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Some Jewish parents rethink elite schools amid antisemitism concerns on campus

By Gabe Cohen, CNN

(CNN) — Amid growing concerns about antisemitism on elite college campuses, some Jewish families are removing top-tier institutions from their lists and prioritizing safety.

Universities have scrambled to address issues related to freedom of speech, hate speech and political debate as the Israel and Hamas war enters its third month, but their perceived inaction in combatting antisemitism on campuses has many Jewish students, faculty and staff feeling in danger.

Merav and her daughter, Anna, a high school senior in Atlanta, have repeatedly changed her college list since the Hamas attack on Israel on October 7.

The Jewish family, who asked not to use their last name for safety reasons, had their sights set on some of the top schools in the country. But they have since removed the University of Pennsylvania, citing what they consider volatile and antisemitic incidents and activities on campus.

“I didn’t think I’d have to readjust a college list based on concern for the safety of Jewish students,” Merav told CNN. “Our priorities have shifted significantly. The shiny allure of an Ivy has been dulled by their administrative responses to the current conflict.”

“You’re going to be challenged by the diversity of opinion at college,” Anna said. “But as much as I admire resilience, I’d like not to have to be continuously resilient in terms of finding safety. I would like to be safe on the campus.”

More than a dozen Jewish families told CNN their priorities have shifted since October 7 as they apply to colleges, given the ongoing tension and turmoil on campuses nationwide.

Christopher Rim, founder and CEO of Command Education, a consultancy that helps students apply to top-tier colleges, said they’re “getting new updates and changes and requests” every day. “We’ve had students completely revamp their entire application,” he said.

Rim says many of his Jewish clients are removing schools from their list, like Cornell and Columbia, which are both under investigation by the Department of Education after incidents of antisemitism and Islamophobia, including alleged threats to Jewish students.

Rim says some students are also steering away from UPenn, Harvard and MIT, especially after last week’s disastrous Capitol Hill testimony from their respective presidents.

Liz Magill of UPenn, Claudine Gay of Harvard University and Sally Kornbluth of MIT, were called to testify in a hearing before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce.

Magill and her counterparts gave widely criticized testimony in which they failed to condemn calls for the genocide of Jews as explicitly against campus harassment and bullying codes.

Gay apologized in an interview with the school’s student newspaper after facing widespread condemnation for her congressional testimony. “I am sorry,” Gay said to The Harvard Crimson last Thursday. “Words matter.”

Rim says, in many cases, families are replacing those schools with colleges they consider safer for Jewish students, such as Emory, Vanderbilt and Washington University in St. Louis, Rim says.

“I’ve seen students who I thought would be a shoo-in, for example, at Columbia, completely make a decision to no longer apply there,” Rim said.

Jennifer Schultz, a Jewish mother in Harrison, New York, watched her eldest son graduate from Cornell in 2021, just as her father did. But she has soured on the school since a series of threats to kill or injure Jewish people in October ended with a Cornell junior facing federal charges.

“After what happened on campus, and the death threats to Jewish students, it doesn’t feel safe,” Schultz said.

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack in a statement said the school “will not tolerate antisemitism.”

“During my time as president, I have repeatedly denounced bigotry and hatred, both on and off our campus,” Pollack said. “The virulence and destructiveness of antisemitism is real and deeply impacting our Jewish students, faculty and staff, as well as the entire Cornell community. This incident highlights the need to combat the forces that are dividing us and driving us toward hate. This cannot be what defines us at Cornell.”

Schultz says her youngest son, a high school junior, won’t apply to Cornell or several other top-tier schools due to campus incidents she considers antisemitic.

“I hope a lot changes in a year,” she said. “Because we have connections to all of these places. They’re in our family. They’re places that we felt very comfortable with. And it is devastating for them to be places where our Jewish children are not safe.”

Several elite colleges have responded to these concerns in recent weeks and pledged to combat antisemitism on their campuses.

In October, Gay announced the assembly of an Antisemitism Advisory Group at Harvard. A visiting scholar at Harvard’s Divinity School resigned from the group after last week’s Capitol Hill testimony from Gay, writing in a statement, “Both events on campus and the painfully inadequate testimony reinforced the idea that I cannot make the sort of difference I had hoped.”

In November, Columbia University created a University Antisemitism Task Force.

“We will not tolerate such actions and are moving forcefully against antisemitic threats, images, and other violations as they are reported, and we will continue to provide additional resources to protect our campuses,” Columbia officials wrote in a statement announcing the task force.

On Saturday, Magill resigned as president of the UPenn amid mounting pressure following her testimony to Congress. In a statement Tuesday, interim President J. Larry Jameson called the last few weeks “a profoundly painful chapter” for the Ivy League school, stressing, “Every person at Penn should feel safe and be secure in the knowledge that hate has no home here.”

These concerns are a big topic of conversation among families. One Facebook group – Mothers Against College Antisemitism – has amassed more than 50,000 members since it was created in October.

The group’s founder, Elizabeth Rand, is taking a different approach with her son Zachary Semple, a high school senior in New York.

“I don’t think as Jews, we should stay away. I don’t think we should be hiding,” Rand said. “I think we need to fight this.”

Rand has decided to allow Zachary to apply to some of the colleges now facing controversy, adding that she’s not “encouraging” him to do so, but she’s “standing by him.”

Zachary explained the decision to CNN:

“I completely understand and respect why many students wouldn’t want to attend these universities,” he said. “But I don’t think that, as Jews, we should really let this rhetoric stop us from forging our own path and going where we want to go because that is, sort of, giving into the opposition, and that’s what they would want.”

™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

CNN’s Ross Levitt, Gregory Wallace, Eva Rothenberg and Nicki Brown contributed to this report.

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