While a great deal of education has been done at institutions of higher education around awareness and eradication of racism and heterosexism, little has been conducted on working on issues of antisemitism and anti-Jewish oppression. Antisemitism, when discussed at all, is considered a form of oppression that no longer targets Jewish students.
This article, based on the presenter’s qualitative dissertation that explores the unique racial, ethnic and ethno-religious positionality of Jewish undergraduates, examines the antisemitism some Jewish students experience at purportedly multicultural institutions of higher education.
This research shows that Jewish students do face antisemitism on college and university campus. Diversity and multicultural educators must struggle against all form of oppression, including antisemitism, if we are to make our campuses welcoming for all students.
Undergraduate students on increasingly diverse campuses are often challenged to understand the background and legacy of their position relative to systems of oppression. Oppression, in this context, is defined as “a system that allows access to the services, rewards, benefits, and privileges of society based on membership in a particular group”. While many campus programs work with issues of racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism, little has been done in the area of antisemitism, the oppression of Jews. Jewish students often do not have a place in higher education to understand their historical and contemporary experience of discrimination and oppression. Too often, Jews are told that they are the privileged group and that discrimination no longer happens to them.
For this study, I interviewed fifteen Jewish peer facilitators in a nationally recognised social justice program at a university in the Midwest. Three techniques were utilised to answer the research question: demographic intake form, individual interview, and focus group interview. Employing multiple data collection techniques, also referred to as triangulation, provided an opportunity to clarify themes arising in the social phenomenon under investigation by allowing the researcher to see contradictions, convergences, and inconsistencies.
Multiple data sources have the ability to illuminate one another, often suggesting alternative ways of thinking about emerging pattern in the findings. The different methods augmented the information I received and allowed participants to express themselves more fully and to learn from each other. Ultimately, combining these data collection methods allowed me to obtain richer and more nuanced data .
This study’s methodological framework was based on the work of Glaser and Strauss. Grounded theory, as defined by the authors, is obtained from data and then illustrated by characteristic examples from the data. Grounded theory is derived from collected data from observations in the “real world.” Therefore, the theoretical conclusions emerging from grounded theory are phenomenological, in that the conclusions come from that which is being studied.
Participants were selected through purposeful sampling. In purposeful sampling, participants are chosen on the basis of certain criteria without any attempt at getting a random sample. Given that I was studying a particular phenomenon, it was critical for me to find subjects who match my research requirement. The criteria for participant selection were that the students had to be Ashkenazi Jews who had spent time as undergraduate anti-racist peer educators while at a large public university in the Midwest.
Although there are many organisations and fields of study that highlight oppression at the institution I selected, I chose a program that had been nationally highlighted as an exemplary program in fighting bigotry. In order to investigate the phenomena described and to answer my research questions, I interviewed Ashkenazi Jews who are peer facilitators in this nationally recognised program.
Three techniques were utilised to answer the research question: demographic intake form, individual interview, and focus group interview. Employing multiple data collection techniques, also referred to as triangulation, provided an opportunity to clarify themes arising in the social phenomenon under investigation by allowing the researcher to see contradictions, convergences, and inconsistencies.
Multiple data sources have the ability to illuminate one another, often suggesting alternative ways of thinking about emerging patterns in the findings. The different methods augmented the information I received and allowed participants to express themselves more fully and to learn from each other. Ultimately, combining these data collection methods allowed me to obtain richer and more nuanced data .
Ten women and five men, all of Ashkenazi heritage, participated in the study. Ten of the respondents were raised in neighbourhoods that can be classified as predominantly Jewish and five of the respondents were raised in predominantly Christian neighbourhoods. In the semi-structured interview and follow-up focus group, participants explored their understanding of antisemitism as a system of oppression that presently affects their lives and the lives of other Jews and the social position of Jews in the United States and elsewhere.
