"If the past few weeks have demonstrated anything, it's that words can quickly become actionable and they have very real consequences," says one Jewish student who has watched hatred swell on campus
Remi Haas never felt uncomfortable wearing her Star of David or hamsa necklace at Cornell University. But amidst an outbreak of antisemitic threats at Cornell's Ithaca, New York, campus this week, the third-year communications student made a conscious decision to hide any religious symbols.
"I usually feel safe going to campus, but I now choose to drive or walk as little as possible," Haas, 20, tells PEOPLE. "I'm also in a historically Jewish sorority and now my sorority house has an around-the-clock security guard. There's police doing rounds every hour."
The string of antisemitic incidents on Cornell's campus comes weeks after Hamas' terrorist attack against Israel on Oct. 7, which killed around 1,400 Israelis and saw hundreds more taken hostage. It was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust.
Following Hamas' surprise attack, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared his country “at war" with the Gaza-based terrorist group and launched a series of retaliatory attacks on the Gaza Strip, so far killing more than 8,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza's Health Ministry.
In the United States, Jewish and Muslim people have been subject to hate speech, threats and violent acts as a result of heightened tensions in the Middle East.
Haas explains that at the time of Hamas' initial attack on southern Israel, Cornell was on fall break. When students arrived back to campus, the Jewish community hosted a delayed peaceful vigil for people who'd been killed and taken hostage. "It was meaningful and there was a huge turnout," she says. "I didn't really feel like I should be scared or anything like that."
But about a week after the vigil, Haas began to notice antisemitic rhetoric pick up around campus after history professor Russell Rickford — who is now on a leave of absence from the university — spoke at a large, off campus pro-Palestinian march at Cornell.
"At the rally he was saying how the attacks were 'exhilarating,'" Haas says. "Following that there was graffiti all over the sidewalks that said 'f--- Israel,' 'Hamas is better' and 'genocide is Zionism.'" (Rickford has since apologized to the university community and condemned all racism and antisemitism.)
On Sunday night Haas was hanging out with her friends when she learned about hateful posts against Jews on an online discussion board called Greekrank. One of the posts, Haas says, threatened to rape Jewish students on campus. Another called to bomb the kosher dining hall and Center for Jewish Living building on campus, known as 104West.
The buildings were evacuated after the posts were discovered. Since then, the posts have also been deleted.
"I didn't realize how hard we've been hit until really looking back on it," Haas says. "A lot of my friends are scared to go to class so they've attended on Zoom."
She adds: "But the day after the posts came out I went to one of my classes and there were people there proudly wearing [Jewish garments] tallit and kippot and just keeping positive. There's people sitting in the main central campus surrounded by a sign that says, 'I'm proud and I'm Jewish,' and there's police watching over them.
"It's going to take time for people to heal and understand both sides and accept the truth. Hopefully campus becomes a safer place, but for right now I'm just more aware of what I'm doing and where I am," she continues.
Eli Goodwin, 20, another Jewish student at Cornell who is in one of Rickford's classes, says that it's been hard for him to process the antisemitism unfolding on campus.
When Goodwin first read the posts on Greekrank, he says he was "sickened."
"I'm just a secular Jewish student. I'm really not that religious. I've been to Israel, but I don't have a strong political connection or much family there," he continues. "I want to just go to class or find a summer internship, but I'm preoccupied with defending the existence of my people."
Goodwin's hope is that people on campus take this moment as a learning opportunity to understand the severity of words and the impact they can have.
"If the past few weeks have demonstrated anything," he says, "it's that words can quickly become actionable and they have very real consequences."
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New York Gov. Kathy Hochul held a press briefing on Tuesday in response to the latest reports in Ithaca, saying, "Just yesterday I sat with Jewish students at Cornell University. After receiving horrific threats on their lives online and hate mail sent to the dorms, they are understandably anxious. Some are fearful now of attending class, or eating in the kosher dining hall, and I promised them that the state of New York would do everything in its power to protect them."
Hochul announced additional funding for law enforcement to prevent and solve hate crimes, and an expansion of the state police's social media analysis unit in order to better monitor threats on school campuses.
"Let me be clear: We cannot allow hate and intimidation to become normalized," she said. "There is zero tolerance in New York for antisemitism, Islamophobia, or hate of any kind, and we are deploying every possible state resource to keep New Yorkers safe."
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