Opinion

It happens here: anti-Semitism at Macalester

As Easter approaches, Christian students may have a lot on their minds: church services, time with loved ones, or trips home to commemorate one of the most important holidays in their religion. As we all know, and celebrate, there is a diversity of faiths at Macalester with celebrations throughout the year, including the Jewish High Holidays in the fall marking the most important days in the Jewish calendar. Because the High Holidays fall on school days, we Jews are used to balancing religion with our daily lives. After all, the benefit of canceling classes for a minority as small as Jews would not outweigh the disadvantages for the entire student body.

This year, though, I had a professor schedule two of five total quizzes during the High Holidays. Shortly before Rosh Hashanah, I realized I had made a mistake and sent my professor an email, desperately asking for last minute extensions for the quizzes. The professor not only ignored my email, but he also gave me excuses as to why the High Holidays were not appropriate reasons for quiz extensions. After finally agreeing to grant me the extensions, the professor said, “To be equally fair, it is not easy to schedule a weekly quiz when three days are involved.” It is not “equally fair” to call the length of my religious holiday an inconvenience.

Unfortunately, the professor’s belief that I was manipulating the situation to put myself at an advantage is symptomatic of American’s lack of knowledge regarding the persecution of Jews today. Although anti-Semitism differs from oppression of other religious and ethnic minorities in that Jews have not been the victim of systemic oppression in recent decades, the past year has shown that non-systemic persecution is prevalent and does not fit into Macalester’s current discourse on persecution.

Outside of Macalester Jewish Organization (MJO) and religious studies, discourse on anti-Semitism is largely within the framework of political and academic conversations about Israel. It ignores the distinct material experiences of Jews in the U.S. or elsewhere in the world. Within my family alone, three of my four Jewish great-grandparents immigrated to escape anti-Semitism. My great-grandfather, Heiman Markovitz, immigrated from Lithuania as a child, arrived in America without any money and lost his mother shortly after. He managed to be the only one out of six children to get a higher education, even persevering through law school, but found that his conspicuously Jewish name made it impossible to succeed as a lawyer. Following in the footsteps of many other American Jews, he was forced to change his name to Henry Marks to avoid the very anti-Semitism he had fled. Shortly after my great-grandparents came here from Lithuania, 210,000 of the 250,000 or 84 percent of Lithuanian Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. Although this limited sample of my family’s story only encompasses an even smaller fraction of the Jews’ experiences, the Jewish diaspora has affected many American Jews.

When we think of anti-Semitism today, we only discuss the major events that influenced the Jewish diaspora in the last 100 years, while ignoring the muted persecution that has plagued our communities in the United States. This ongoing intolerance is one of the factors that has resulted in the Jewish people’s continued self-confinement to certain neighborhoods. Even today, cities like Chicago bear the demographic mark of persecution; around 1950, my grandmother’s family moved to a different neighborhood within Chicago because rampant anti-Semitism made it unsafe for her to walk to school.

In the Twin Cities, despite the fact that there are significantly fewer Jews than in Chicago, the presence of anti-Semitism has been far more insidious. In 1948, around the same time my grandmother’s family was moving, Carey McWilliams, a lawyer, author and editor, described the Twin Cities as “the capital of anti-Semitism in the United States.” McWilliam documented social issues in the mid-1900s. Despite recent notions of Jewish assimilation, anti-Semitism remains rampant here today.

Macalester’s liberal “bubble” is not exempt from hate crimes. In the fall, someone at Macalester carved swastikas into desks. Even though the swastika has its own history and is now a symbol of white supremacy, its underlying ties to the Holocaust make it inherently anti-Semitic. Even though swastikas now are a symbol of white supremacy, they cannot be separated from their history with Nazis and the Holocaust. Additionally, a sign of white supremacy generally includes anti-Semitism. We are also affected by the incidents affecting our neighboring institutions. Since December, seven reports have been filed at the University of Minnesota regarding anti-Semitism. These reports included anti-Semitic propaganda that said, “White man. Are you sick and tired of the Jews destroying your country through mass immigration and degeneracy?” This propaganda perpetuates the use of anti-Semitic stereotypes in our community because we are not isolated from our surroundings. Another example of anti-Semitism within our community was the bomb threat at the Jewish Community Center near campus. These problems are geographically close to Macalester, so we must confront them.

The Twin Cities have a tainted past, but one of the reasons I came to Macalester is because 10 percent of the student body identifies as Jewish. Despite striving for safety in homogeneity, the knowledge I have gained regarding oppression of other minorities as well as my personal experiences at Macalester has revealed a stark disparity between my experiences of anti-Semitism and Macalester’s perception of anti-Semitism as a problem. Very little attention is given, even though people on campus put forth the same stereotypes as white supremacists, perpetuating the persecution of Jews. For example, during my sophomore year, I was joking with friends about the limitations of dating on a small campus. One of their roommates chimed in that the lack of ‘dateable’ men was due to “too many Jewish boys.” Her opinion that Jews are undesirable is rooted in 13th century propaganda stereotyping Jewish features, eventually amplified by the Nazis. These stereotypes led to the desexualization of and discrimination against Jews.

