Fear and Loathing (Jews & The American Left)

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I have no doubt that this and other like reports reflect in an accurate way how campus activist circles create a hostile anti-Israel environment that lurches into outright anti-Semitism. A representative example is here at a rightwing website, which you can read here.  Without casting a single doubt on the seriousness of any one incident and wanting to take each claim with the requisite seriousness with which it deserves, at issue is how one goes about assessing first person and anecdotal evidence. The question is whether these ugly phenomenon are isolated “micro-aggressions” or an index to something more widespread, i.e. “a growing anti-Semitism” at some macro-level of university life and on the American left.

One course of wisdom would be to keep two things in mind. It might be best [1] to proceed is as if the incidents described in these and other reports represent isolated phenomenon that one can then work to isolate as such, while at the same time [2] bearing in mind that the phenomenon directed at Israel and Jewish students more widely is part of a larger trends on campus in relation to student grievances and student activism.

Jewish students, in particular, are not isolated. Reports about out and out anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic micro-aggressions should be read alongside attempts by administrators to dial back the campus rancor, to isolate problems and to address a broad wide range of student concerns, particularly the concerns of students of color, in a constructive manner. The response which you can read here by Marvin Krislov, the president of Oberlin College is a case in point. Another case in point is the genuine concern expressed by the leadership at the National LGBT Taskforce after activists, including JVP, shouted down and shut down the A Wider Bridge and Jerusalem Open House reception at their recent conference. The general rule in Israel and Palestine is that the party who says
“no” first and refuses to include and cooperate with others is the party that loses. On campus, anyone has the right to say anything, including anti-Zionist activists. But groups that violate the rights of other to free expression violate very clearly stated university guidelines and are frequently disciplined.

In responding to incidents, the best tactic might be not to swing too wild or wide. Keep it at a small bore and event specific, while identifying anti-Jewish animus. For many liberal and progressive Jews it might be that the people and organization most hostile to Israel are not worth engaging, while assuming that outside a small and hard core of activists, most people on the liberal left end of the spectrum are fair-minded people who can weigh the issues on their own, including the opinions and actions of their peers. The only thing to do is to work incrementally, advancing voices that promote a just resolution to the Israel and Palestine conflict, standing up against Islamophobia, while securing Jewish interests, including on campus Jewish Studies and Israel Studies related programming, as a free speech and free expression right, always with the intent to identify and work with allies. Always push forward and push back, and don’t call anything or anyone anti-Semitic until one has clear and evident reason to do so.

In the interest of supporting Jewish student voices, I’m sharing this Open Rant by Isabel Storch Sherrel, an Oberlin alumna who shared her story on Facebook. It’s gotten a lot of circulation online. Unlike the post I linked above, this one reflects not a compilation of scattered anecdotes, but rather one student’s perspective and perception. Her rant belongs as part of the larger conversation about Jews on campus and the American left. Of interest is the marginalization of Jews across wide segments of the student left, in particular the place of the Holocaust in these intra-student diatribes, including the lunatic claim that the Holocaust represents nothing but “white on white crime.” With Isabel’s permission I’m posting the whole thing here.

Open Rant — Isabel Storch Sherrel

I don’t want to make it seem like i hated my time at oberlin. it was a mixed bag and i got a great education and was blessed to learn from amazing professors. But i think being out of that environment has given me a chance to breathe and process everything that i learned/ encountered/ unlearned at oberlin. i learned about the historical context of anti black racism and its current manifestations and through that learning process was able to better frame and identify my own community’s struggle. However i quickly learned that process was to be kept personal and did not blend into the campus atmosphere or the collective fight for justice at oberlin. Because at oberlin, and indeed in the US overall, Jews are viewed as white and privileged (sometimes even above the avg white privilege, since yaknow, were all superrich and stuff) therefore our struggle does not intersect with other forms of racism and bigotry and ignorance that are so tenaciously fought against on campus. As a part of my processing and letting go of the pain I experienced, I will list a few memorable antisemitic moments/incidents here-
Obies feel free to read. But this is actually intended for all my friends and family outside of that circle…