Although I was examining how Ashkenazi Jews understand their Jewish identity in anti-racist environments, I discovered that that antisemitism was still a force on college campuses. In fact, many of the participants were glad to be able to discuss and deconstruct the anti-Jewish stereotypes they were hearing. Unfortunately, few non-Jews understood this; non-Jews often minimized the anti-Jewish bigotry faced on campus.
The participants were uniformly frustrated by having to explain themselves and educate non-Jews about their issues. They were particularly hurt that others expected Jews to educate about Jewish issues, whereas other minority groups were not expected to educate the privileged group. Many participants related stories of being asked to explain what Jews felt and to serve as a spokesperson for “the Jewish position” on an issue.
All of the respondents highlighted antisemitism and its impact on the relationship between non-Jews and Jews, namely how gentiles responded to the assertion that Jews were still discriminated against on campus. The students argued that many non-Jews neither understood the history of Jewish oppression nor acknowledged that antisemitism remains a concern.
A lot of non-Jews don’t think Jews are oppressed. I mean, there are non-Jews who don’t think Jews have been oppressed. They know about the Holocaust but they think that was an anomaly. They don’t realize that so much of Jewish history is about hatred, about oppression, about how we have been targeted. (Kate)
Amplifying this point, participants argued that it was antisemitism that caused people not to see Jews as contemporary targets of antisemitism. For example:
I think a lot of how folks respond to us has a lot to do with what they think about Jews. There is this stereotype about us, us being cheap and rich and a JAP [Jewish American Princess, the supposedly materialistic Jewish woman] and spoiled and having all this stuff. So there is this general stereotype of Jews having a lot of privilege so how can you feel bad for them and how can you see them as fellow oppressed people? I never thought about it this way until recently but it is almost like antisemitism keeps people from seeing antisemitism or taking it seriously. (Dvora)
When I asked what particular antisemitic feelings made it difficult for non-Jews to see Jews as targets, the participants told me that the idea that Jews are rich made it very difficult for people to see Jews as victims of hatred. Because the participants held that many people did not see Jews as targets, I asked how people perceived Jews in terms of identity. The participants explained that many people, especially people of color in the minds of many respondents, saw Jews as not only agents but as “super-privileged White people”.
In other words, Jews were not merely undeservedly wealthy and not vicitimised by discrimination, they represented and personified the wealthy White person who benefits from whiteness at the expense of people of color. Ironically and considering the recent construction of Jews as White people, Jews appear to represent the racist White person in general.
The students contended that they were also victimised by forms of antisemitism that go deeper than general dismissal of minority status. The students claimed that these forms were linked to the reason that non-Jews did not perceive Jews as oppressed. When discussing the antisemitism they faced on campus, the participants focused on two forms of antisemitism they experienced that impacted how others related to them in these intergroup dialogue programs: political antisemitism and economic antisemitism.
For many students, dealing with antisemitism for the first time in their lives was particularly difficult. Many of them did not realise that people still perceive Jews in a negative light. They had been taught that Jews were now insiders in the United States and would never face the sort of hatred Jews faced in earlier decades. Moreover, most were taught that antisemitism consisted solely of Hitler’s murder of Jews in the Holocaust.
When compared to that level of genocide, one was not supposed to complain about lingering stereotypes out there. These Jews were taken aback by the stereotypes many non-Jews had about Jews and the hatred some had toward them, simply because they are Jews.
It was weird because for the first time I had to deal with how I was being perceived just because I was Jewish. That people had these really warped stereotypes of Jews. You know, this was one of the defining moments of my first year of college, my dealing with antisemitism and the stereotypes of Jews. People always asking, “You’re Jewish?” with these negative glances, like they couldn’t imagine that I could be a nice person and be Jewish. (Judith)
A form of anti-Semitism that participants faced had to do with the current crisis in Israel and Palestine. All of the students feared that the world is witnessing a new, virulent, globalizing and even lethal anti-Jewishness reminiscent of the atmosphere of Europe in the 1930s and without parallel or precedent since the end of the Second World War.
