The Auraria Campus Pro-Palestinian Encampment was gone. Now it’s back.

By Daniel Bennett- Hillel of Colorado Executive Director

While Passover still means springtime, rebirth, and a time to honor freedom for our college students in Colorado, this year it means facing antisemitism that was already at an all-time high before October 7th and has increased exponentially.  I grew up in the ‘60’s and ‘70’s when my Jewish journey also reinforced the Jewish People’s long history as social justice warriors: our family’s candles in windows at Chanukah advocated for religious freedom for all; my high school youth group’s interfaith Freedom Seders put our beliefs into action.


How is this Season Different from other Seasons?

Unfortunately, for the close to 300 Jewish students plus their friends and allies who attended Hillel of Colorado Seders this year, Passover also means living a new reality of uncertainty, fear, and intimidation.  Please revisit my recent blogs for examples of recent campus anti-Zionism and antisemitism, including:

  • a program at DU that shared a Hamas QR code calling for Israel’s destruction.
  • a lecture at CSU by Palestinian-American Linda Sarsour, a supporter of the BDS movement who uses antisemitic tropes in an effort to delegitimize Israel.
  • numerous incidents that have left Jewish students frightened at all Hillel of Colorado’s universities including: antisemitic graffiti; indirect and direct threats against Jewish students; anti-Israel rallies that disrupted campus activities; and professors using their pulpit to spread lies and disinformation.  While some students’ and professors’ words fall into what special envoy Ambassador Deborah Lipstadt terms “unconscious antisemitism,” she acknowledges these words are still not just a threat to Jews but also undermine trust in democracies and threaten our society and world stability.
  • extreme anti-Zionism and antisemitism onboard the just-concluded CSU/Semester at Sea voyage. In my previous blog post I pointed out the most worrisome onboard behaviors, and now – after my return from a quickly scheduled weekend trip to Porto, Portugal where the ocean liner was docked at this semester’s penultimate port – I can provide more details and correct a few misconceptions I’d held based on many hours of conversations with students’ parents.  Please read my updated comments, below.

The Latest from Auraria Campus

Tent encampments aren’t just at “those other campuses” anymore.  Last Thursday and Friday local news stations CBS and Fox interviewed me as Colorado got a taste of what forty-five-and-counting other Hillels have experienced from Brown and Cornell; to Indiana and Michigan State; to Arizona and USC: a pro-Palestine tent encampment at Hillel’s newest campus, Auraria in downtown Denver.  While we know that some of the encampment protesters are misinformed social justice warriors, many hate Israel and some hate Jews.  Matt Most, JCRC director says it well: …this is not about peaceful protest or the First Amendment, this is about keeping Jewish students safe while they pursue higher education. When Jewish students fear leaving their dorms, are locked in classrooms, or worse, told to leave campus entirely because their community cannot protect them, antisemitism is clearly present, and we need university leaders who will be brave and lead.  After removing the tents Friday and arresting many encampment participants, local police report as of today that the tents are back.


This had a direct effect on our Auraria Hillel students: the four student leaders I interviewed told me they are angry and frightened.  While they’d witnessed the previous anti-Israel demonstrations at Auraria that led indirectly to the closing of the Golda Meir House Museum to student life, and they knew of the antisemitic graffiti at the House, they felt the tent encampment with its threatening chanted and written slogans crossed a line.  Friday, after working with university officials and law enforcement at the Auraria campus to we could conduct Hillel’s first-ever Auraria Passover-Shabbat dinner safely, Hillel staff was forced to cancel the event when security locked the campus down.  We uber-ed our Auraria Hillel students to the Merage and Allon Hillel Center to join DU’s Passover-Shabbat.  Those who made the trip attended a wonderful, festive, and mobbed event with amazing food, song, worship, and friendships, but were saddened that their hard work planning their initial Auraria Passover-Shabbat were wasted.  Despite the pro-Palestinian encampment’s removal, students said they were fearful and wondered whether Auraria officials on a volatile campus could keep Jewish students safe.


The need to cancel Auraria Hillel Shabbat this week is indicative of why this Passover season is different from other Passover seasons.  And now the tent encampment is back with demands that include university divestment from any corporations operating in Israel, transparency around investments, and an end to University of Colorado study abroad programs in Israel.  Stay tuned, this type of thing isn’t going away soon.


Hillel is on the front lines, but Hillel isn’t alone.

In chapter four of the Megillah of Esther Mordechai implores his cousin to risk confronting the King despite the potential danger entailed.  He asks her to consider that maybe now is the time to step into her destiny.  Every day since October 7th I have asked myself, what would Queen Esther do?  Many of you and all Hillel of Colorado staff are asking the same question: what is each of us uniquely qualified now to do for Israel, for our Jewish community, for Hillel students.  Fortunately, while Hillel is on the front lines fighting campus antisemitism, we are not alone.