Discourse at Macalester and within more liberal circles often dismisses these toxic stereotypes. It is presumed that we understand the bases of stereotypes and so conversations move on to esoteric topics. This can be highly effective; however, Jewish stereotypes are rarely regarded as such. I have found that my peers cannot discern between propaganda to the extent that stereotypes from hundreds of years ago are often thrown around.

The stereotype that frames Jews as “cheap” is a great example of this. This stereotype originated in the middle ages when the [Catholic] church banned Christians from practicing usury (money lending). Jews adopted this profession because they were banned from owning land and joining certain guilds. Many Christians did not particularly enjoy repaying loans, especially with interest, so Jews became known as “cheap” and the definition of usury became the illegal action or practice of lending money at unreasonably high rates of interest.

This stereotype has been perpetuated by Trump, whose political campaign was plagued by underlying references to greedy Jews, including a series of tweets stating that Hillary Clinton was corrupt, using the Star of David to imply a connection between her corruption and Judaism. Within the White House, it also came out that the notorious Steve Bannon kept his children from attending an elite private school because of all of the “whiny Jewish brats” he feared they would encounter.

The stereotype of the greedy Jew has also influenced anti-Semitic acts of violence on many college campuses. Beginning on March 14, fliers were distributed at the University of Illinois at Chicago with false statements regarding the distribution of wealth in regards to the Jewish people and included statements like “ending white privilege starts with ending Jewish privilege.” I believe that there are a variety of explanations for the considerable presence of anti-Semitism on college campuses, but I think one component is the large number of students who have never met a Jew before. I have had multiple close friends from areas without any Jews say things to me implying that I have inherent privilege that stems from my religion. We have to understand their misunderstanding of the history of Jews, but we also have to be more conscious when we regurgitate assumptions that we were raised to believe.

This is also problematic in that it is an indicator of a greater issue within our country. Many regions lack Jews but still propagate hateful stereotypes, including this rhetoric surrounding the economic integration of the Jewish people greatly exaggerates our wealth. As one would reasonably assume, we are a diverse, heterogeneous group that inevitably has individuals who are wealthy and poor, corrupt and ethical, just like Christians, Muslims and any other religious or ethnic group. Any kind of mindset that allows one to believe that Jews consistently manipulate their surroundings in order to gain wealth is paranoid and dangerous.

Anti-Semitic violence has risen significantly since Trump took office. In 2017 alone there have been more than 140 bomb threats against Jewish institutions. On February 20, there was a bomb threat at the Jewish Community Center less than three miles from campus. We now know that an Israeli-American teen was responsible for the bomb threat. Although some of the well-publicized bomb threats were conducted by this teenager, he has only been linked to eight of the bomb threats and the implications of the events he has been linked to are not negligible. They incited anti-Semitic rhetoric and showed us ways in which our government failed us. Trump did not condemn the massive increase in anti-Semitic incidents until February 21. On February 28, he said that the events were simply attempts to “make people look bad.” This paranoid mindset is not limited to Trump, and contributes significantly to the increased prominence of anti-Semitism.

The teenager’s bomb threats are just one example of the recent rise in anti-Semitic incidents. These major anti-Semitic incidents have been widely publicized and met with outrage. However, we narrow our focus on examples that are not representative of the majority of anti-Semitic incidents. Despite the vast number of other influences, the Macalester community immediately links all of these events to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

When anti-Semitism is discussed, the conversation is minimal and its roots remain in exogenous factors. Trump, Bannon, and other “alt-right” Nazis have catalyzed the resurgence, but our actions and mentalities were significant factors as well. This year, I had a friend completely stop talking to me because of the assumptions he made about my privilege as a Jew. I was particularly irked by this situation because of the stereotypes that I discussed previously. Our ignorance towards Jews is the same cycle that devalues the experiences of every minority.

I hope that my experiences can influence discourse surrounding this subject. At the same time, I understand this does not speak for all Jews, but it is an experience that has been true for me and inevitably for others too. At Macalester, discourse addressing anti-Semitism has largely been centered around the mentality that all anti-Semitism is rooted in right-wing circles, despite the fact that people from across the political spectrum have contributed to it. More generally, liberal communities need to change the way we approach anti-Semitism, especially with the recent rise in hate crimes.

I would like to thank Xander Gershberg and Karlyn Russell for their editing and thoughts as I wrote this piece.

March 31, 2017

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