When Ilya Bratman—the Moscow-born linguist and head of eight CUNY and SUNY Hillels—looks out at the students facing him, he sees a familiar threat
City University of New York (CUNY) alumni who support Palestine, protest outside of Chancellor office of CUNY at Midtown Manhattan in New York, United States on December 05, 2023. / SELCUK ACAR/ANADOLU VIA GETTY IMAGES
It was a belated awakening. For many American Jews, Oct. 7 uncovered the deep rot in the elite institutions they had invested in for decades, psychically and financially. A recent poll found that 73% of Jewish students experienced or witnessed antisemitic incidents since the beginning of this academic school year, a 22-fold increase over the year before. Jewish students have been punched, spat upon, assaulted with sticks, shouted at, and corralled by students in kaffiyehs.
But it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the DEI regime has fostered the flourishing of campus antisemitism under the Palestinian banner. Having established Jews as members of the “oppressor” class and defined “justice” as the dismantling of this class, the officially sanctioned ideology has given license to the Palestinian vanguard to demand fulfillment of the progressive promise, “by any means necessary,” while turning Jewish students into piñatas.
In New York City public colleges, a kippa-wearing, red-headed leprechaun named Ilya Bratman—former U.S. Army tankist, applied linguist, long-distance runner, and immigrant from the former Soviet Union—has witnessed up close the socialization of young Americans into this toxic worldview. A teacher of English composition at Baruch and John Jay colleges who holds a Ph.D. in education from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he also serves as executive director of Hillel at eight CUNY and SUNY colleges.
On the day we met, Bratman was hosting dinner for 200 Jewish students at a synagogue on 23rd Street near Lexington Avenue. After passing a phalanx of security guards into a social room, they began filling their plates with grilled meat and salads prepared by Bratman’s favorite Georgian caterer.
The narrative of victimhood has become welded to these young people’s identity, leading to a sense of grievance toward America.
After the students use cookie cutters to shape chocolate chip cookie dough into Stars of David, Bratman grabbed a microphone and stepped forward. “Last week, everybody was already seated in my 8:00 a.m. class, and a student comes in and she says to me, “Wow, I can’t believe you bombed that hospital last night and killed all those people.”
The social room, for the first time, went dead quiet.
The student of course was referring to deaths and injuries at the Al-Ahli Hospital in Gaza, whose courtyard was hit on Oct. 17 by a rocket misfired from inside Gaza by Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but which was widely misreported as having been the result of an Israeli missile.
Bratman’s reaction, as a teacher, was to affirm the importance of sound reasoning and argumentation—and, of course, language. “I told her, ‘Wow, I can’t believe you forgot completely everything I taught you about the accusative voice and the proper use of the pronoun ‘you,’ because you just said that ‘I’ did this,” he recounted. “‘I’ bombed the hospital. What hospital? Where? Who?’”
He went on. “Did you hear that Hamas said they did it?” Bratman said he asked the student, referring to a conversation Israel had recorded between two terrorists apparently acknowledging the bombing was an own goal.
The student’s response was emblematic of the sectarian worldview into which young Americans are regimented, whereby the value, even the truthfulness, of an argument or action is assessed based on the identity of its author, rather than on its own merits. “I will never believe that,” she told him, “even if they came to my face and say, ‘Hamas, we did it.’ I will never believe it.”
Bratman told me the students think he’s a fool to read the newspapers and interrogate different sources in search of the truth. They tell him that mainstream media is all fake news, and they get their information from TikTok, which is real people talking about real things. “I’ve seen it,” they tell him. “On Instagram, on TikTok, I’ve seen it.”
“They don’t read anything. They just read headlines and pictures and memes. And they base their whole worldview on a set of memes.”
Ilya Bratman was born in Moscow. He emigrated to the U.S. in 1992 with his parents, graduated from college at the University of Pittsburgh in 1999, then joined the U.S. Army, where he served four years in active duty and four years in the reserves.
Bratman believes strongly in America and the American dream. Teaching American students in New York City has brought him face-to-face with an entirely different worldview—one that appears to be particularly common among students from officially sanctioned “minority” backgrounds. The students don’t appreciate what a gift they’ve been given to live in America. Instead, they are lost in a zero-sum game of calculating relative oppressions. This fixation stops them from learning, Bratman believes, in part because it assures them that they will fail.
