With the memory of the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue still fresh and the heartbreaking murders in Jersey City still weeks away, at the end of November, Hillel, the world’s largest Jewish campus organization, partnered with the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh to sponsor an inaugural meeting of ACT—Anti-Semitism on Campus Student Leadership Assembly.
Meeting at the Omni William Penn Hotel in Pittsburgh, hundreds of students from across the country convened to learn more about the challenges Jews as a people and a faith face, especially on college and university campuses. More than 300 mostly Jewish students from close to 100 colleges and universities had come to learn how to combat anti-Semitism.
In many ways, it was fitting that the meeting was held in Pittsburgh, often referred to as the “City of Bridges,” a reference to its 446 overpasses, more than any other city in the world, including Venice. Many of the Jewish students at the meeting were aware of the traditional Hebrew expression, adapted from the writings of the great chasidic master, Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlav: Kol ha’olam kulo gesher tsar m’od v’haikar lo l’fached klal. (The world is a narrow bridge, and the important thing is not to be afraid.)
Like the Jewish people itself, a bridge can weather the harshest conditions without collapsing only if its support systems, span and foundation work together. Each part is crucial to its stability because harsh winds can assault its structure, freezing temperatures can strain its forged bonds and droves of traffic can shake its core. So, too, the Jewish people face the possibility of crumbling unless all necessary components are functioning.
The Jewish religion, faith and culture have spanned thousands of years despite the unrelenting torrent of persecution and abuse, thanks to the foundations of support that have been built by educating each succeeding generation coupled with the maintenance of traditions.
At the ACT assembly, Judah Samet, a survivor of both the Holocaust-era Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and last year’s Tree of Life massacre, discussed the source of his inspiring strength to withstand the horrific attacks on his body and religious soul as well as the concomitant posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that goes along with surviving. Like many of the students at the conference, I was aware of the strange anomaly many of us face: anti-Semitism on campuses on which, despite the undercurrent of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiments, Jewish life flourishes. I am a fourth-year nursing student at Rutgers University, which has one of the largest Jewish presences on any secular campus. We boast approximately 5,000 Jews and the largest Chabad and Hillel buildings in the country. But no one can deny that when we participate in any activities on the larger campus, we are aware of the prevalence of anti-Semitism often masquerading as critiques of Israel.
As the leaders of the ACT conference made clear, we at Rutgers are not alone. This is a critical issue on campuses around the county as well as in contemporary political settings. At the conference, 10 speakers, a student panel and a host of individual students all related their personal experiences of anti-Semitism on their campuses. A Twitter thread with the hashtag #TellYourStoryNow became an awareness campaign.
Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism
Rachel Fish, executive director of the recently established Foundation to Combat Anti-Semitism, understands the endless struggle to educate and empower students on college campuses as they develop strategies and a support network in order to continue the fight against anti-Semitism. On September 11, 2001, she was at an orientation meeting at the Harvard University School of Divinity when the news broke about the attack on the World Trade Center in Manhattan. Seeking words of comfort amidst panicked confusion, she and her peers listened to the then-dean of the Divinity School, William A. Graham, blatantly blame the horrific terrorist attack on the United States’ support for Israel. She used the shock and revulsion she felt at his words as the impetus for her fight against anti-Semitism on campus.
“The sentiment on Harvard’s very liberal campus is that to be pro-Israel is to have this black label on you. Somewhere along the line, being pro-Israel became being anti-Palestinian, which is really not what it means at all,” she said.
She explained that many of the so-called diversity officers on college campuses see their job as protecting minorities, a designation they do not naturally extend to Jewish students. According to Fish, most of those officers cannot comprehend how Jewish students could possibly be vulnerable. In the view of those officers, she said, “Jews have privilege and they’re white—therefore, they’re powerful. In that equation, they just don’t understand the issues you are facing on campus.”
“We are living in a woke society in which Jews are not part of the equation,” she said. The group she now leads was founded last June by American businessman and philanthropist Robert Kraft, owner of the National Football League’s New England Patriots and the founder of American Football Israel, including the Kraft Family Stadium in Jerusalem and Kraft Family Israel Football League.
Right and Left
While Fish pointed out that anti-Semitism on the political left is much more subtle than its counterpart on the right, the ACT conference’s keynote speaker, historian and author Deborah Lipstadt, argued that hatred of Jews can be found on both sides of the political spectrum. She warned against taking a stand over which side of the political spectrum has a worse record of anti-Semitism. “Be careful of becoming the drummer to the beat you march to,” she said.