I thought this stuff (antisemitism) was over, but it is not. It has gotten really bad. I literally feel like I am under attack, and I did not expect that I would ever feel this way. (Caleb)
In recent years, the world has seen an alarming increase in the number of antisemitic incidents worldwide. A new level of anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric throughout the world has accompanied this. Specifically, we have observed that antisemitism is a mainstream ideology in much of the Arab and Muslim world. Jews and Israel are portrayed as inherently evil, monstrous and a danger to humanity by controlling politicians, other nation states and the media. This antisemitism draws on both the traditional European charges of blood libel and more contemporary forms of anti-Jewish oppression, such as Holocaust denial.
After the breakdown of the peace talks between the Israel and the Palestinian Authority in 2000, a rash of antisemitic incidents around the world, including in the United States, was unleashed. While synagogue arsons, physical attacks, cemetery desecrations and other hate crimes abated in the United States after the initial onslaught, they have continued in many other countries, most notably in France.
Almost equally alarming is the sluggish response to such acts in many of these countries, where leaders have attempted to minimize or deny the gravity and pervasiveness of the problem. Dvora discussed her alarm at the fact that few non-Jews seem to care about the precipitous rise in antisemitism: “It scares me how little (non-Jews) care about the increase in antisemitism”.
Anti-Israel and anti-Zionist activity has become more prevalent and has blurred, for many Jews, the boundaries between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies or actions on the one hand and antisemitism on the other hand. On one hand, Israel is frequently judged by standards not used to measure any other country. Furthermore, there has been a startling increase in the ideological support for the deligitimisation of Jews and Israel since 2000.
Israel’s actions of self-defense against terrorism have been compared to the genocidal programs of Hitler and the Third Reich. Jews and Israelis are depicted as Nazis, even in the very countries where the crimes of the Holocaust took place. The United Nations has again become a forum in which this antisemitic rhetoric can be promulgated, increasingly cloaked as “anti-Zionism,” as witnessed at the United Nations World Conference Against Racism in Durban, South Africa in the summer of 2001 and at the Human Rights Commission in Geneva in Spring 2002.
In discussing anti-Zionism and criticism of Israeli policy, it is important to note that all of the students who were in this stage of development identified as progressive Jews and were themselves critical of particular Israeli governmental actions. They believed that it was important to challenge the elected leaders of Israel and their policies.
However, these students reported that the language they were hearing about Israel went beyond legitimate criticism. For them, Zionists and Israelis were being discussed using age-old anti-Jewish stereotypes: ruthless, trying to control the world, demonic. In addition, the students were particularly pained by the realization that few non-Jews understood the historical pressure and necessity for a Jewish homeland. In the words of the participants, many non-Jews acted as if Jews returned to their historic homeland simply to steal land and oppress Arabs.
Israel is being maligned all over the place. I cannot stand Sharon, but people are going way beyond that. They are saying that Israelis and Jews are evil and control the world. Where have we heard that one before? (laughs)…. The saddest thing for me is that people don’t know why Israel was created. We had nowhere to go! The world hated us. I mean, what were we supposed to do? (Naomi)
The participants, particularly those involved in political activities, felt shunned by the university’s progressive student community because they supported Israel. This was true whether or not they supported particular Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza. As with most groups of U.S. Jews, these participants held widely divergent views on the situation. Some of them described themselves as non-Zionists, however, they all supported Israel’s right to exist. Because of this belief, those on the Left had called many of them “reactionary” or “colonizers” regardless of the participant’s political orientation.
I get nervous about the anti-Semitism that I see on the Left. The anti-Israel stuff. I want peace and I often agree with these people in what needs to be done, but it is the malevolence they have for Jews, the supposedly evil reason Jews did things. It seems really skewed to me. It is always about the evil Jews, what they wanted to do to take over Palestine. Not the persecuted Jews who were trying to create a homeland and made some mistakes. (Benjamin)
Even among so-called non-political people, participants met those who felt that Jews were controlling the world and had malicious plans on world domination. One of the participants, David, had been working on the John Kerry presidential campaign and often speaks to community organizations in the large nearby urban community. He described an incident that had occurred a few months earlier:
I was speaking at a community center in [nearby city], predominantly African American. Someone was talking about how we need to secure our place in the world. He came up to me afterwards and we were talking.
