Israeli Students Seek Support in Times of Isolation and Discomfort

With antisemitic hate on the rise, many students with Israeli roots are searching for spaces to connect and lift each other up.

8 mins read

This story is syndicated from The Beacon the newspaper of Jackson-Reed High School in Washington, DC. The original version ran here.

A group of students seeking to promote Israeli culture and discuss the Israel-Gaza War said they have felt uncomfortable and isolated at Jackson-Reed after the attacks on October 7. The students attempted to fundraise for those impacted by the attacks and start a club to achieve their goals. 

JR can be “an incredibly isolating place if you’re Israeli,” said junior Amalia Knoll. “It’s hard to go to school when so many of your peers question the existence of the country that your family is from.” 

Art credit: Dominique Greene

Another student, who requested anonymity for safety concerns, said, “Some students are scared to speak out about the matter, and I was one of them.”

The students’ concerns come amid a rise in antisemitism across the US. In a study released by the Anti-Defamation League, rates of antisemitic “harassment, vandalism, and physical attacks” spiked 178% from October 7 to January, compared to the same period last year.

Social studies teacher and Jewish Student Union (JSU) faculty adviser Aaron Besser said that this has been a difficult time for many Jewish and Israeli students.

“I know that a lot of Jewish students have connections to people living in Israel,” Besser said. “There is extra stress that comes up when a lot of people have this connection to that space in the Middle East and there isn’t necessarily one unified perspective that everyone has, and I think that that can be really hard for people too.” 

The group of students reported that some events at JR have made them feel scared as Jewish and Israeli students. They believe it is important to speak up about their fear, discomfort, and isolation. 

Another student, who also requested anonymity, said they felt uncomfortable with a request by the Arab Student Union (ASU) in December to screen a controversial film, The Occupation of the American Mind, at school. 

The ASU said that it wanted to show the movie to encourage conversation around the Israel-Gaza War. However, critics said the film displays antisemitic stereotypes about Jewish control of the media. One student noted that the film is narrated by Roger Waters, co-founder of the rock band Pink Floyd, who, the US State Department last year said, “has a long track record of using antisemitic tropes.”

Senior and ASU co-leader Hala Elamine said, “Palestinian culture cannot be celebrated without addressing the occupation it’s under and has been under for the last 75 years.” But, she added, “our goal is never to make anyone feel uncomfortable.”

Two of the students also expressed concern about an Instagram account called “jrhs_sjp,” or Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). SJP is a pro-Palestine student activism organization with over 200 chapters nationwide. According to school policy, Instagram accounts can only use the JR name if they are part of an approved club or organization, which school officials said the account is not. 

While this account is not the only unapproved Instagram with JR in its name, it is believed to be the only one surrounding the conflict. 

The students said they were concerned that the account’s name implied a formal affiliation with the school, which could lead people to conclude that JR endorses its content. One student noted that the account has reposted multiple posts encouraging students to boycott Israeli-owned restaurants in DC. 

Junior Maya Knoll found the reposts offensive.“To be clear, none of the Israeli restaurants they asked people to boycott expressed any negative sentiment towards Palestinians. The boycott was solely because they were Israeli,” she said.

According to the Anti-Defamation League, “many of the [SJP’s] campus chapters explicitly endorsed the actions of Hamas and their armed attack on Israeli civilians.” Hamas is the largest Islamist group in the Gaza Strip and governs the Gaza Strip. It also launched the attack on October 7. 

Maya Knoll said the SJP’s endorsement of armed attacks on civilians was upsetting to her and other students. “We are pro-Israel and pro-Palestine.” However, Knoll said that she objects to the national SJP’s support of Hamas. 

In October, after the attacks, the students asked the JR administration for permission to fundraise for United Hatzalah, an Israeli nonprofit that provides rapid medical aid during emergencies. Principal Sah Brown told the students that, after much consideration, he decided to decline the request, but appreciated their enthusiasm.

The following month, the students began efforts to start a JR club to celebrate Israeli culture and discuss issues facing Israel.

“The club’s main goals were to combat antisemitism and foster a safe community for Israeli students at the school,” Amalia Knoll said. Another student involved added, “If they wanted to seek someone to talk to or people to do things with, then we would be there for them.”

However, JR administrators told the Beacon that they could not approve the request because the group did not meet all of the requirements for forming a club. 

“There is a process for club approval and fundraising,” Principal Brown said. “There [had] been outreach earlier in the year about [the club] and there were some details that still needed to be fleshed out—activities, what would take place—which I have not received.”

However, the students said they met the requirements. They asked three faculty or staff to sponsor the club, and one agreed to submit a request to form it. When the request was denied, the sponsor encouraged the students to work with the JSU and ASU. 

The students said they approached the JSU multiple times about collaborating, but the JSU did not want to take a stance on the conflict. 

According to Besser, “JSU didn’t want to focus on the conflict, it never has really delved into politics before.” 

Amalia Knoll also noted that “not all Israeli students are Jewish.”

While there is no official school policy against political clubs, none currently exist. However, groups of students have met informally to prompt political discussion. For example, a Democratic club met at school recently but is not a school-sanctioned club.

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