Speaking Up about Anti-Semitism at Harvard

Last Thursday, Orthodox Jewish student Shabbos Kestenbaum implored lawmakers in a hearing on Capitol Hill to hold universities accountable for enabling anti-Semitism on their campuses. In his forceful testimony to the House Education and Workforce Committee at a bipartisan roundtable, he described the plight of Jewish students who are experiencing harrowing threats to their safety even by fellow classmates. I spoke to Shabbos the following day.

What a wonderful name you have! I’m sure that people always comment on it.
Yes, baruch Hashem. I was born on Shabbos, so my parents figured why not?

When you were testifying, Representative Stefanik referred to you as “Mr. Kestenbaum,” but she referred to the female Jewish student who was also testifying as “Talia.” I found it very interesting that she called you by your last name and to your colleague by her first.
I didn’t take notice of that. Maybe she found it hard to pronounce Shabbos.

Tell me about your experience in the nation’s capital.
I’ll start by saying it’s unfortunate that it had to happen. As I told Congressman Torres, I shouldn’t be missing classes in order to travel to DC to talk to two dozen assembled policymakers, nor should I have to file a lawsuit to be treated equably and with equality. On the one hand, it’s unfortunate and an indictment of the state of higher education in the United States. But at the same time, it’s remarkable how bipartisan, genuine and committed the congressmembers have been throughout this whole ordeal to helping Jews combat hatred on college campuses.

It feels like a tale of two cities: raging and despicable anti-Semitism, alongside a great outpouring of understanding.
Yes. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” We are certainly experiencing unprecedented levels of hatred, bigotry and discrimination. And yet, it’s been very refreshing to see how many friends of the Jewish people there really are, especially in the halls of power.

Right now we’re discussing anti-Semitism in higher education in the US, but it’s really emblematic of what’s happening throughout the country and the world.
I couldn’t agree more. I can’t remember who it was, but someone once said, “Anti-Semitism is a symptom of a societal ill.” What makes this fight so important is that if we can root out the systems of discrimination and hatred, it won’t be only the Jews who benefit but the entire country. And I do believe that in the long term, so will the world. To use an extreme example, Hamas represents everything that the West, liberal democracies and freedom-loving individuals abhor. There cannot be a better example of right versus wrong, and it’s a shame that college students haven’t gotten that message. But at the same time, it’s incredibly inspiring to see that so many members of Congress have.

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