He asked me if I knew what the real problem was, did I know what happened on 9-11 with the Israelis? I said I didn’t know and asked him what happened. He said that there were 3,000 Jews that worked in the Trade Center that didn’t show up to work that day and he said it very matter-of-fact like there was nothing wrong with what he said. That threw me off, I didn’t know how to respond, and I mean it was blatantly antisemitic. I mean, this guy was a federal marshal. These are people who are supposed to protect us. And they believe this about Jews?
Because of the fear of being mistreated, many of the participants have shunned political activity or have begun to work in more centrist organisations. Naomi, a self-described socialist, has begin to work in the Democratic Party on campus to ensure that she will not run into the antisemitism she states is rampant on the far Left on campus. Although she enjoys the work she is doing, she is angry that she needs to misrepresent her activities because of the hatred of others.
Why am I in a centrist organization on this campus? Why do some people consider me middle-of-the-road on this campus? Simply because I support Israel’s right to exist. That is messed up. It really is. I mean, looking at all the issues, I am Left Wing, but I can’t go any farther to the left on this campus without running into rampant anti-Semitism. I can’t do that, for my own mental health. (Naomi)
Economic Antisemitism—The JAP Stereotype
Another form of antisemitism noted by all participants had to do with the stereotype of Jews as wealthy people, who segregated themselves from others to form a clique of rich people. All of the participants explained that they had interacted with people who believed that all Jews were rich. When I asked if this stereotype was prevalent on campus, all of the participants affirmed that it indeed was.
Although many of the participants had difficulty challenging this stereotype because all of the Jews they met happened to be well off financially, they resented the focus on Jews when they saw that many people on campus were wealthy. Many of the participants did admit that they initially accepted the stereotype by either trying to distance themselves from the Jewish community or fulfilling the stereotype since it was what was expected of a Jewish woman.
However, when they began to understand that Jews were being targeted for behaviour that many non-Jews on campus exhibited, they began to question the stereotypes. Amanda, a member of a Jewish sorority, who had recently begun to critique the view about Jews on campus, explained:
It’s funny, like 75% of this campus is wealthy but people focus on the 6,000 Jews here. We are seen as snobby, as having more things, we stick together and that might be around sorority life. Like, I have heard JAP, and it is one thing for us to say it as a joke, like “that was such a JAPPY thing to do”. Among friends it is such a common thing to say. But I know when other people say it has another meaning, like it’s not meant as good-natured or funny. It’s more derogatory.
Interestingly, students had never heard specific anti-Jewish epithets; however, a common euphemism was used that everyone knew meant “Jew”: New Yorker. All of the student participants explained that the term was commonly known to mean Jewish in the same way that “Detroit” was equated with being Black. When students were asked pointedly if they were from New York or someone was being accused of being a New Yorker, they knew that the speaker was classifying the person as a pushy, loud, ostentatious Jew.
The stereotype of the rich Jew often came out in a sexist form as the stereotype of the “JAP” or the Jewish American Princess, the supposedly spoiled, overly materialistic, wealthy Jewish women or the term “New Yorker”. In the participants’ views, this stereotype was common on campus and socially acceptable to express. All of the women interviewed discussed at length the JAP stereotype, their feelings about the term, and their reaction to hearing it and having it leveled at them when they matriculated at the university.
