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How Jewish students at ASU are dealing with the turmoil over the war in Gaza

By Lauren Gilger
Published: Wednesday, May 8, 2024 - 11:36am
Updated: Thursday, May 9, 2024 - 9:24am

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Students holding Israeli flags at a candlelight vigil at ASU
Angelina Steel/Cronkite News
Israeli flags were prominently displayed by the hundreds who turned out for an event at ASU expressing solidarity with Israel on Oct. 11, 2023.

Protests on college campuses over the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza have come to a head this Spring across the country. More than 70 protesters were arrested at ASU late last month after the university called in police from multiple agencies to remove an encampment that had taken form.

Now the students who were arrested are facing suspension from ASU and say they are banned from campus. Some of those students are now suing the university. The number of students who were arrested as part of the protests is disputed — ASU now says 20 of them were students, organizers say at least 25 were.

Graduation festivities began at ASU this week — with a fence posted with “no trespassing” signs around Alumni Lawn, where the encampment was located.

All of this turmoil has not been easy for students on all sides of this debate. This week on The Show, we’re going to hear from both sides about their experience on campus at this moment.

Today we turn to Debbie Yunker Kail. She’s the executive director of Hillel at ASU, the local chapter of the international organization that supports Jewish students at universities around the world.

Since the attacks by Hamas on Oct. 7, Yunker Kail said Hillel has been trying to provide a different level of support to students. They respond to texts anytime there’s an incident, they host open spaces, hold Seder dinners and teach classes so students can learn more about what it means to them to be Jewish.

The Show spoke with her more about what this has been like for Jewish students at ASU and the challenges they face.

On Thursday on The Show, we will hear from the chaplain of ASU’s Muslim Student Association about their point of view.

Full conversation 

DEBBIE YUNKER KAIL: The fear of how the protests are unfolding across the country is impacting students here at ASU. We're seeing it cause a lot of anxiety and fear for safety around Jewish students.

LAUREN GILGER: In what ways? Like what are you hearing from students? What are they scared of?

YUNKER KAIL: Jewish students are scared that they might be targeted. You know, we hear some students say they're tucking their Jewish stars in if they walk around campus, I mean, look, the Jewish community is really diverse. We have other students that say they started wearing a Jewish star for the first time. So I don't want to say everybody is afraid. But certainly we have students expressing caution around how they're, how they're choosing to express their Jewish identity in spaces where you know, there it might be a new space or an unknown social or academic space.

GILGER: Have you heard from students talk to students, counseled students who are, who have actually been in conflicts with people over this?

YUNKER KAIL: We have heard yes reports from students of, you know, several problematic incidents, things that are maybe not as directed at an individual student, like taking down, posters of hostages or certain cries on campus. But also students being targeted for being yelled at like based on what they're wearing a particular shirt, expressing Jewish pride, things like that. There's been reports of death threats to a couple of Jewish students as well. Another moment where I've seen students concerned for their safety was after a student group, MECHA post calling for death to the Zionist as well as death to other groups of people. And that was certainly a moment. That was a new, a new thing for students to see calls for death to an entire group of people and certainly heightened concerns about safety.

GILGER: OK. So let's talk a little bit about the broader issues at hand here. Like these protests are demanding that ASU and other universities divest from companies that have interests in Israel. And there's this conversation about, about Zionism there, right? Like a lot of people saying they're for Judaism, but they are against Zionism. They see that as like a political ideology, right? Do you think that those two things are able to be separated?

YUNKER KAIL: I think for most Jewish students, it's tough to separate them. Certainly there's, you know, like I already said, the Jewish community is very diverse but 80% to 90% of Jewish people, I'd say depending on the poll, feel a deep connection to Israel. And, you know, I personally see Israel as part of my Jewish identity so I can relate to that. And so the bottom line is, you know, when, when protesters are saying things like that, they're defining Jewish students identity for them is, is how that's perceived. 

GILGER: What's that feel like? What do you hear from Jewish students about about that?