  • You are with us: Hillel board, staff, and students are so grateful to you, especially to those who have contacted us with counsel and whose extra donations this Passover season have made it possible to increase Hillel of Colorado staff hours and student programs. There’s still time to help
  • Our university presidents and chancellors are paying attention and see Hillel as a trusted partner in keeping Jewish students safe. Behind the scenes and publicly, Hillel staff has helped assure many events never come to be and many bad actors are shut down.  Yes, there’s. so much more to do.  I speak presidents and chancellors at Hillel’s universities regularly (two more meetings set up this coming week, alone) as they address our calls to criticize hate speech even when that speech is legally protected; punish those who violate university honor codes; assure sane limits to academic freedom; and stem antisemitic actions in all forms.  Matt Most’s comment, above, rings true: our universities’ leaders, like those of us who lead Jewish organizations, are being called upon to step up in a way job descriptions didn’t require before.  They must do better.
  • ADL and JCRC partner with us regularly – they are on stand-by for my (even last-minute) calls and requests, while the ADL Mountain States Regional staff help us work with our university leaders who face a series of challenges they’ve never encountered before. There are no quick fixes, and this will take commitment and time.
  • A coalition of ten agencies with local leadership that fight antisemitism includes Hillel of Colorado. We’ve met recently, work together daily, and will meet regularly from now on to support each other and coordinate efforts to address and fight antisemitism.
  • The Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights is in the process of finalizing an agreement with Hillel of Colorado to advise our soon to be launched Colorado Task Force to Combat Campus Antisemitism, envisioned by Hillel past-board chair Ed Barad. With a mission to advance the civil and human rights of the Jewish people and promote justice for all, the Brandeis Center will help us – and our university administrations – address the onslaught of misinformation directed at students on our campuses from many sources, and how to assist us to deal  with misappropriated of terms such as genocide, colonialism, and apartheid.


There’s so much more to say about working in unprecedented times to keep students safe so Hillel can focus on Jewish joy, learning and camaraderie, and assuring students cross the bridge to adulthood standing tall and proudly to lead our Jewish futures.  I began writing these words Friday evening as guitar and voices blended in worship melodies from the multi-purpose room at the Merage & Allon Hillel Center at DU as Kabbalat Shabbat was winding down.  That’s one of my favorite times of the week, a reminder of why we are here.


I conclude this blog watching reports on the news today of the tent encampment at Auraria growing stronger, and warnings that another of Hillel’s campuses, CSU in Ft. Collins, is next.  As we enter the final two days of Passover, may we stay united as a People.  When we do, we can – and have throughout our People’s history – overcome any oppressor.


Am Yisrael Chai.


PS: an update following my trip April 11-16 to Porto, Portugal for CSU/Semester at Sea Update:

  • Please refer to my April 10th blog Hillel of Colorado on the High Seas for background and reference. CSU is the academic sponsor of Semester at Sea.  On the three+ month voyage just concluded, there was unprecedented anti-Zionism and antisemitism.  Organizers flew me to Porto to investigate, support, and assist.
  • I boarded the ship immediately upon arrival and was escorted by Laura Strohminger, SAS Vice President of Student Affairs. Laura, her boss, SAS President and CEO Scott Marshall, and CSU President Amy Parsons continue to be very supportive of assuring SAS do better: in my six weeks of conversations with students’ parents, during my time onboard, and upon my return.
  • I met with Semester at Sea’s onboard Executive Dean, Marti Fessenden, who reported she did all she could once Palestinian flags and keffiyehs were prevalent, and “River to the Sea” signs appeared on many cabin doors. By then, I judge she and her faculty were overmatched, and Dean Marti reported that her attempts to get students to “dial down” rhetoric was interpreted by some as censorship.  I found Dean Marti and all faculty and staff I met to be sincere: they don’t welcome this behavior on any level.  However, as I toured the ship – even after faculty had convinced as many as 50% of the students who posted offending signs to remove them from their stateroom doors – I, as a Jew, felt unwelcome.
  • I firmly believe Semester at Sea leadership strives to assure an academic experience free from -isms of any shape and kind. I believe leaders when they share their ironclad commitment to offer a program based on the best of academia and free from hate.  Their goal, “building true global understanding with a unique combination of academic rigor, immersive in-port experiences, and a transformative shipboard culture” will not change, and graduates tell me they had succeeded in that for generations of voyages.  Yet, just as much of the academic world has been unprepared for the extremes of post October 7th campus anti-Israel and antisemitic actions and words, SAS was caught unprepared.
  • I had stated that the pre-South Africa lecturer had compared Israel to South Africa which is true. However, she didn’t say Israel practiced apartheid, but rather cited a UN resolution claiming that was so.  That said, it seems likely to me that her words incited behavior, as the behavior began after that.   Her lecture wasn’t balanced by explanations of UN Arab-bloc’s anti-Israel actions over the past decades nor Israel’s valiant-but-failed attempts to create a Palestinian State alongside a secure, democratic Israel.  Context was lacking.
  • The photos students took of themselves with flags, signs and keffiyehs were not at a rally, as I’d thought, but rather at the Desmond Tutu Institute. I believe Tutu was a great man in many ways, who also shared, after visiting Israel: I know first-hand that Israel has created an apartheid reality within its borders and through its occupation. The parallels to my own beloved South Africa are painfully stark indeed.  Can Semester at Sea do better assuring that students understand why Tutu may have felt that way while educating students about the difference between true apartheid and unequal application of the law (something our democracy still has yet to cure)?  Could they better explain the facts that have led to conflicting narratives that both deserve our attention, or about Israel’s many attempts to give most of the disputed land to West Bank Palestinians and Israel’s turning over Gaza in totality?  I believe they can and must.
  • It’s important to relate that Jewish students reported that despite their fear as they were navigating the onboard antisemitism, that they reported was very harsh, that they were supported by staff and faculty and that, in the end, they were glad they took the voyage. Of course, both Semester at Sea organizers and Hillel staff know that’s enough.
  • Many thanks to CSU and Semester at Sea organizers who flew me over tosupport Jewish students onboard who had been victimized; to meet with this voyage’s faculty; and to help organizers do better should this occur again on future voyages.  Stay tuned as I learn more about next steps from Semester at Sea’s President and CEO, Scott Marshall, with whom I’ve had some excellent discussions thus far.

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