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Opinion: Ensuring safety for Jewish students on campus requires stronger action from UCLA

The Bruin Statue on UCLA’s campus is pictured. (Daily Bruin file photo)

By Emily Samuels

Oct. 20, 2023 11:52 a.m.

For most Bruins, the morning of Oct. 7 marked the first home football game of the quarter and an exciting day at the Rose Bowl.

For me, it signified the start of a heartbreaking war between Israel – the Jewish homeland – and Hamas, the Iran-supported, Gaza-governing militant group that the United States has declared a terrorist organization. The surprise attack occurred one day after the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, and the massacre has since resulted in the deaths of over 1,300 Israelis and almost 200 people taken hostage.

According to the Guardian, the Israel Defense Force said the attacks were Israel’s equivalent to 9/11 and Pearl Harbor combined into one.

My Jewish brothers and sisters and I have experienced the constant ebb and flow between grief and joy that epitomizes the Jewish state of being all our lives – and this was no exception. I got out of bed on Saturday morning, put on a yellow and blue outfit, and braved my last-first game day.

On the bus ride to Pasadena, I opened social media to the most terrifying images and videos I’ve ever seen: terrorists parading around women’s naked bodies, elderly people shot in their own homes. I physically jolted backward in shocking and unparalleled terror. How was I singing gameday songs with my sorority sisters while my Jewish sisters in Israel were being raped and killed?

That’s when the realization hit that, at least in that moment, my family and I were somewhat safe in the United States. The guilt began to set in.

It seems impossible to poetically articulate exactly how I’m feeling. For lack of better words, I’m sick to my stomach, and I’m angry.

I’m sick of feeling the weight of my people’s survival and existence on my shoulders.

I’m sick of feeling responsible for explaining thousands of years of Jewish and Israeli history to my friends and peers.

I’m sick of walking on eggshells when I speak about the darkest and deadliest days in Jewish history since the Holocaust, afraid for my safety that I’ll offend the wrong person.

I’m sick of wondering how anyone can defend, justify or attempt to contextualize the inhumane war crimes of a terrorist organization whose charter outlines their mission to destroy the Jewish state and the entire Jewish population.

And worst of all, I’m sick of thinking that that most important warning I grew up hearing and fearing, the one derived from the most unfathomable and evil acts of mankind, “never again,” is being ignored right now.

A former Hamas chief called for global demonstrations against Israel to occur on Friday.

What if I’m next?

The following Monday morning, I walked to class timidly, frustrated that I was expected to proceed normally with my day-to-day routine as if my friend’s cousin hadn’t been kidnapped the day before, or another friend’s family hadn’t just enlisted to fight.

I hoped that at least a single professor would acknowledge the atrocities or ask how their students were feeling. But no one said a thing. No one asked the three most simple yet deeply meaningful words, “Are you OK?”

It is understandable that professors wouldn’t forgo the day’s material to discuss hundreds of years of nuanced and complicated conflict. But to blatantly ignore the utterly barbaric treatment of an entire nation and the suffering so many Jewish and non-Jewish students are enduring hurt deeply.

President Joe Biden has assured America’s unwavering support of Israel, and other institutions have denounced Hamas while promising to protect their Jewish students from violence.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that UCLA has offered the same support or moral clarity to its students.

The university refused to condemn anti-Israel rhetoric despite multiple events being held on campus last week that promoted the idea that Israel is at fault for the crisis in Gaza. The National Students for Justice in Palestine “Day of Resistance Toolkit” blamed Zionists and Israel for the sickening massacre, and a seminar led by two professors titled “The Crisis in Palestine” sought to contextualize it.

I am appalled and horrified that anyone would pick sides of an unequivocally ruthless and unlawful attack. If there was ever a time to stand on the side of humanity and mourn everything that has been lost together, it’s now.

On Oct. 9, Chancellor Gene Block voiced a few sentiments before sharing a message from University of California President Michael V. Drake and UC Board of Regents Chair Richard Leib. In this lackluster and non-committal initial statement, emptily entitled “University Statements on Violent Attacks Abroad,” Block failed to mention the words “Hamas” or “Jewish,” let alone take a firm stance against terrorism or stand in solidarity with Israel.

It took six days for Block’s administration to release a second statement which, to my surprise, actually denounced the attack and recognized the severity of Jewish lives lost. However, it encouraged Bruins to debate ideas while expressing our First Amendment rights. An institution committed to upholding human rights and one that prides itself on fostering an inclusive environment should know the difference between free speech and making fellow students feel unsafe and fearful on campus.

Chants calling for an “intifada” reverberated proudly throughout campus last Thursday afternoon. Given the historical and contextual implications of this term, signifying a violent Palestinian uprising against Israel, many of my Jewish peers and I were afraid to roam our campus freely. In what world could we feel safe when UCLA’s own SJP chapter believes “in the complete and total liberation of Palestine by any means necessary,” according to an Instagram post? I am confident that administration, professors and students alike would seize the opportunity to stand up against expressions of such hate and violence against any other group, and Jewish students deserve that same protection.

I feel as though I’m shouting into a void when I say that now is not the time to debate history or current events. Why can’t we just acknowledge a horrific event for what it was?

I am not blind to the fact that thousands of innocent Palestinians have been killed or harmed in this war. It is crucial to advocate for the freedom and self-determination of all human beings, but to support Hamas is to support terrorists that celebrate genocide, indoctrination and corruption. They use their own citizens as human shields by hiding underground or in buildings populated by innocent Gazan civilians and do not value the well-being or freedom of their Palestinian people.

Despite not feeling secure on campus, I am beyond grateful for UCLA Hillel and other Jewish groups on campus for the love they’ve poured into students. Last Wednesday night, I attended a vigil with over 500 Bruins to honor and grieve the many lives lost. This space represents what it means to be Jewish: to cry together, to keep each other afloat in the darkest of times and to always be proud of our Jewish identities together.

To anyone unsure of what to do or how to help during these shattering times, start by telling your Jewish friends you love them. Hug them a little tighter, because we aren’t okay.

Condemn Hamas’s deadly tactics and ideology. Trust the pit in your stomach that brings chills to your entire being when you see innocent human beings being murdered and terrorized.

On my Birthright Israel trip two summers ago, my group leader said something that has stuck with me:

“You are Jewish; you were born a fighter whether you like it or not.”

I am constantly inspired by and in awe of Jewish resilience. I have all the hope in the world that the Jewish state of Israel and its people will emerge stronger than ever, just as we have time and time again.

But for now, brace yourself for what’s to come, and hold each other a little closer than normal.

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Emily Samuels
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