  1. The multiple times the Holocaust was referred to as “white on white crime” by my POC peers and hip white Jewish peers, (erasing the fact that ashkenazi jews were NOT seen as white and were being killed in the name of eugenics and white purity and also erasing the fact that blacks, Roma, and north african Jews were also killed in the camps.)
  2. That time a Jewish person made a comment on fb saying “the only reason people care about the Holocaust is because it happened to white people” and got tons of likes from white and POC friends alike (Erasing the fact that the western world only decided to care a few decades after the fact, when it wasn’t as fresh, and they’d had the time to really work out the details of how they were going to frame it and make it look like the US were the heroes liberating the camps after the US government knew what was being planned by Hitler, knew what happening while it was happening, and did nothing. Not to mention sending Jewish immigrants trying to escape before the war broke out back to Europe to die in the gas chambers.) This is just one example of Jewish obies stepping all over their ancestors memory in order to climb the white-ally-social-ladder-of-justice-and-excellence i cannot understand it as anything other than self hatred masked by love of “the other”..
  3. That time Kosher Halal Co Op was told it couldn’t serve “ethnic” food because Jews are white not “ethnic” (erasing identities of Mexican Jews, Asian Jews, etc)
  4. That time SFP brought in a Jewish lady to talk about her work with electronicintifada and tell all the Obies that Zionism/Zionists “should burn at the stake” — (After that spectacle who could argue that antizionism has any crossover with antisemitism — “but that lady is jewish and she said xyz so i can say xyz and its not antisemitic or even violent or problematic at all hooooorayyyyy!”
  5. That time I was told I should be ashamed for what my people are doing to the Palestinians, by someone I didn’t even know, upon learning I was Jewish. (Imagine a Alawite student at Oberlin being told “you should be ashamed for what your people are doing over there in syria” — yeah, it wouldn’t fly. Or a Nigerian Muslim student being shamed for what’s going on in their country… never literally would never happen. But Jewish kids? Jewish country? Fair game.)
  6. That time my African Studies professor had an antizionist jewish south african man come in to talk to the class about jazz and resistance. During Q&A she praised a Jewish student for their anti Israel comments relating Israel to South African apartheid. The prof then made funny faces and funny eyes when I spoke up and tried to make the point that we should try to understand the Israeli-Palestinian conflict within its OWN historical context and that its unfair to both Israelis and Palestinians to rely only on shaky comparisons. It was clear, in that classroom, who was the good Jew and who was the bad Jew, in that professors’ eyes. I was bad. My concern for anti black racism came into question because I didn’t write anti zionist across my forehead. After that class she literally had me come into her office and asked me ,”why are you here” and i was so shaken with so many emotions i just cried and wasn’t able to talk to her and therefore my final paper suffered as a result. This professor also cut ties with the Hillel Rabbi because he, too, did not brand himself an antiZionist.
  7. Those times antiblack and antisemitic incidents occurred simultaneously, and then the uproar followed but the antisemitism was essentially ignored by the campus at large. And if I brought that up I was told “don’t derail the real issue here.”
  8. That time a Jewish girl walked into her dorm room to find glass shattered all over her bed and floor because someone decided to throw a rock through her window, where she had hung an Israeli flag.
  9. The fact my Mizrahi Jewish friend has had her identity policed on multiple occasions and was told she is white.
  10. The fact that so many Jewish students are bullied into silence, whether its about their own ethnic identity, (PSA: you can identify as ethnically Jewish while still acknowledging your white privilege) their relationship to Israel, or their concern about antisemitism in general/ on campus.
  11. The intense and unrelenting vilification of Israel out of proportion to any other nation on the planet where terrible shit happens // People literally refusing to talk to me because I identify as a Zionist.
  12. When I overheard someone say “Islamophobia is like the anti-Semitism of our time” as if anti semitism is over/ started and ended with the Holocaust/ has been replaced by anti-muslim racism
  13. When a self-identifying “radical” friend posted a picture of Neturei Karta holding anti Israel signs at a protest – “Look! There are Jews who aren’t monsters!” They have those funny outfits and everything! I’m not tokenizing an extreme minority faction of Orthodox Jews whose views i literally no nothing of in order to prove how not anti semitic my antizionism is!”
  14. How inevitably during discussions about the establishment of Israel, people would say “the Jews decided to make Palestinians suffer for the crimes the Germans committed against them” while failing to understand that Zionism is way older than the Holocaust as is the need and the yearning for a Jewish homeland. How Israel is called “colonial and Imperialist, Britain gave it to the Jews” even though we had to FIGHT the imperial army to gain independence. (Revoking agency of Jews that fought for Israel’s independence// Rewriting history so that you would raise your eyebrows in disbelief when I told you my relatives were forced to stay in a DP camp in Cyprus for years after the war ended and that British navy vessels opened fire at ships full of Jewish refugees from Europe and North Africa attempting to make it to Palestine. We did not waltz right in. And we did not come there with an expansionist agenda.

