Breaking the Silence Around Campus Anti-Semitism

On Dec. 13, 2015, an email from Campus Safety detailing an anti-Semitic death threat at the Claremont Colleges left us disoriented. According to the email, a student was approached at a Harvey Mudd College holiday party and told, “I can tell you are Jewish because of your nose and your hair” before the suspect declared that he wanted to “fucking kill all of you people.”  

After receiving the notification, the four of us were unsure how to react and how to move forward. That day, we all spoke on the phone, attempting to locate the source of our confusion, pain, and silence.

As we worked to process our own emotional reactions, we heard many students express that the administration had only reacted so swiftly to the incident because ‘Jews are white.’ There is certainly an important conversation to be had about the administration’s slow and often inadequate responses to threats against students of color. However, dismissing anti-Semitism allows injustice to thrive; like all forms of oppression, it has no place in this community.

As Jewish students, we felt unable to confront the hate speech and the dismissive reactions we heard in response to it. This is partly because we and many American Jews are privileged due to our race and our comfortable socio-economic standings. Indeed, the four of us were able to grow up proud of our heritage, regarding the persecution our parents and ancestors faced as just a painful memory.

On one hand, we worry that addressing anti-Semitism on campus could detract from conversations about other social and political issues. For example, conversations critiquing Israeli policies, especially those that oppress Palestinians, are often silenced by inaccurate claims of anti-Semitism used to re-establish Jewish victimhood. Our own community’s narrative of trauma and victimhood should not be used to devalue another community’s.

On the other hand, this does not excuse the delegitimization of our community's concerns. Recently, when a photo of a 5C student draped in an Israeli flag was posted on Facebook, a commenter suggested “grind[ing] their skulls into the pavement.” We felt our stomachs churn. 

We waited for someone to speak up, to challenge this violent comment. No one did. While the Israeli flag certainly represents a nation whose policies violate Palestinian human rights, this intolerant and even dangerous rhetoric crossed the line from being against a nation to being against a people: our people.

We know that Jews are often assumed to be Zionists. Even within the American Jewish community, non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Jews often ostracize each other for not having the “right politics.” However, just as there are many strands of American nationalism, Zionism is multifaceted. While today's Israel and its policies are a manifestation of particular branches of Zionism, there are also Zionists who actively fight the Israeli occupation and control of the West Bank and Gaza. While it is imperative that we actively critique injustices perpetuated against Palestinians, we must also fight anti-Semitism as part of the struggle against these injustices.

Even though we have personally been fortunate not to confront the most egregious forms of anti-Semitism ourselves, our families’ histories live within us, and there will always be a lingering fear that anti-Semitism will build up again. Indeed, anti-Semitism historically has cycled between periods of calm and periods of brutal persecution. We cannot forget that our parents and previous generations were barred from institutions of higher education, prohibited from openly practicing their religion, and forced to flee their homes because of anti-Semitic policies and violence.

The 5C community’s apathetic responses to anti-Semitic incidents on campus disturbs us as much as the incidents themselves. Dismissing a centuries-old phenomenon that has defined our families’ experiences erases where we come from and paves the way for history to repeat itself. It is crucial that anti-Semitism be combatted on campus.

As a community, we are in need of more nuanced conversation and educational programming on anti-Semitism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Zionism. Only active engagement with these complex issues will reinforce our communal responsibility to combat intolerance.

Idleness in the face of bigotry is antithetical to a thriving community. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel said, “the opposite of good is not evil, the opposite of good is indifference.”

Stacey Abrams PO ‘16 is majoring in Computer Science and is a senior interviewer for Pomona College admissions. Orren Arad-Neeman PO ‘16 is majoring in Linguistics & Cognitive Science and is a co-chair of J Street U Claremont. Ben Cohen PO ‘16 is double-majoring in International Relations and Russian and Eastern European Studies. Aidan Orly PO ‘16 is majoring in Biology and is Commissioner of Environmental Affairs for the Associated Students of Pomona College.