She spent time expounding on the white genocide/Christian-replacement theory, a claim that argues for the existence of an organized plot to replace white Christian society with people of color who, according to this theory, are not sufficiently capable of uniting on their own. The anti-Semitic component enters into this racially insensitive theory in that it presupposes that Jews are behind the effort.
According to Lipstadt, this theory had originally been held by the far-right, but, she told the students, it has now morphed into an idea that has invaded the “mainstream right.” While she offered no proof that mainstream politically conservative groups have given this theory any credence, she launched into a discussion of the demonstration in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which the mainstream groups on the right had gathered to protest the destruction of statues honoring Civil War leaders from the South. The left-wing groups that opposed them wanted the statues removed.
Although Lipstadt did not mention it, many observers noted that the left-wing argument at the demonstration was highjacked by extremist Antifa thugs, and the right-wing by white supremacists who chanted, “The Jews will not replace us.” That last element, said Lipstadt, was how the genocide/Christian replacement theory showed its anti-Semitic face.
She did not deny, however, that the left also maintains anti-Semitic stereotypes, especially that Jews are financially privileged and racially white.
“The left holds three standards for determining someone’s status in society: ethnicity, class and power,” she said, listing the left’s criteria for deciding who attains the rank of “villain” and who is the “underdog” in their political narrative. This, she said, reflects the left’s double standard by which anyone who is determined to be “privileged” cannot possibly be a “victim.”
She agreed with Fish that, because Jews do not fit the typical picture of victims of prejudice, the so-called diversity officers on university campuses automatically—and hypocritically—dismiss any claims of anti-Semitism.
Many of the students at the conference felt confused by Lipstadt’s presentation, which did not offer any specific strategies for identifying and combatting the anti-Semitism many of us have experienced firsthand. Especially upsetting was the lack of any direction when we are faced with anti-Semitic or anti-Israel views forced on us by professors. Perhaps worst of all, she used the podium to attack President Donald Trump whom many of us at the conference agreed is the most pro-Jewish and pro-Israel president in American history.
Much more enlightening were the presentations by Hussein Mansour and Frank Meeink, who, although they represent completely different groups, both grew up hating Jews and Israel.
Mansour is an Egyptian who admitted he would have gladly stabbed an Israeli soldier if he had only been given the chance. Meeink, a former skinhead, used to have a tattoo of a swastika on his neck before he had it removed. Both men gave clear examples of how anti-Semitism permeated every aspect of the daily culture in which they were raised. Their stories of how their eyes were opened to the truth about anti-Semitism and Israel were moving and inspirational. There is something that can be done.
Title 6 Protection
It is important to remember that the ACT conference was held just a few weeks before President Trump signed an Executive Order extending Title 6 protections to Jewish students. Before this, Title 6 offered protection against discrimination and harassment to students based on race, color and national origin (but not religion) in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance. Recognizing that Jews are both a national group as well as a faith, Mr. Trump has now offered these game-changing protections to Jews. This truly historic act of support for Jewish-American students was overwhelmingly comforting. Someone had actually listened to our cries on campus, had understood our fear that any time there is a rally or protest on campus, there is the potential for it to turn anti-Semitic or anti-Israel very quickly.
We know how vulnerable we are and are so grateful that our president has now given us the tools and standard of justice we need to feel we are not alone. Schools that allow Jewish students to be discriminated against or harassed will risk losing their federal funding.
Last year, many of us attended devastating vigils for the victims of the Tree of Life Synagogue murders in Pittsburgh. Last week, we attended another sickening vigil for the victims in Jersey City, just a few miles from where we live, work and go to school. It happened in a place where any of us in the Jewish community might have shopped for kosher food. It made clear once again that we are not immune to the rising, insidious attacks on our beliefs, way of life and safety. How is it that while I sometimes fear for my little sister and my cousin because they are studying in Israel, there was a shooting targeting Jews in New Jersey, one of the most heavily Jewish-populated states in the country?
No, as we learned at the ACT conference in Pittsburgh, we, the Jewish people, young and old, will have to gird our strength to fight against this widespread hatred, often recognized as the oldest in the world. The ACT conference was a step towards bridging Jewish communities and uniting us, and now we must plunge head-first into the violent, freezing waters and ford the waves of attacks crashing around us.
Miriam Rosenbluth is a resident of Highland Park and a fourth-year nursing student at Rutgers.