YUNKER KAIL: I mean, any minority wants the, the chance to define their own identity and Jewish students are no different. We hear students saying that they feel like that's problematic that's going beyond criticizing the war or criticizing the actions of the Israeli government that that's speaking to defining how an individual sees themselves and you know, any minority deserves the right to do that for themselves.

GILGER: So there's got to be disagreement or at least diversity among and within the Jewish student population there as well about Zionism maybe but also about, you know, criticizing the Israeli government or what's happening in Gaza. Like has this also these recent events have, has this fractured relationships between members of the community as well.

YUNKER KAIL: I mean, I can say this has really brought members of the Jewish community together even with those differences, Lauren, like it's really interesting, I'll say that I've seen Jewish students who didn't know each other before come together as early as right after Oct. 7 to plan moments of solidarity and standing with each other and standing with Israel and they acknowledge that that means different things to them. But what they unite around is the Jewish people's right to self determination. 

GILGER: Some are saying I've seen reports that, that there are Jewish students involved in and who have participated in these protests and in some of these encampments in different college communities around the country because they do agree that the war shouldn't be playing out the way it is. Do you, have you seen that?

YUNKER KAIL: Yes, we, we definitely know, like I said, that the Jewish community is diverse and there's certainly students expressing, you know, those types of perspectives as well.

GILGER: Let me ask you about the administration and sort of the response to these protests at ASU more than 70 students or more than 70 protests, I should say some of whom were students were arrested on campus because of the the encampments. There have been thousands of arrests related to these protests around the country. The other side of that, right is that Jewish students feel attacked on campus, Jewish students are saying they don't feel safe in this realm. What's from your point of view the response looked like from the administration.

YUNKER KAIL: Look, I really appreciate ASU enforcing its encampment rules and all of its rules and laws and that's what we're hearing from students as well. And that's, it's kind of been the, the sentiment across the country. Is that the first thing that schools need to do is enforce their existing codes of conduct. Peaceful protests are always welcome and then really important opportunity to engage in dialogue. I should actually say, I guess I wanna amend something I said now that I'm thinking of a couple of students who I knew were talking to some Jewish students who were talking to folks in the encampment the other day and they appreciated the opportunity to engage. So, you know, we think that peaceful protests are, are certainly that provide that opportunity when you know what we're seeing across the country that the protests become violent, Jewish students are being blocked from parts of their campus again. Like we're really grateful that it hasn't gotten to that point here at ASU.

GILGER: That's really interesting. You talk about dialogue there and dialogue happening in these very tense moments. Do you think that, that that's an opportunity in a way?

YUNKER KAIL: I hope so. I mean, something that inspires me about working in the college setting is how critical this this moment in someone's life is like how critical it was in my own life to developing a sense of self and developing awareness of the diversity around you know, people that we we might encounter as we go towards our adult adult lives. And so I, I think any opportunity to have a peaceful conversation is, is a positive one, is a productive one. 

GILGER: I mean, you're talking about dialogue and moments in which there have been, you know, positives to come out of all of this conflict. But at the same time, like your organization like Hillel International has, has been, there have been calls for boycotts of that at college campuses by students for justice in Palestine. Has that been included at ASU? Are there students calling for a boycott of your organization? And what's your reaction to that?

YUNKER KAIL: I think that's deeply concerning. I have not seen that here at ASU yet. We're certainly watching for that, but I'm, I'm really concerned about that and those are clear crossing the lines between you know, appropriate criticism of a particular political situation and targeting an entire group of people based on that criticism. 

GILGER: All right, we'll leave it there for now. Debbie Yunker Kail, executive director of Hillel at ASU joining us. Debbie, thank you very much for coming on. I appreciate you taking the time to talk to us.

YUNKER KAIL: Thank you so much for having me.

KJZZ's The Show transcripts are created on deadline. This text may not be in its final form. The authoritative record of KJZZ's programming is the audio record.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Due to a transcription error, this story has been updated to correct the name of the student group MECHA de ASU. 

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