up or sit back and actually focus on their studies,” Nina said.

Faibishenko

Senior Michael Faibishenko poses for a photo outside of the Illini Hillel on April 13. Madeline Pierce

After placing a dozen pro-Israel stickers on the door of a dorm room in Allen Hall, a University freshman and his roommate came back to a blank door.

Instead of backing down, Michael Faibishenko said he and his roommate covered their door in more stickers. 

“We just plastered our door to just give the proverbial middle finger to the person who was trying to make us uncomfortable,” Faibishenko said.

Now a senior at the University, Faibishenko said he was involved with Jewish and pro-Israel organizations since he came to campus as a freshman in 2017.

As the president of Students Supporting Israel his junior year, Faibishenko said a majority of his time as president was spent on the defensive. The offensive just happened to be the Illinois Student Government.

Faibishenko said throughout his time at the University, the Illinois Student Government did not take the perspective of the Jewish community seriously. 

Finally, he said the Jewish community had enough.

After ISG proposed a resolution titled “Condemning Ignorance of Racism and Equating Anti-Zionism and Anti-Semitism,” Faibishenko and several leaders within the Jewish community decided to stage a walkout at the meeting.

“We realized that our actions would speak louder than our words that people weren’t going to listen to,” Faibishenko said. 

Although it was supposed to be a surprise, Faibishenko said word had gotten out about how many people were planning on coming to the walkout. Because of that, the meeting was moved from the Union to the ARC.

Fabishenko said that during the meeting, over 500 students from the Jewish community came together to stand against the resolution. Soon after, they promptly spilled out onto the courtyard by Ikenberry Commons.

However, the resolution still passed. And although Faibishenko said that there have been more Jewish senators elected, he said he thinks ISG still hasn’t gotten much more inclusive since the walkout.

“It still did not send a strong enough message,” Faibishenko said.

Looking back on his experiences as a Jewish student, Faibishenko acknowledged the anxiety that could come to Jewish students considering coming to the University after seeing the complaint and press surrounding anti-Semitic incidents.

But despite his many challenges, he said the Jewish community has created a strong environment that is still a great place to be a Jewish student. 

“Just because there’s some incidents of anti-Semitism and there’s some serious issues in the student government, that is not representative of the experience here.” 

Crane

Enforcing the typical schedule of deadlines at 11:59 on Sunday night, one teaching assistant found his inbox flooded with questions from students about the week’s assignments.

As a Jewish faculty member, Ben Crane found himself in a dilemma. 

Crane, who abstains from work on Saturdays in observance of the Jewish Sabbath, said he talked to the class’s professor about his religious observance. 

Shabbat, the Jewish Sabbath, is observed throughout the year by Jews all over the world from dusk on Fridays until sundown on Saturdays. This refrainment from work commemorates God’s day of rest after six days of creation.

“My choice was to either break my observance to help my students or they don’t get the help they need,” Crane said.

However, the professor quickly changed the deadline to Friday so Crane could address questions throughout the week. 

Although Crane was grateful, he said there’s a lot more the University should do to accommodate Jewish students. 

“By and large, it’s a mess,” Crane said.

Even when trying to schedule a meeting with the University’s Office of the Provost, he was told that instead of finding another time other than Saturday, he could just have someone attend in his place.

As students come to him throughout the semester to ask for accommodations, he said they’re much too grateful when their requests are accepted. To him, that’s because the University is not flexible enough. 

“I’m afraid that as the University grows ever bigger, it’s becoming more and more bureaucratic,” Crane said.

“We have heard general concerns from students who are from a variety of faith traditions about a lack of awareness by university faculty and staff regarding accommodations for religious observances,” the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion wrote in an emailed statement.

“Illinois law requires the University to reasonably accommodate our students’ religious beliefs, observances, and practices in regards to admissions, class attendance, and the scheduling of examinations and work requirements.”

When he came to the University as a Master’s student studying Religion, Crane said he was drawn to the vibrant Jewish community on campus. 

“It’s really remarkable how interconnected and vibrant the Jewish community is in such a small town that does not, on its own, have a significant Jewish community,” Crane said. 

However, Crane said he witnessed a division in the community between students involved in either Hillel or Chabad on campus. 

“There were a few occasions where I saw those walls come down,” Crane said. “Unfortunately, that was mostly reacting to some inappropriate oversteps involving speaking for or in place of the Jewish community on campus.” 

Those missteps, many he said were spear-headed by Illinois Student Government resolutions, caused several uprisings by Jewish students throughout his time at the University. Crane said one of the largest missteps was in attempting to define anti-Semitism.

