Jewish Voice for Peace offers community for Columbia’s forgotten Jews.
By Maya Lerman
It’s sunset, a woman announces. She places down bottles of Manischewitz wine as the finishing touches to the Shabbat table before taking a seat with the rest of us. Our conversations dwindle, then are rekindled with laughter as we each, in turn, try and fail to light candles with matches wet from rain. Once the fire is finally lit, a somber silence sets in. We cover our eyes and recite in unison: Baruch ata Adonai, Eloheinu melech ha-olam …
They are words in a language few of us speak fluently. I for one have regrettably forgotten much of the Hebrew I learned for my bat mitzvah years ago. But some songs—the blessing over the candles, the Kiddush, the Hamotzi—flow from my lips naturally, through rote memory. I know virtually nothing about the strangers sitting beside me, except that they, like me, had sung these songs time and time again, absorbing words, melodies, and traditions that had been passed down through generations.
After Oct. 7, conversations surrounding Jewish identity, Zionism, and antisemitism were suddenly inescapable, my identity and values now the objects of widespread political debate. Perhaps most alienating of all was my utter inability to convey the gravity of my discomfort, the sheer force of my grief, to my non-Jewish friends. I was saddled with the burden of being the spokesperson for anti-Zionist Jews—tasked with educating myself, my peers, and my family—while simultaneously left to parse through an unfamiliar flood of emotions on my own.
Jewish Voice for Peace presented a necessary outlet: a group of Jewish students who shared my values, my culture, and my grief. And so, on that Friday night in mid-October, I found myself seated at a table packed with strangers, adorned with candles and platters of hot food, immediately charmed by the bustling and lively scene of my first JVP Shabbat dinner.
As the prayer ends and I open my eyes, I’m half expecting to see my grandmother smiling from across the room. Instead, I am met with faces I’m unaccustomed to seeing at the Shabbat table. Many are visibly and unabashedly queer, sporting gender non-conforming haircuts and jackets embellished with pride flag pins. More than a few are Jewish people of color—for once, I don’t feel my brown skin stands out. Some are wearing yarmulkes, others are wearing keffiyehs.
My connection to my Jewish identity has always been somewhat tenuous. Judaism is matrilineal, but only my father is Jewish—as the poet Adrienne Rich writes in her seminal essay on Jewish identity, I too am “split at the root.” I don’t keep kosher, and only halfheartedly observe High Holidays. I am pro-Palestine. And, I am exasperatingly familiar with the discomfort of being the only person of color in an all-white synagogue, with the curious stares and probing questions it invites. Seemingly innocent inquiries (Where are you from? How did you find our temple?) take on a new meaning, as I am made to feel more like a tourist than a genuine member of the Jewish community. It is for these reasons that I have avoided Jewish spaces for much of my life, dreading interrogations into my politics, my ethnicity, or my observance.
To my relief, no such inquisitions were made that Friday night. The atmosphere was undoubtedly politically charged, but each and everyone of us seemed to share an understanding that this was not the time to air our frustrations. We had protested, organized, and argued passionately with friends and family for weeks; this day of rest was to be our much needed moment of calm. Instead, we made idle chatter, spoke of food and family and Jewish humor, and enjoyed a rare instance of stillness in each other’s company.
In their candlelit space, JVP provided an opportunity for me to reconnect with my Jewish identity, to find comfort and community in a time of trauma and alienation. A home-cooked meal ended up being the perfect emotional remedy for the stresses of balancing college life with the suffocating weight of politics. In the midst of an ever-isolating campus culture exacerbated by political tension, the community in that room was the closest thing to family I found since arriving at Columbia.
Immediately after Columbia’s suspension of JVP, that sinking feeling of isolation returned. Perhaps I was naive to trust Columbia, the so-called protest Ivy, famous for its culture of civil disobedience and political action. Perhaps I was just experiencing the typical first-year student of color disenchantment prematurely. Regardless, my first semester has now been irrevocably tainted by the hard reality that this institution does not care about me or my identity, that free speech is only acceptable when it echoes the beliefs of those in power. In the flood of discourse surrounding antisemitism, Jews like me have fallen through the cracks.
In the weeks following that Shabbat dinner, I feared seeing my face plastered on a truck reading “Columbia’s Leading Antisemites” as I walked down Broadway. I would whisper on the phone to my Jewish grandparents, afraid of being heard through thin dorm walls as I promised to be careful and keep my head down, assuaging their worries that I’d be suspended or placed on a no-hire list. These things follow you, my grandfather warned. His father lived through McCarthyism, witnessing firsthand how saying the wrong thing can do permanent, life-altering damage.
