Amidst rising antisemitism, students and advocates express hopes for peaceful discourse

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Thursday, November 2, 2023
Many concerned as Antisemitism incidents continue to rise
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Amid the Israel-Hamas war, there is growing concern over worsening antisemitism nationwide.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- During a Senate hearing Tuesday, FBI Director Christopher Wray acknowledged antisemitic incidents are reaching historic levels, spurred by the recent conflict between Israel and Gaza.

While such incidents had been on the rise prior to Hamas's October 7th attacks in Israel, in which the US-designated terrorist organization slaughtered more than 1,400 people, the Anti-Defamation League reports a nearly 400% increase in the weeks since.

"We are seeing more students who have never even utilized Hillel before or have even wanted to identify as Jewish on campus coming to us and saying, 'I'm a Jewish person. I'm scared. I heard this, I saw this, and I don't know what to do. I don't know what's allowed and what's not allowed.' So being able to affirm for them that whatever they are experiencing as a Jewish student in this moment, it is OK for them to feel that way," said Hannah Gutterman Spinrad, Executive Director of North Carolina Hillel.

Based in Chapel Hill, the organization, which provides services to both Jewish and non-Jewish students, oversees chapters on eight campuses statewide.

"Antisemitism is one of the oldest types of hatred and obviously is not the only type of hatred out there. We know that oftentimes when you see antisemitism, you will see rises in racism, Islamophobia, homophobia," said Spinrad.

She said the recent surge in antisemitic incidents feels different from previous issues.

"Students talk to me a lot about their need for physical safety, emotional safety, socially, not knowing where things are coming from," said Spinrad.

"I was crying. I was completely distraught. These (victims) are people just like me," said UNC sophomore Justin Sonnenrich, about Hamas' attacks.

He acknowledged the general uneasiness over the past few weeks.

"I've noticed on campus there's a huge sentiment of antisemitism that has been percolating all around campus. As a new Tar Heel, it scares me," said Sonnenreich.

He was part of a small group of counter-protestors who showed up at an event on the steps of Wilson Library organized by UNC Students for Justice in Palestine last month; there were some reports of physical altercations, though no injuries.

"We want to see peaceful resolve on campus. We want to see people not just shouting. I do not want to see a campus where Jews are unsafe or Palestinians are unsafe," said Sonnenreich.

Sonnenreich, who transferred to UNC this semester, shared why he felt it was important to speak up.

"We need to protect our Jewish identity. And really, at the end of the day, we need to stop focusing on this being an identity issue and focusing more so on how we can all get along," Sonnenreich said.

He encouraged more civil conversations, a point supported by Abby Lublin, who serves as Executive Director of Carolina Jews for Justice.

"I think zooming out and saying where the agreement is, we all want peace and safety and freedom. And starting from that place of shared humanity, we all want a safe place to have our families to raise children, to have a home," Lublin said.

Lublin applauded students for engaging in activism, though she believes universities should do more to foster a more open environment.

"Are we equipping young people to have hard conversations? The counter to dehumanization is humanization, it's really deeply knowing people and understanding their stories and their backgrounds," said Lublin.

She noted the importance of providing a space for those most impacted by the conflict to share their perspective.

"These are students sharing dining halls and classrooms and dorms, teams together. If we aren't helping them navigate trauma and crisis, what are we educating them about," Lublin said.

Israel has launched a series of retaliatory airstrikes since the attacks, as it targets Hamas operatives. According to the Hamas-run Gaza Ministry of Health, more than 8,000 people have died in the conflict.

In a statement to ABC11, UNC highlighted resources available to both students and staff, including Counseling and Psychological Services, Dean of Students Team, Student Wellness, and Employee Assistance Program. A spokesperson wrote in part:

"Chancellor Guskiewicz and his leadership team have met and listened to students, student organizations, faculty and staff, and members of the surrounding community representing a variety of perspectives and concerns regarding the violence in the Middle East. Our leaders are focused on direct engagement to provide resources and have conversations with an array of people and communities who are impacted by these global events in different ways."

A spokesperson for NC State told ABC11 that its "Impact Response Team received and responded to various complaints, including antisemitism experienced on campus. There have been no bias-based crimes against people or property."

The university highlighted its camera monitoring systems, as well as blue light and emergency callboxes while sharing police and Safe at NC State resources.

Wednesday, White House Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre released a statement announcing the Biden Administration's new strategy to combat Islamophobia:

"Today, he and Vice President Harris are announcing that their Administration will develop the first-ever U.S. National Strategy to Counter Islamophobia in the United States. We look forward to continuing our work with community leaders, advocates, members of Congress, and more to develop the strategy - which will be a joint effort led by the Domestic Policy Council and the National Security Council - and counter the scourge of Islamophobia and hate in all its forms. For too long, Muslims in America, and those perceived to be Muslim, such as Arabs and Sikhs, have endured a disproportionate number of hate-fueled attacks and other discriminatory incidents. We all mourn the recent barbaric killing of Wadea Al-Fayoume, a 6-year-old Palestinian-American Muslim boy, and the brutal attack on his mother in their home outside Chicago.

Today's announcement is the latest step as part of President Biden's directive last year to establish an interagency group to increase and better coordinate U.S. Government efforts to counter Islamophobia, Antisemitism, and related forms of bias and discrimination within the United States. Moving forward, the President, Vice President, and our entire Administration will continue working to ensure every American has the freedom to live their lives in safety and without fear for how they pray, what they believe, and who they are."