Committee condemns antisemitism, mulls what Arizona legislators can do
Jewish college students at Arizona universities have faced increased antisemitism on campus in the two months since Hamas’s brutal Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel that left more than 1,400 dead and 240 kidnapped prompted a violent response from Israel.
On Tuesday, a group of Republican and Democratic Arizona legislators who make up the Committee on Anti Semitism in Education heard from local and international members of the Jewish community about what’s going on currently in K-12 schools and universities in the state — and potential avenues to combat antisemitism.
Arizona State University student Aleeza Feffer shared her experience walking on campus on the afternoon of Oct. 18, while wearing a shirt that read “I love being Jewish,” which she said she’d worn on campus many times before.
Feffer said she was approached by a group of men who began chanting “Free Palestine” and “Allahu Akbar” and other phrases in Arabic that she didn’t understand, Feffer told the committee.
She put her head down and kept walking to avoid confrontation.
“From that point on, I felt it was unsafe to walk alone on campus as a Jewish woman,” Feffer said.
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Feffer said she emailed Lance Herrop, ASU’s associate dean of students, to discuss how to keep Jewish students safe on campus, but received a response from his intern that she said was full of grammatical errors and she felt like her issues were “tossed to the side” and not taken seriously.
She contacted him a second time, but said she had not received a response.
During a student walkout that included Students for Justice in Palestine as well as other groups, students met at the center of the Tempe campus and chanted “from the river to the sea” and called for an intifada, Feffer said.
She added that this made her feel unsafe, because in her eyes, as well as those of many other Jewish people, these statements call for the elimination of Israel and its people.
After the protest, she met with Cassandra Aska, deputy vice president and dean of students at ASU’s Tempe campus. The two spoke for about an hour, but Feffer said that Aska told her there was nothing she could do.
During a Nov. 14 meeting of ASU’s student Senate, Feffer said that other students heckled her and laughed when she shared that she was afraid to wear her “I love being Jewish” t-shirt. That same meeting ended after someone threw rocks at a window and Jewish students had to be escorted out by ASU Chief of Police Michael Thompson.
Feffer said she later spoke with Thompson about her experiences on campus since Oct. 7 and her concerns about safety for Jewish students.
While she said that Thompson was ultimately helpful and supportive of Jewish students, he also told her that if she wore her “I love being Jewish” repeatedly, she should expect to receive flak and that she was “asking for it.”
Jerry Gonzalez, an ASU spokesman, told the Arizona Mirror Tuesday afternoon that the university was still working to understand the full story surrounding Thompson’s comment, but that it appeared “that it is out of context.”
Gonzalez told the Mirror that any student with safety concerns should contact campus police.
“ASU opposes antisemitic rhetoric and acts of intimidation whether they occur on our campuses, or in the community,” Gonzalez told the Mirror in an emailed statement. “The university and President Michael Crow have been very clear about this position.”
Gonzalez added that ASU is aware that some protesters chanted “free Palestine” after seeing Feffer’s shirt.
“The university does not know the identity of the protesters involved,” Gonzalez said. “We have provided support to and will continue to meet with the concerned students.”
Feffer said it’s difficult for her and other Jewish students to focus on their studies when they don’t feel safe on campus, and she asked the legislators to help Arizona universities draw the line between free speech and hate speech.
The hearing, which lasted around five hours, featured a wide range of speakers and subject matter, including the history of Israel and corresponding international law, state Rep. Barbara Parker’s harrowing experience hiding out in a safe room in Israel on Oct. 7 and in the days that followed, and the ways that Hamas reportedly works to infiltrate student groups in the United States to support organizations like SJP and promote antisemitic rhetoric.
But much of the focus of the hearing was on walking the fine line that many of the legislators agreed that separates free speech and hate speech.
Rep. Alexander Kolodin, a Scottsdale Republican who is Jewish, said while he hates the people who spew antisemitic rhetoric, as a free speech absolutist, he will always fight for their right to do so.
“This is a country where, in order for me to be free, I have to protect their right to say things that I hate,” he said, making it clear that he believes hate speech is protected by the First Amendment.
Kolodin added that he would be open to pulling funding from student groups who express antisemitism as well as not allowing student activity fees to go to those groups. He also espoused the controversial view that students should be free to carry guns on campus to protect themselves. Arizona law currently bans firearms on school grounds.
Rabbi Pinchas Allouche, who founded Congregation Beth Tefillah in Scottsdale, told the committee there has been a 388% increase in incidences of antisemitism in the United States compared to the same time a year ago. And some of those happened in Arizona, including to Jewish student at Desert Mountain High School who was attacked on campus because of his faith and lineage, Allouche said.
“We are hated for our race,” Allouche said. “We are hated for our state. But make no mistake, anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”
He encouraged the members of the committee to do everything in their power to “eradicate cancer of antisemitism,” asking people of all faiths and backgrounds to step up.
He called chants of “from the river to the sea” “genocidal” and said even the questioning of Israel’s right to exist was “nothing but pure evil, disgusting and intolerable antisemitism.”
He urged the committee members to pass legislation that bans antisemitism and Jewish hatred from every platform in Arizona, including from campuses, newspapers and social media — even in conversations.
He added that it wasn’t Jews alone who suffered under Hitler and Stalin.
“Antisemitism is the world’s most reliable warning sign of a major threat to freedom,” Allouche said, quoting Rabbi Jonathan Sacks.
Kolodin notably did not respond directly to Allouche’s call for censorship of hate speech in newspapers and on social media. Earlier this year, as the chair of the state House’s Committee on Oversight, Accountability and Big Tech, Kolodin pondered whether the legislature could stop the government from censoring free speech on social media, in response to an effort by then-Secretary of State Katie Hobbs to work with social media outlets to stop the spread of election misinformation.
Emily Winkler, a Jewish American who now lives in Israel, spoke to the committee about the increase in antisemitism all over the world in the past 15 years, as well as the steep spike since Oct. 7.
“The world today is very different in our eyes than it was just a few months ago,” she said.
Winkler said that, after living in Israel post-Oct. 7, it was a struggle to listen to committee members talk about the line between free speech and hate speech.
“It’s been very difficult to swallow today,” she said. “When you so blatantly threaten to hurt, to murder, to rape, to destroy an entire people group, it’s actually not a question, not in our minds and not according to the legislation that already exists in this country.”
She added that the FBI definition of terrorism includes making threats of violence, and she believes that anyone making threats of violence against Jewish people should be held accountable.
Throughout the hearing, none of the members mentioned the 17,487 Palestinians who have reportedly been killed in Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which is run by Hamas.
The committee’s chairman, Rep. David Livingston, R-Peoria, asked his colleagues and those present to mull over what kinds of legislation they would like to see come out of the meeting, focusing on freedom of speech and ensuring everyone in Arizona is treated equally regardless of their race or religion.