This reality scares me, but it angers me more. It is endlessly infuriating that I have to fear simply writing an essay mentioning Palestine. I, too, am hurting from the horrific attack on Oct. 7; my family and I know people in Israel, and we worry for their safety. I, too, fear the rising rates of antisemitism, and desire for them to be addressed. But this is where Columbia wants Jewish discourse and healing to begin and end. My Jewish discourse calls for me to fight for social justice: I am compelled by tikkun olam, the Jewish call to “repair the world.” How, then, can I ignore the tens of thousands of Palestinians that have been killed over the past couple months? How can I honor my ancestors who were forced from their homes in Eastern Europe without standing against the displacement and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians? How can I passively and silently go about my day while my school and my country fund war crimes in our name?
When Columbia says they are committed to protecting Jewish people against hate, they have a specific type of Jew in mind—the white, politically expedient image of a Jewish student that myself and many JVP members simply are not. Jewish people are not a monolith: We don’t look the same, we don’t all have the same political beliefs, and we hold vastly different personal feelings toward Israel. Those of us who are Black or brown and Jewish—who are all too familiar with racial discrimination as well as antisemitism—know that Columbia’s efforts are not nearly enough. Columbia is not protecting us when they escalate police presence on campus on the days when we organize a peaceful protest or art demonstration. They are not representing us when they create a “Task Force on Antisemitism” without a single professor from Race and Ethnicity Studies, MESAAS, or even Jewish Studies on its leadership. They certainly are not defending us when they suspend the one group on campus that reflects the ethnic and ideological diversity of its Jewish students, especially given that many JVP members feel uncomfortable and unwanted in other Jewish spaces.
Of course, JVP does not need an official affiliation with Columbia to host Shabbat dinner. We can each contribute a dish on our own budgets instead of a home-cooked meal, and find space in the cramped apartments of members or the basements of special interest houses. The conversation, the prayers, and the company will be the same, perhaps even with bolstered spirits as we turn to each other for the support our institution won’t grant us. Yet something will be amiss. Even the symbolic act of recognition holds power; without it, it becomes painfully evident that the Jews of JVP have been left stranded by our school, labeled as mere political agitators and simultaneously rendered invisible, as Jewish people all too often are.
Columbia’s suspension of JVP was a reminder of our position on the fringes, a blatant attempt at sweeping the existence of anti-Zionist Jews under the rug. But while Columbia turned a blind eye, the broader Jewish community mobilized like never before—in the form of Columbia University Jews for Ceasefire. Inspired by similar initiatives at universities across the country, Jews for Ceasefire spared no time taking JVP’s place as the primary organizer of Jewish-led pro-Palestinian actions. The members of Jews for Ceasefire come from a vast variety of political affiliations, in contrast to the explicitly leftist tilt of JVP. Regulars at JVP Shabbat can often be found attending Jews for Ceasefire alongside the whiter, more conventional crowd of Jews more typical of American Jewish spaces. As a result, the students at any given Jews for Ceasefire meeting each approach Zionism differently, hold different views on Jewish identity and observance, and often disagree on long-term solutions in the Middle East. Jews for Ceasefire’s mission is twofold: They are united against violence in the region, and are unyieldingly supportive of the right of anti-Zionist Jews to voice their opposition to Israel.
If there is a silver lining to the suspension, it is the way Jews across the University (and beyond) have rallied behind JVP at Columbia. There are still many Jewish students staunchly against any anti-Zionist organization like JVP; but Jews, like any other people, have never held a consensus on political matters. As more and more Jewish students demand that JVP be reinstated, and call on Columbia and Barnard to recognize that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism, the diversity within Jewish identity and belief is made all the more visible.
I am grateful for these political victories, however small. I am moved by the acts of defiance and bravery from my Jewish peers—from the students at Brown University Jews for Ceasefire who were arrested for their sit-in; to members of JVP who shut down the Manhattan Bridge in late November; to every Jewish person who risked hostility from their families or communities for attending protests, joining boycotts, or signing petitions. Still, part of me laments that our identities have become so contentious. In the current social and political climate, Jewish voices hold particular power on university campuses, a power which comes with an oftentimes laborious and unasked-for responsibility.
In the turbulence of a generation-defining moment, of the emotional intensity thrust upon those of us sharing in our Jewish identity, it becomes all the more crucial to create spaces of community and belonging. Feasting on steaming bowls of matzo ball soup and fresh-baked flaky challah, bottles of wine draining as the night goes on, each of us momentarily forgetting our chaotic lives as we are immersed in the pleasures of cozy company. Even after the tables have been cleared and the wax candles have burnt down to their wicks, that sense of solace remains—a light shining bright in darkness.