The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Friday, June 21, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Local Student Speaks Up and Speaks Out About Antisemitism at Indiana’s Legislature

Tennessee’s Jewish Federations, along with local activists, successfully lobbied the state legislature to pass a bill defining antisemitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). The bill passed handily in 2022 and other states are following suit. In Indiana, a similar bill is proving more difficult to pass, but a Nashville-based student is using his voice to move the effort along. Ben Zilberman, a senior engineering student at Purdue University, moved with his family to Nashville during high school and attended Hume Fogg. The oldest of three children to Liat and David Zilberman, Ben says he was driven to participate in speaking to the Indiana legislature’s education committee, where the bill was first introduced. “It was important to me to share some of the things my [fraternity] brothers have faced in terms of antisemitism on campus,” he says. Ben is the incoming president of the AEPi fraternity, the only Jewish fraternity at Purdue.

Nashville’s Ben Zilberman speaks before Indiana legislature’s House education committee about HB1002.

Support for Indiana’s HB1002 is growing in the wake of October 7, and a push from Indianapolis Jewish Community Relations Committee (JCRC) and executive director, Jacob Markey. “Ever since October 7, there has been more anxiety in the community. We wanted to take another crack at this bill,” he says. The JCRC’s efforts led to the bill moving to a high priority issue for this year’s legislative session. “This bill allows people in our state to know what antisemitism is. It shows there is a problem here and if you know what it is, you can combat it.” Markey adds there is approximately one antisemitic incident a week in his community.

Zilberman was urged to participate in the committee hearing by Purdue’s Hillel director, Matthew Kramer-Morning. “I got a call from the JCRC asking for students to speak. I reached out to Ben as incoming president of AEPi,” he says. In addition, student testimony drove home the urgency of helping the public know what antisemitism is. “The need for the bill is best illustrated by the fact that after Ben and the other student spoke, protester after protester came in a said to vote ‘no’ because it will take away the ability to criticize Israel.” In fact, Kramer-Morning says, the legislators pointed out the bill provides for criticism for Israel as distinct from antisemitic speech. “The need is now. If we Jews can’t define hate against Jews, how are we going to stop antisemitism?”

Kramer-Morning says while Purdue has not seen as much antisemitic and anti-Israel activity as other campuses around the country, students there have dealt with things like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) holding weekly rallies and using informational tables to confront Jewish and Zionist students. “They were holding weekly rallies right after October 7. They were always scheduled for Friday nights. That lasted until Thanksgiving,” he says. He says there also was a demonstration by the Patriot Front on campus and antisemitic symbols and images displayed.

Purdue administration’s response in the wake of October 7 was markedly different than those of other high profile university administrators. According to Kramer-Morning, university president Mung Chieng reached to him immediately, and followed with a letter to Jewish students on October 9. The letter, which provided links to resources for students, read in part:

“Since October 7, terrorist attacks on Israel by Hamas have inflicted unspeakable atrocities to Israeli civilians, with a tragic death toll and a horrendous hostage crisis. As we mourn with you, we will also stay alert to acts of anti-Semitic violence. As collaborators with Israeli universities such as the Technion, we will continue and strengthen such education and research collaboration.”

Zilberman says the swift show of support was impactful and went a long way toward helping students cope with the tragedy. “The general climate has been really good,” he says, “The President assured us they are doing all they can to keep us safe and protected. And the Provost came to a Shabbat dinner and spoke at a candlelight vigil.”

The administration’s support is also sending a strong message to groups like SJP that antisemitism will not be tolerated on campus. “They [SJP] reached out to the Chabad rabbi and the Hillel director, and the AEPi president. They wanted a meeting supposedly to foster understanding and combat antisemitism, but they left out any mention of Israel,” he says, “There was a feeling they’re trying to get a rise out of us.”

Zilberman says he continues to be optimistic about campus life at Purdue and inspired to keep speaking out. “It felt rewarding. I got to talk about my experience as a Jew. I want to continue to help Purdue be safe and comfortable for all Jewish students.” He said responses from the legislators was generally positive, despite the protesters in the room.

Pictured l. to r.: Ben Zilberman, Noa Zilberman, Arielle Zilberman, Liat Zilberman, David Zilberman.

Liat Zilberman, Ben’s mother, says while she is extremely proud of her son, she is relieved he is not a freshman during this turbulent time. “He’s learned his way around campus, he’s well-adjusted and has a lot of support.” She says he has always been a natural leader and very independent, qualities that can prove challenging for parents. “When we looked at schools for him, we wanted to make sure there were plenty of other Jewish students on the campus. He pushed back a little, but now he knows why it’s important.” Still, she encourages him and his peers to keep working to combat antisemitism. “I think they need to always be proactive. There is always something you can do.”

Indiana’s HB1002 passed unanimously in the House education committee 83-0. It will now move to the larger House and then the Senate. Ben Zilberman says he enjoyed his first foray into the political arena and hopes to do it again someday. In the meantime, he continues to be a strong advocate for his school and for other Jewish students. “Purdue is a great place to be for Jewish students. I know most people’s names. We need more Jewish Boilermakers.”

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