In 2019, the Illinois Student Government voted to pass a resolution to separate anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism definitions on campus. The resolution was passed and was swiftly condemned with a walkout by Jewish students and organizations on campus. 

Although Crane disagreed with ISG trying to define anti-Semitism, he said it also wouldn’t make sense to have the Jewish community defining it. Instead, he offered another solution.

“We have a Jewish studies department and we have a Jewish studies initiative,” Crane said. “That’s who the University should be consulting if they were actually going to adopt any type of definition.” 

Put on the back burner because of the pandemic, Crane said he brought up the idea of creating a Jewish cultural house on campus. In doing this, the Jewish community would be allowed more protection under University rules.

To do this, Crane suggested giving Hillel the designation as the Jewish cultural house.

“Nothing would have to change,” Crane said. “The only thing that would change is that there would be a new cultural house on campus.” 

Messinger

Jonah Messinger, senior in Engineering, poses for a photo in front of the Illini Union on April 16. Brigida Dockus

A student logged into a virtual meeting for Jewish students to review the complaint filed against the University. 

He said his name was not on the invite list.

Despite the fact that the complaint was filed on behalf of Jewish students, Jonah Messinger, senior in Engineering, said the informational meeting was only distributed to a small portion of the community. 

The complaint alleging a hostile climate of anti-Semitism at the University was filed on behalf of “Jewish and pro-Israel students” on campus. 

As a Jewish student himself, Messigner said filing the complaint on the behalf of Jewish students without consulting more students was irresponsible. 

“It seems as though you can count the number on your two hands of people who were consulted,” he said.

From what he’s seen, the students involved with the complaint identify as Zionist and are a part of the more mainstream Jewish community.

In order to actually get an idea of what the Jewish community is facing, he said that those who filed the complaint should have consulted a larger group of Jewish students that hold a variety of different beliefs and identities. 

“It wasn’t that they did a bad job of advertising this to Jewish students,” Messinger said. “It was intentionally not distributed.” 

But to him, that may not have been what they were looking for.

From his perspective, those who filed the complaint never intended to win at all.

“They won’t win this and they know that they won’t win this,” Messinger said. “This is a PR campaign. These people are not looking for a chorus of voices.”

Messenger does not categorize himself as Zionist or anti-Zionist. He said he thinks the complaint is just a tool to prevent anti-Zionist organizing on campus – something others said they agree with as well.

The creation of the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Jewish and Campus Life was announced March of 2021 and includes alumni, University students, administrators and community members. 

“Chancellor Jones recently charged the Chancellor’s Advisory Council on Jewish and Campus Life to help identify opportunities to improve and sustain the campus environment and how we can advance our commitment to an inclusive community,” the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Diversity, Equity & Inclusion responded. 

However, Messigner said he’s not optimistic that the council will be a chorus of voices either.

To him, the University has a responsibility to protect free speech on its campus, whoever happens to be speaking.

“Illinois has got to stay true to academic freedoms,” Messinger said.

Conclusion: Part One

As the University attempts to combat anti-Semitism on campus, many members of the Jewish community have called on the University to do more. 

Although the University has acknowledged incidents in the past, the complaint, which threatens the University’s state and federal funding, has spurred actions like the creation of an advisory council and the distribution of a joint statement condemning anti-Semitism. 

However, Mollie Kramer, a past student president of Hillel, said that the complaint was filed as a last resort to voice the frustrations of Jewish students.

“It was kind of the final battle cry,” Kramer said. “It’s up to the University to say that all voices need to be heard and to take allegations seriously without the need for a lawsuit.” 

As the investigation against the University continues, some said the future of anti-Zionist organizing hangs in the balance. Additionally, some community members have said it’s impossible to protect free speech without rampant debate and discussion.

In the meantime, students within the Jewish community stressed that anti-Semitism is alive and well at the University. And in order to stop it, the University had to start somewhere.

“Anti-Semitism does happen on this campus and it deserves recognition as much as any minority experiencing any kind of discrimination deserves to be acknowledged,” Kramer said.

Although many students have complained about the follow-through from the Bias Assessment and Response Team, it said how each case is approached and dealt with is different.

“Anti-Semitism is not specifically handled differently than other cases. There have been reports of Anti-Semitism this semester,” the Bias Assessment and Response Team responded. “When the team looks at any report they decide as a whole what the follow-up steps should be and who should carry those steps out.”

Alena Fishkin, the current student president of Hillel, said that although anti-Semitism is something that many people in the Jewish community experience, it shouldn’t define the community as a whole. 

“It’s not a defining factor,” Fishkin said. “We are going to get through it.” 

Part two will focus on anti-Zionist organizing and the debates over free speech.