  15. Generally antisemitic ideas floating around such as Jews are milking the Holocaust for their own gain// everything is as bad as the Holocaust except for the actual Holocaust which wasnt as bad as people say it was// Jews only care about themselves (another AAST professor told me, “your people really take care of each other” at first i thought it was a compliment but when i told my mother about it she explained that it was not)
  16. That time someone posted flyers depicting the Israeli flag with a swastika replacing the star of David and a derogatory slur for jews as a caption
  17. Hip white activists boosting their radical resume by denouncing Israel’s right to exist and a handful of Ashkenazis on that bandwagon saying shit like “I hate my right to Israeli citizenship. Israel isn’t my country. It shouldn’t even be a country” (Kay well thanks to your white privilege and your lofty rejection of nationalism you are erasing what Zionism means for so many Jews who do NOT share your privilege, such as Yemen’s remaining Jewish population who have recently been told by Houthi rebels that they will lose all their protection under law unless they flee or convert to Islam)
  18. Having my own ethnic identity policed. Being told I was simply European and Judaism is a religion not an ethnicity/ or that I am a descendent of Khazarian converts to Judaism and therefore have no right to claim any sort of indigenousness in the Levant. (There is DNA evidence that the VAST MAJORITY of Jews have Middle Eastern genetic markers (yep even us whities) they can even tell what time period we originated there and started mixing with other populations and it lines up with our own historical narrative yet somehow anti-Jewish polemics still get the mic)

Wow, 18. Chai. Life. WOOSH. That felt great to put it all out there. Also please know that I am not tryin to generalize any specific community at oberlin for antisemitism. It is a complex form of institutional “othering” that is upheld by everyone who is not Jewish.. it manifests on racial grounds, cultural grounds, religious grounds, etc. And it kills, it doesn’t just hurt.

I am blessed to believe that within myself I carry the capacity to care deeply about the freedom and wellbeing of all peoples. I believe I have the brainpower and the heartspace to continue educating myself and speaking out against ALL FORMS OF RACISM AND HATE INCLUDING ANTISEMITISM.


About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics. http://religion.syr.edu
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1 Response to Fear and Loathing (Jews & The American Left)

  1. dmf says:

    lots there obviously but it reminds me of how too many undergrads aren’t being taught how little they (and really we) know and how complex and in process things are but rather to be certain and assertive in their simplistic understandings and many grad schools just build off of this instead of challenging it with more sophisticated questions and methods. I had hoped that higher ed might shift from teaching students huge lists of facts to focusing mostly on teaching methods but seems ever less unlikely these days of increasing financial pressures, sad all around.

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