In his composition classes, he explained, he tries to get his students to create and support an argument. One week, he asked them to write about space exploration. Should we go to space? Or should we not?
One girl argued in favor of space travel because “white people will move to space, maybe to Mars, or wherever,” creating a gap, or an opening into which the “indigenous brown and black people can move up in the class structure and fill that gap left behind by the white people who will move to Mars.”
“There’s a lot to unpack there, isn’t there?” Bratman responded. “First of all, the belief in this structure where white people are on top, everybody else on the bottom, and the only way to move up is if the white people leave.”
Another girl wrote that no, we should not have space travel because then the white people would colonize the Martian people, as they always do, and ruin the Martians’ lives.
Bratman said he asked, “Does it help you to blame somebody? Do you actually become better? Do you strive further? Do you succeed better because you can blame someone?”
He told me the students have no answer, but they know life “is a victimhood competition. I’m a victim and therefore you owe me, and therefore I don’t have to do anything because I cannot succeed.”
The narrative of victimhood has become welded to these young people’s identity, leading to an increased detachment from, and a sense of grievance toward, America—the irony of course being that they and their parents chose to immigrate here. One girl in the class told him: “I am here in this country against my will.” Bratman asked her: “Who’s holding you? Tell me, please. I’m frightened for you,” showcasing his high-energy, high-drama style. “Everybody’s laughing, and I asked her, ‘Where are you from?’ And she says, ‘Haiti.’ OK. ‘And where were you born?’ And she says, ‘Brooklyn.’”
“So you’re actually from Brooklyn. Your parents are from Haiti,” he repeated. “Who’s holding you back? Do you really want to go to Haiti today? You should actually go and see what life is like in a noncapitalist, depressed country that is in a desperate economic struggle. Or go to Gaza to a totalitarian, autocratic, hateful, homophobic nation. Or go to North Korea, go to Iran, go to all the places as a young woman, and see what life is really like.”
“None of that is understood,” he told me. “The students are pawns of teachers who want them to believe they can never succeed. And these teachers have been spectacularly successful at convincing them it is true.”
Bratman teaches his Jewish students to adopt a different approach to the world—one anchored in tradition, learning, and the study of Jewish texts. At the dinner in the 23rd Street synagogue, he invited the students to let him know if they’d like to join him in studying Pirkei Avot in honor of IDF soldiers called up for duty. He also has a club of about 80 boys who are laying tefillin every day.
Bratman told me that, in spite of the recent stresses, he’s not worried about his Jewish students. “Ninety-nine point nine percent of them are rational people who go out and get jobs, they get married and I go to their weddings and brises.”
But there is something terribly wrong with the others, he believes. “A lot of these students, they’re nice, they’re wonderful people, right? But they look at me as a Jew, and say, ‘well, you know, because you’re supportive of this Israel story and Israel narrative, you kind of stand with the oppressor, you know, and I’m Hispanic or Black and I have to stand with the oppressed. Or I’m gay and I have to stand with the oppressed.”
Bratman’s worry is that these students, by adopting a worldview of grievance, are keeping themselves down with imaginary obstacles and denying their own volition. “What they don’t understand is that [these invented obstacles] are all surmountable. It’s my mission to uplift and empower these young people to actually strive for the opportunities that exist and to dispel the false and limiting idea that it’s all impossible.”
Bratman told me he had a student at John Jay whom he will never forget, a student struggling mightily at school. “I had many conversations with him,” Bratman said. “I’d say, ‘come, come on, keep going, keep going.’ And he said, ‘No, I’m thinking of dropping out.’”
“And I’m like, no, no, get through this class. I got you. I got you. And I carried him through this course. And on the last day he came to see me, and he said, ‘I dropped out of all the classes except for yours. Everybody in my family, including my mother and my grandparents—I don’t know my father—my uncles and everybody said, ‘What are you doing? Why are you going to college? You can get a job now for $20 an hour, and when you graduate, you’re gonna get a job for $20 an hour. What’s the purpose?’”
Bratman seemed genuinely sad—not angry or offended, just sad—about what he heard next. “No one ever believed in me,” the student said. “I can’t believe that the first and only person who’s ever believed in me is a white Jew.”
Emily Benedek has written for Rolling Stone, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and Mosaic, among other publications. She is the author of five books.