Rep. Ritchie Torres calls for federal action on college campuses

‘We either confront campus antisemitism or we become complicit’


Last week at a private New York City college, Jewish students in a library stood behind locked doors as a group of pro-Palestine and pro-Hamas protesters banged with their fists, shouting “Free Palestine.” Librarians apparently told Jewish students to “hide in the attic if they wanted to,” words that instantly drew haunting parallels to Anne Frank during the Holocaust.

Days later, U.S. Rep. Ritchie Torres stood at City Hall Park, addressing the incident that took place at Cooper Union in Manhattan where several faculty members not only encouraged students to attend the protest — meant to be outside — but apparently also attended it themselves.

“Increasingly there is an atmosphere of fear, often an atmosphere of terror taking hold on college campuses and universities,” Torres said last Friday. “And the atmosphere of fear was so palpable at Cooper Union that students had to lock themselves in a room in order to escape what felt like an aggressive student mob.”

In condemning antisemitism across college campuses and universities, Torres was joined by Jewish students, parents, faith leaders and community members, including Sari Ancona, a mother of one of the Jewish students in that library.

“Somehow this war that started on Oct. 7 in Israel moved here to this country, to every college campus and the things that I have been seeing are just appalling,” Ancona said. “I wonder where these children are educated prior to coming to college. I think that there’s a big problem in the education system where the Holocaust is not taught, it’s not discussed. The history of Israel is not discussed, it’s not brought up at all.”

The congressman said he would never advocate for suppressing a particular point of view, however he noted there is a difference between free expression and intimidation. He called upon the federal education department and secretary Miguel Cardona to hold college campuses and universities accountable for combating antisemitism in their ranks.

“How can we expect Jewish students to feel safe in a college or university whose presidents cannot even condemn the terrorism of Hamas?” Torres asked. “The terrorism of Hamas was so barbaric we saw even the butchering of babies. And yet what we saw from college presidents and deans was widespread silence and indifference and cowardice. And if we as a society cannot condemn barbaric terrorism with moral clarity then what have we become? What does that reveal about the depth of antisemitism in the American soul?”

On Oct. 7 more than 1,400 people in Israel were killed by Hamas. Meanwhile, the U.S.-designated terrorist group reports more than 7,700 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza since the start of the war with Israel. The attacks by Hamas have received condemnation from a majority of schools, colleges and universities in greater Riverdale, including Lehman College.

“As the number of fatalities continues to climb in the armed conflict between Hamas and Israel, the number of civilians, including children, caught in the crossfire is rising to horrifying levels,” stated Lehman College’s president Fernando Delgado Oct. 20. “Make no mistake, Lehman College stands steadfast against the violence being committed against innocent people in Gaza, Israel, the West Bank and other areas across the world. Israelis and Palestinians continue to suffer the wages of war and the death toll, lamentably, rises into the thousands.”

In the same statement, Delgado said meetings with various student groups and faculty members are scheduled to hear their concerns, as well as their criticisms. Students who need someone to talk to regarding the situation are invited to speak with a counseling professional at Lehman’s counseling center.

The College of Mount Saint Vincent told The Riverdale Press in a statement that while they have not had to take additional safety measures recently they continue to create safe spaces and conversations to protect Jewish members.

“The safety of our campus community is always a priority,” the college stated. “By staying true to our mission and values, we prioritize authentic inclusivity, foster an understanding of our common humanity, commit to human dignity, and appreciate our obligations to each other.”

Manhattan College has also hosted peace events and information events about the history of Israel and Palestine.

Last week The Tanenbaum Center for Interreligious Understanding hosted an in-person event with the college to promote the “Peacemakers in Action Podcasts.” The podcasters have held podcasts in Israel and Palestine, explained Mehnaz Afridi, the director of the college’s Holocaust, Genocide & Interfaith Education Center.

“We’re a campus that is highly against antisemitism,” Afridi told The Press. “We haven’t yet had any incidents, I don’t foresee any. We also haven’t seen any Islamophobia. We are pro-Israeli, but we also care about the Gazan citizens. We do have a group of Muslims here, a bigger population than Jewish here and we’d like to protect both of our communities and all of our students here.”

The director of the center said that having protests is hurtful and if students are going to do something it should be about standing together. She emphasized the importance of people in the U.S. understanding the issue and also acknowledging people’s pain.

“We as a college believe in our Lasallian principles and to protect every faith and every person,” Afridi said. “You have a right to protest but we don’t tolerate hate in any aspect because we are a private college.”

During Torres’ press event at City Hall, he was joined by Julia Jassey, CEO and co-founder of Jewish on Campus, a student-led non-profit organization dedicated to empowering and providing resources to Jewish students in combating antisemitism.

“Throughout Jewish history, violence against Jews has been justified, masked under a different name,” Jassey said. “Today violence against Jews has become normalized and glorified once again on college campuses and online as long as it’s framed as targeting Zionists and Israelis. Anti-Israel sentiment has crossed a hard bright line into antisemitism.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s Center has observed a large spike in antisemitic incidents across the U.S. since Oct. 7. Preliminary data from the ADL Center indicated that reports of harassment, vandalism and assault increased by 388 percent over the same period from last year.

Between Oct. 7 and Oct. 23, ADL has recorded 312 antisemitic incidents, with 190 directly linked to the Israel-Gaza war. Of more than 400 anti-Israel rallies, ADL says at least 109 were included in those antisemitic incidents. Last week, a pro-Palestine protest was staged outside of Torres office where protesters shouted “Israel has got to go.”

When asked by The Press what message she would have for faculty, Ancona said, “How would you feel if you were singled out? Made to feel that you’re different, that you don’t belong, that you shouldn’t exist? And how dare you support that?”

The Biden administration announced Monday they are unveiling new actions to combat antisemitism on college campuses. In coordination with the departments of Justice and Homeland Security, campus law enforcements will track hate-related rhetoric posted online.

Ritchie Torres, Israel, Hamas, war, Gaza, colleges, antisemitism, Jewish, Sari Ancona, Lehman College, College of Mount Saint Vincent, Manhattan College, protest, rally