Jewish students navigate rising antisemitism in Colorado, protests on their college campuses (2024)

For college student Ellie Rapoport, finding a place to belong at Metropolitan State University of Denver is inextricably linked to being Jewish.

Rapoport, a junior, got involved with the Jewish student group Hillel as a freshman, making the trek to the University of Denver’s campus for events because there wasn’t a chapter at MSU.She felt completely welcome and made fast friends, finding comfort in the familiarity of praying every Friday and connecting with her roots.

“Once I was approached about starting Hillel (at MSU) I was so excited because I could find a community of Jewish people on my campus,” she said.

Rapoport and University of Colorado Denver student Lindsay Abramson began a Hillel chapter at the Auraria Higher Education Center — the downtown campus shared by CU Denver, MSU and the Community College of Denver — earlier this year.

But since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and the resulting war, reports of antisemitism in Colorado have spiked while the state’s most visible pro-Palestinian demonstrations centered on colleges, with protesters staging weeks-long encampments at Auraria and the University of Denver.

Those campus demonstrations have ended for now, but in interviews with The Denver Post, Jewish college students and community leaders, and pro-Palestinian protesters, described a fundamental difference in how they perceived the spring protests and the attached ideologies — like whether support for Israel and support for Judaism can be separated.

At Auraria, protesters gathered at the Golda Meir House throughout the school year to demonstrate against Israel and in support of Palestine. That location — a museum and former home of Israel’s first and only female prime minister — is where the Hillel chapter initially met.

Some demonstrators left chalk graffiti on the building and sidewalks with messages like “Tear this down” or “Get Zionists off our campus,” Rapoport said.

Students started meeting at the Tivoli Student Union instead, until campus officials told the group that a pro-Palestinian student encampment on the adjacent quad was too much of a safety concern, Abramson said.

For Jewish students like Abramson and Rapoport, the spring’s campus anti-war protests at Auraria, DU, CU Boulder and elsewhere in Colorado were regular reminders of increased antisemitism and what happens when people don’t distinguish between protesting the Israeli government and discriminating against Jewish people.

“Just because I wear a Star of David and I’m Jewish doesn’t mean you know my beliefs about the conflict,” Abramson said. “People are putting Jewish individuals in a category that (we) believe this way, and don’t actually hear my opinion.”

Jewish students navigate rising antisemitism in Colorado, protests on their college campuses (1)

Hate crimes increase since Oct. 7

Antisemitic hate crimes in Colorado are on track this year to reach their highest level since before 2008, when the Colorado Bureau of Investigation’s online database began tracking the data.

The CBI database tracks bias-motivated crimes, which Colorado law defines as acts that injure someone or their property or make them afraid of those things. Hate crimes are intended to intimidate the victim because of their “actual or perceived race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, physical or mental disability, or sexual orientation,” according to state law.

Fifteen antisemitic crimes were reported in the first three months of 2024, the highest first-quarter numbers since before 2008, according to the CBI.

That mirrors an increase in late 2023, according to state data. Of the 21 antisemitic crimes reported in 2023, 15 occurred in October, November or December, mostly after Hamas launched its Oct. 7 attack on Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking approximately 250 people hostage.

Israel’s responding attacks in Gaza have killed an estimated 36,000 Palestinians over the last eight months, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between combatants and civilians.

Abramson and Rapoport described being on campus and getting dirty looks when wearing a Star of David necklace or hearing a student respond with “Yikes” after learning that their classmate is Jewish. Abramson said she saw an Auraria protester holding a sign that read “What Hitler was doing was right” and overheard demonstrators calling pro-Israel counterprotesters “dirty Jews.”

“At this point, I’m just a little numb to it,” Abramson said. “It does hurt a little bit. If it was any other population, I feel like people would be reacting differently to what’s going on.”

Jewish students at DU also have experienced increasing antisemitism, freshman Jaiden Skinner said.

Skinner is one of a handful of Jewish DU students who formed a community watch group in May after they said university officials ignored their concerns about feeling unsafe on campus. Students are equipped with flashlights and pepper spray for the worst-case scenario but are mostly there to walk each other across campus if someone feels unsafe.

Skinner said she’s been told to go back to Nazi Germany and overheard other protesters telling Jewish students that 1938 would look good on them.

“I’ve never experienced such hatred toward the Jewish population in my 20 years of existence,” she said.

Student organizers at Auraria and DU repeatedly denied any antisemitism among protesters and said pro-Israel counterprotesters made threats against the pro-Palestinian demonstrators.

“There is a difference between being uncomfortable and being in danger,” said DU graduate student Kristina Brunner, one of the organizers with DU for Palestine. “We are not the ones who yelled rape threats, we are not the ones who have threatened to physically attack (encampments,) we are not the ones who put nails in students’ car tires because they parked too close to a house with Israeli stuff on it.”

Criticizing governments, political bodies and “mass slaughter” might make people uncomfortable, Brunner said, but is not inherently unsafe.

“I do understand that people are scared, but I also think people are scared that political ideologies are being challenged in ways that the United States has never seen before,” Brunner said. “I think there are ways to honor life and to protest.”

Auraria student organizer Harriet Falconetti said she didn’t see or hear anything antisemitic among protesters and that antisemitism is “absolutely not tolerated,” adding that Jewish students and community members from Jewish Voice for Peace were involved in campus demonstrations.

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Fundamental differences in opinion

But protesters, students and Jewish leaders described a fundamental difference in what they believe is antisemitic.

For Falconetti, Brunner and other pro-Palestinian demonstrators, being against Zionism — the movement by Jewish people to regain and preserve their historic homeland in what is now Israel — is not the same as being against Judaism.

“That’s something we’ve been very careful to distinguish at the encampment. We do not think Judaism and Zionism are the same thing,” Falconetti said.

Statements like that are a nonstarter for community leaders like Rabbi Joe Black of Denver’s Temple Emanuel.

“If you are approaching dialogue from the perspective that my people, my family, my close friends have no right to be in their legitimate state — that’s no starting point,” Black said.

Recent CU Boulder graduate Dave Phillips also closely connects his Jewish identity with Zionism. After starting a chapter of the international campus organization Students Supporting Israel on the Boulder campus last fall, Phillips was offered a job with the organization.

“People like to say anti-Zionism isn’t antisemitism, and that’s a fine line,” he said. “Criticism of the Israeli government is fine. But once you start criticizing Israel being a nation, (that) is where it turns into antisemitism. When you say Zionism is racism and a genocidal belief, that’s where it turns into antisemitism.”

Black said allegations of Israel committing genocide against Palestinians in Gaza — claims brought to the United Nations’ International Court of Justiceand rejected by U.S. and Israeli government officials — are “blatantly false.”

“Many of these protests are echoing Hamas, Hezbollah and Iranian talking points that quite frankly want to see the destruction of the Jewish state and the Jewish people,” Black said.

But students like Brunner and DU graduate student and organizer Ash Reid said the war and growing death toll among Palestinians are too important to stop talking about — and protesting against.

“There’s a genocide happening right now and we’re going to center that, because it’s not being centered in so many conversations,” Reid said.

Jewish students Rapoport, Abramson and Skinner talked less about the semantics of the Israel-Hamas war and the decades-old conflict and more about wanting to feel safe on their college campuses, for people to recognize antisemitism is a problem and for there to be more conversations and fewer assumptions about what Jewish students think.

“The only way for anything in life to change is if you have conversations,” Skinner said. “You don’t have to agree with everything someone says, but at least you can develop an understanding of where they’re coming from and what they’re experiencing.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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Jewish students navigate rising antisemitism in Colorado, protests on their college campuses (2024)
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