Brown-RISD Hillel has received both support and backlash from Jewish students after affirming support for Israel and Zionist students in an email to its listserv Monday afternoon.
“Our Jewish community on College Hill is diverse and everyone has their politics — but BRH's support for Israel and Zionist students is unassailable,” the email read.
Sent by Hillel’s Executive Director Rabbi Josh Bolton and Assistant Director Molly Goldmeier, the email began by condemning the shooting of “three Palestinian college students,” including Hisham Awartani ’25, last Saturday in Burlington, Vermont.
It also addressed a “torrent of antisemitic hatred” online since the shooting. Students who spoke to The Herald pointed to Sidechat, an anonymous social media platform, as one source of such antisemitic comments. Students also noted anti-Zionist rhetoric on the platform.
“Following Oct. 7, we have come to believe that Jewish joy is the most powerful expression of Jewish resistance and continuity,” Monday’s email read. “As we traverse these coming days and weeks, may we always draw sustenance from the well of Jewish joy that flows from our tradition, our connectivity and our collective destiny.”
On Oct. 7, Hamas's attacks on Israel killed 1,200 people, according to Israeli officials. Since then, Israel's military response in Gaza has killed more than 14,000 people, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.
While some students who spoke to The Herald supported Hillel’s message, others condemned it.
Rita Feder ’24 said she was shocked by the email, calling it a “disappointing” and “disgusting response to a hate crime.”
“The email started with half of a paragraph about the shooting, didn’t even mention (Awartani’s) name and then went on to refocus the conversation on Jewish victimhood and Jewish joy,” Feder said. “To end an email saying that the only way to respond right now is through Jewish joy was unbelievably tone-deaf and not only irresponsible but completely and utterly revolting.”
According to Ben Piekarz ’24, supporting Israel and Zionist students is not mutually exclusive from condemning hate, “which (Hillel) absolutely did.”
“Especially considering all of the rhetoric that we see on campus — there has been a ton of not only anti-Israel and anti-Zionist rhetoric but also some rhetoric steeped in antisemitism,” said Piekarz, who is Israeli. “It's important for Hillel to come out and say, ‘We support the students who are Israeli, we support students who are Zionist.’”
“95% of American Jews identify as Zionist,” Piekarz said, pointing to a 2019 Gallup poll that found that 95% of American Jews have favorable views of Israel.
Views about Israel among Jewish Americans have varied in other polls, though they typically indicate strong support for or emotional attachment to Israel. One national survey conducted in 2021 by the Jewish Electorate Institute found that 25% of Jewish Americans believe that Israel is an “apartheid state.”
“It makes sense to say that as the forefront Jewish organization on campus, you're going to support the only Jewish state in the world,” Piekarz added. Brown-RISD Hillel is affiliated with Hillel International, which aims to “inspire every Jewish college student to develop a meaningful and enduring relationship to Israel,” according to the organization’s website.
Feder, an organizer with BrownU Jews For Ceasefire Now, said she is far from the only Jew on campus “beyond uncomfortable, to the point of refusing to step into Hillel,” following the Monday email.
Feder is among 130 other Jewish students in JFCN, which she said is “creating a Jewish cultural home for people who don’t feel comfortable in Hillel right now … because they have made it abundantly clear that Hillel is not a space for all Jews.” Members of the organization have asserted a difference between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.
These sentiments were also expressed in a letter reviewed by The Herald that was sent to Hillel Monday and signed by over 100 current Jewish students. “The letter outlined not only our disgust at their tone-deaf insensitivity, but our recognition that they have been actively pushing out Jews who don’t align with them on Israel politics,” Feder said.
“We do not feel supported or represented by Hillel — not today, and certainly not since Oct. 7,” the letter read.
“BRH's doors remain open to all students of every background to build community, learn and create,” Bolton wrote in a message to The Herald.
Monday’s email is not the first time Hillel has affirmed its support for pro-Israel students in recent weeks. On Nov. 14, 36 students traveled to Washington for the “March for Israel,” a trip that Hillel “organized, staffed and paid” for, according to Bolton.
“300,000 people marching peacefully and proudly in support of the State of Israel and its right to defend itself is an experience I will never forget and am proud to have been a part of,” Gabe Burstyn ’27, who attended the march, wrote in a message to The Herald.
In Piekarz’s experience, there are “a lot more” Zionist Jews on campus than anti-Zionist Jews. Piekarz co-authored an open letter, published in The Herald and signed by over 160 current students, in support of “a secure, safe and democratic Israel.” The letter’s writers also distanced themselves and other signatories from anti-Zionist Jews on campus.
“The pro-Israel perspective is so suppressed in public spaces on campus that it has fossilized,” Lior Berrin ’27, a member of Brown Students for Israel, wrote in an email to The Herald. “The Brown community, I'd wager, isn't aware that there is thriving pro-Israel support here.”
“BRH was, is and will remain a pluralistic center for Jewish life — dedicated to supporting a diversity of students as they explore, develop and deepen their Jewish identities — including building positive connections with Israel and the global Jewish diaspora,” Bolton wrote.
Haley Sandlow is a section editor covering science and research as well as admissions and financial aid. She is a junior from Chicago, Illinois, studying English and French.