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Jewish college students in North Texas express concerns about antisemitism, feel unsupported

Jewish college students in North Texas express concerns about antisemitism, feel unsupported
Jewish college students in North Texas express concerns about antisemitism, feel unsupported 05:46

DALLAS ( — Ofer Turjeman, a student at the University of Texas at Dallas who's originally from Israel, said like many others, she's been devastated by the deadly Hamas terror attacks in her homeland. 

"It's like the most stressful thing I've ever had to go through," Turjeman said.

It is the same for SMU student Olivia Ratiner. 

"The past few weeks have been so difficult because every time I just want to take a breather from this, I go on social media and see these horrible, horrible things people are putting out," she explained. "Unfortunately, I've lost friends from this."

Another SMU student, Hannah Siegel agreed. 

"I felt so sick with what was going on," Siegel said. "My dad was in town and I couldn't focus, I couldn't sleep, it was just really awful."

The Jewish college students told CBS News Texas what's been disappointing is how their universities reacted to what happened.

On Oct. 10, three days after the attacks, SMU posted the following letter from President R. Gerald Turner on its website:

Siegel said it was lacking. 

"I started an email campaign to get people to email the school asking for a statement to denounce antisemitism, to condemn the attacks by Hamas," she said. "[There was] no mention of Hamas, no condemnation of them. When a student emailed saying they were disappointed with the statement, the school responded with, 'We don't take positions on global military conflicts.' This was not a conflict, this was a brutal terrorist attack by a terrorist group internationally recognized as such."

Ratiner agreed. 

"I was disappointed, and I felt that this is the time for the school to come out about antisemitism, about being there as a support for Jewish students, and they still don't do that," she said. "We just feel like we're on the outside of things, we're not listened to." 

When asked if they felt isolated, all three women said, "Yes, yes, unfortunately."

They worry about the rise in antisemitism. 

"Jewish students feel scared, they feel ostracized, and they feel really worried for their safety on campus," Siegel said.

CBS News Texas reached out to SMU and President Turner responded that the university is aware of the anxiety and fear that their Jewish students are facing, stating:

"Since the tragic acts of terror on October 7, SMU's focus has been to prioritize the well-being and safety of our University community. We are acutely aware of the anxiety and fear that our Jewish students are facing, which has further fueled our efforts to create an environment where all members of our community are supported, secure, and able to pursue their academic and personal goals without fear or hesitation.

SMU embraces open dialogue as one of our core values, and we are grateful that some students have expressed their concerns to our administration through various forums. SMU is among a broad coalition of national colleges and universities that has issued the statement "We Stand Together with Israel Against Hamas." Joining the coalition offered an opportunity to condemn the brutality and inhumanity of Hamas in an external forum without implying that any one person or program on the campus should adopt a particular position. The University remains committed to safeguarding the right of our individual community members to engage in respectful dissent with one another and with the decisions made by our leadership."

Late last month, SMU became one of 18 universities across the country to form a coalition to stand with Israel against Hamas.

President Turner's name is included.

More than 100 universities and colleges have signed onto the statement blasting the terror group's atrocities against innocent Israeli citizens. 

SMU has told two Jewish student groups on campus about its role in the coalition that stands with Israel and condemns Hamas. But the university has not sent a letter to all students and faculty about it and hasn't issued its own news release.

In his statement to CBS News Texas, Turner said, "Joining the coalition offered an opportunity to condemn the brutality and inhumanity of Hamas in an external forum without implying that any one person or program on the campus should adopt a particular position." 

Siegel and Ratiner said they previously met with SMU administrators and asked them to condemn antisemitism individually.

"During that meeting, they said something like if we condemn antisemitism today, do we need to condemn islamophobia tomorrow?" Siegel shared. "It's like people don't understand what antisemitism is. The fact that the university won't individually condemn antisemitism is awful."

Since talking with CBS News Texas, university administrators have pledged to Siegel and Ratiner and other Jewish students that they're committed to educating students and faculty about antisemitism and Islamophobia.

At UT Dallas, President Dr. Richard Benson condemned Hamas in a letter he wrote to his university community Oct. 16, nine days after the attacks.

"We were more happy because it was acknowledging that Hamas is a terrorist organization," Turjeman said.

But she said she disagreed with Benson's note that students have engaged with each other respectfully and civilly. "If you go onto campus, you see the campus is very divided right now."

Students can express themselves on just about any topic on what's called the "Spirit Rocks" at the Dallas campus.

And, as CBS News Texas has reported, Jewish and Palestinian students each painted the rocks, but Turjeman said at one point it went too far. 

"They ended up writing 'Zionism = Nazism,' which is no longer freedom of speech," she said. "They no longer can say that. That's blatantly hate speech. The campus did absolutely nothing about that."

Turjeman said she reached out to a university administrator. 

"She basically said, 'Oh well, freedom of speech.' That was, again, just like shocking and disappointing," Turjeman said.

CBS News Texas asked UT Dallas about this, to which they provided the following statement:

"Our top priority is the physical and psychological safety and well-being of our campus community. Campus leaders have met with several student groups to listen to their concerns. We have invested significant resources in providing mental health support for students and are offering additional supports to ensure students have what they need to thrive at UTD. We encourage students to continue to share their ideas and perspectives with leadership so we can grow together with empathy, kindness, and respect."

The three students all said they love their universities but feel let down and hope they will do more to support them.

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