Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


Advertisement
Email Newsletter

Sign up to receive our email newsletter in your inbox.



Advertisement

Advertisement

Lott: Campus rabbi on navigating campus conflict

As the campus rabbi at Northwestern Hillel, wherever I have gone in the last several months, people ask me, “What is it really like on campus right now? How are the Jewish students doing?” It is impossible to answer these questions, because every student’s experience is unique, but there are some common threads.

Some Jewish students are feeling isolated from their peers. Some Jewish students are feeling like Hillel is a refuge and the only place they can be their full selves. Some Jewish students are feeling alienated from institutions like Hillel. Some Jewish students are feeling forced to weigh in on an issue they don’t know much or care much about. Some Jewish students are feeling that the only way to survive socially is to stay silent.

Many Jewish students — including quite a few who have shared their experiences and concerns directly with me — are feeling forced to take one side or the other in a conversation about a conflict that is not just two-sided. I often feel the same way.

What explains this stark dynamic that has left so many students pitted against one another? I think it is the very natural impulse to seek clarity in the face of chaos, to make sense of senseless loss and to exert any influence we can against powers beyond our control. These desires make us human, but they also sometimes lead individuals to reach absolute conclusions without leaving any room for disagreement, discretion or nuance. It’s how we end up overwhelmed by hurtful rhetoric, blunt slogans, unyielding demands and lots and lots of statements.

Against this backdrop, I’ve spent the last several months intentionally focused on listening to students. I chose not to publicly weigh in on the situation in Israel and in Gaza — and the conflict it has created on campus. Like many of the Jewish students I know, I made that choice partially out of concern that saying something — saying anything — would alienate some portion of our community or make them think I couldn’t be there for them. Unfortunately, I am afraid that I created exactly that impression by saying nothing.

I do, in fact, feel strongly. I believe that, over the last few weeks, the rhetoric and behavior from some on campus have gone from tense to toxic. This environment is not advancing the cause of peace, and it has further discouraged and frustrated the majority of students who believe that there is a better path forward guided by constructive and empathetic conversation.

In that spirit, I feel it’s important to humbly share my own thoughts.

I believe Jews have a homeland, that the Land of Israel is that place and that it was our homeland long before the modern State of Israel was established. I know there are Israeli hostages in Gaza who should be home with their families. I know that the citizens of Israel are suffering daily from the losses they have experienced since Oct. 7 and from the collective grief and fear they hold because of how this connects to the stories of persecution Jews carry in our DNA and in our souls. Israelis came from all over the world to return to our homeland and should be able to live without the threat of violence from their neighbors.

I also believe two peoples can hold the same place as their homeland, and the consequences of that are really hard.

Palestinians have been in the region for centuries and deserve freedom of movement and lives of peace and prosperity without the threat of violence from their neighbors. There are innocent people starving and suffering in Gaza who should have food and shelter and water and homes and a life free from bombardment. War has ravaged their community in ways that have irrevocably broken my heart.

I don’t claim to know how to fix it. I’m not a historian or foreign policy expert or negotiator, but I am a rabbi and an educator and a human who believes that more than one party needs to cease their fire — of actual weapons, of psychological manipulation, of hateful words and of destructive actions. The destruction of one party or the other will only cause more pain. The only way forward is to figure out how to live together in peace.

So what can we do here at NU? What kind of change can we actually affect? We can start by trying to increase communication, collaboration and care for one another.

There is critical work to be done right here in our community. That work is trying to understand and respect an opinion that’s different from your own and to hold as true a story that conflicts with your truth. At NU, we are smart and sensitive and nuanced enough to hold more than one thing as true at the same time. We can honor those whose thoughts and feelings and opinions are still in formation, rather than humiliate them. We can applaud those who are willing to admit they just don’t know enough and want to learn from multiple perspectives. We can exercise free speech, and we can be kind and cautious and humble in our speech.

For my part, I will continue to offer Jewish education, spiritual guidance and religious support to all students alongside my colleagues at Northwestern Hillel. I invite you to take a walk with me so I can hear your stories, and I commit to continue hosting spaces for students to connect with one another across differences. No student will ever be excluded because of beliefs they do or do not hold. When we say we welcome everyone, we mean it.

So, “what is it really like on campus right now?” That’s up to us, so let’s figure it out together.

Jessica Lott is Campus Rabbi at Northwestern Hillel. She can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

More to Discover