I do think Jewish women have to deal with that stereotype. You know, we have to wonder what people start thinking about us once they hear we are Jewish women. I definitely think it happens for women in sororities. I think that stereotype refers to a lot of the women in sororities, [who] happen to be Jewish. There are Jewish sororities. I didn’t join because I didn’t think that was my scene, but I definitely think that everyone looks at the sorority girl in a certain way in the same way that they would look as a JAP. So, the stereotype is there, it just happens to be worse if you are in a sorority. (Dvora)
Many of the female informants reported that they had spent much time during their undergraduate career negotiating this stereotype. Most of the women explained that their first year on campus was occupied with obsession over how they were seen by others. Informants told stories of intentionally wearing baggy clothes, shunning women who they felt fulfilled the stereotype, and being hyper-vigilant about others’ comments to them. Naomi related the all-consuming anger she felt during her first year on campus:
I admit it, I was angry. When people would ask if I were Jewish, I was convinced that they were thinking of me as a JAP. I was being asked why I didn’t join a sorority. I would yell at people and ask them why did they expect me to join one. Was it because I was Jewish? I was paranoid.
Female participants held that the stereotype affected them a great deal until they entered the anti-racist educational program. They stated that the program provided them with the psychological tools, such as an understanding that stereotypes are not the fault of the subordinated group, to handle the myth. Ultimately, most realized that there was little that one could do to control others’ perceptions of them.
Initially, the participants who grew up in Jewish neighbourhoods thought the stereotype was harmless, but as they got more involved in the anti-racist program and met people who held the “Princess” idea about Jewish women, the more they realised that the stereotype dehumanized Jewish women and Jews in general in the eyes of those who held the stereotype. One student initially thought that the sexist and antisemitic stereotype was harmless until she thought about what that said about being Jewish:
At home in[my predominantly Jewish town], we use the word JAP for people who act a certain way who aren’t even necessarily Jewish. I mean that’s interesting, think about it, that’s really messed up because I think it is how you are with your economic standing more than your religion. It’s saying that if anyone acts like obnoxious or something with money, that’s what being Jewish means. It makes being materialistic and cheap and spoiled, synonymous with being, specifically Jewish women. So that’s anti-Semitic and sexist. (Jaclyn)
As stated earlier, these stereotypes come together to form this idea that Jews are “super-privileged” White people. In this view, Jews were seen as wealthy reactionary colonisers who neither deserve the success nor the nation state of Israel they have. When I asked during the focus group whether many people believed that Jews were not targets but rather extra-privileged Whites, the group felt that many people on campus, especially people of color, held this idea about Jews.
They explained that when people hold this view, they are not able to see Jews as natural allies in the struggle against oppression, do not respect the history of Jews vis-à-vis antisemitism, and are often resentful when Jews explain the positions they hold in a system of oppression. In other words, many non-Jews believe that Jews are trying to claim underserved victim status. For many undergraduates, this is particularly difficult given the anti-oppression stand many schools take toward other groups.
Students should also study how antisemitism operates as a system of oppression, including its cyclical nature. The complete history of antisemitism ought to be taught, helping students realise why Wistrich calls antisemitism “the longest hatred”. In fact, because of the longevity of this form of oppression, several researchers contend that the Jewish community has been affected into the present-day generation. This topic should be explored as a complicated intersection of identities, rather than short-changed with remarks that Ashkenazi Jews merely need to accept U.S. whiteness.
Likewise, students could have an opportunity to explore the stereotypes and myths that they learned about Jews. One of the by-products of not adequately covering Jewish issues is the fear that students will leave the class with the same stereotypical thinking about Jews that they had when they began the course. This process is especially important for Jewish students who may have internalised antisemitic beliefs or who might collude with their own oppression by minimising the impact of these beliefs on the lives of Jews.
Before students can learn about antisemitism and the complicated nature of Jewish identity in social justice education, social justice educators, themselves, need to understand the history of Jewish oppression. Throughout this research study, I heard students complain that the faculty and administrators running these programs often do not themselves understand the long history of antisemitism. The students continually reported that program administrators and faculty were not as knowledgeable as the students would have liked on the topic of Jewish identity and anti-Semitism. If institutions of higher education are to become truly multicultural, all forms of oppression must be understood and eradicated.
Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, Bryn Mawr College
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