VIEWPOINT: Defeating Jewish Disempowerment

Like all types of bias, anti-Jewish speech takes different forms. Acts we have seen on campus this year, like the swastika carved onto an elevator door and white nationalist flyers strewn on campus, are among the more blatant forms and clearly deserve our outright condemnation. However, if we stop there, we do the Jewish community a profound disservice.

To say Georgetown is a hotbed of anti-Semitism is outrageous. Georgetown is a great place to be Jewish and, in my experience, Jewish students are less likely to encounter most forms of anti-Semitism here than in much of our country and world. Yet, we can love and be proud of our university community while also continually seeking to improve it.

That is what I am hoping to do by calling out anti-Jewish speech as I see it. We must call out the subtler forms of anti-Jewish speech which are often all too readily dismissed. As such, they are particularly injurious.

In recent months, a number of Jewish students have encountered four types of anti-Jewish speech. Those in quotations marks are direct quotes as reported to me; others are paraphrased as accurately as students can remember. All engage painfully familiar anti-Jewish tropes used to disempower Jews for centuries, or as excuses to do far worse than that.

The first, microaggressions, refer to the careless repetition of supposedly mild anti-Semitic stereotypes. For example: “Oh, there’s a penny on the floor, bet it’s really hard for you to resist picking it up.” Or: “But you’re too pretty to be Jewish.”

The second, philosemitic statements, are sometimes intended as compliments and sometimes not. Ultimately these caricatures misrepresent the diversity of the Jewish community and obscure important details of history, making Jews appear as an inhuman monolith and therefore ultimately a worthy target of envy, or worse. For example: You guys are so good with money, maybe it’s good you control everything.

The third: thoughtlessly using the Holocaust to make a point or worse — to make a joke. For example: “He’s the new Hitler. Would you have been one of those self-hating Jews who followed him?” Or: “You look like someone who’d put people on the trains, not someone who’d end up on one.”

A fourth, sadly common form of anti-Jewish speech is “alternative facts:” readily speaking about Jewish history or current reality without thorough investigation; intentionally erasing or mischaracterizing the Jewish experience; or speaking for Jews. This most often — though not exclusively — happens concerning the subject of Israel but can also occur on the topic of Jewish religion.

For example: “Jews are an invented people.” “But Israel has nothing to do with your Jewish identity.” “There is no support for the claim that Jews come from Judea.” Jewish discomfort with boycotting Israel is merely a sign of Jewish fragility and racism.; It is more appropriate for Jews to return to their true places of origin, like Belarus or Krakow, than to Israel.

Denying Jewish physical and spiritual connection to the Holy Land contradicts millennia of recognized Jewish history and liturgical evidence, including Biblical and rabbinic texts and ancient millennia of canonized Jewish prayers.

These denials cut especially deep  in large part because they are regularly used to delegitimize any and all Jewish claims in the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I implore those championing Palestinian human and civil rights to find better ways to do so than by defying Jewish history, denying Jewish experiences and claiming to have a better hold on Jewish self-understanding than individual Jews do.  It certainly is possible, as my own service in this area confirms.

Anti-Jewish speech hurts Jews, and it hurts us all. Throughout history, anti-Jewish claims have been used to pit Jews against other targeted groups and to mask true sources of power with a Jewish face.  This has chronically led to extreme violence against Jews and to the weakening of would-be coalitions of resistance against deeper systemic problems that affect us all.

So, I am asking you: In your conversations, welcome healthy, rigorous, straightforward debate that challenges and complicates your assumptions. Ask hard questions, do your research and challenge others to as well. Listen openly and well, and never challenge people’s personal experiences. But also resist sloppy speech that lowers the level of discourse and debases those who engage in it. Do not let questionable “facts,” subtle slurs or overtly biased comments go unremarked upon. Sometimes, you need to dig deep and find the courage to simply say: “Look, that’s just not true, and it’s just not okay.”

Rabbi Rachel Gartner is the Director for Jewish Life. 

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5 Comments

  1. Alt Right Hoya says:

    If you replaced Jewish or Jew in the above piece with “White,” and Israel with “America,” my guess is our liberal Rabbi and would do an about face and accuse the Hoya of publishing hate speech and condemn the editors guilty of having committed a hate crime.

  2. Alt Right Hoya says:

    Jews are disproportionately in the top tier financially in this country. Same when it comes to political power and representation in the media.

    How many Jews are on the Supreme Court? Three: Breyer, Ginsburg, and Kagan. That’s 33%.

    At GU Jews are 10% of the student population according to University statistics.

    10% of the Senate is also Jewish, while the House is about 6% Jewish.

    And what’s the percentage of Jews in America? 2-2.5% according to the census.

  3. Alt Right Hoya says:

    The swastika in the elevator may have very well been a hoax. These sort of things are done at places like GU not by skinheads or racists, but identity groups seeking more attention and resources.

    Hate crime hoaxes are a big thing now on college campuses.

    An Israeli American Teen Has Been Arrested in the JCC Bomb Threats Case

    Officials have taken a suspect into custody in connection with threatening calls made to Jewish institutions in the U.S. and abroad.

    “Officials have arrested a Israeli American teenager in connection with a string of bomb threats made to U.S. Jewish Community Centers and schools over the past several months. He has also been accused of making threatening calls in New Zealand and Australia, along with a call to a commercial airline that forced it to make an emergency landing, according to The New York Times.”

    https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/arrest-jcc-bomb-threats/520548/

  4. Jewish Hoya says:

    This is SUCH an important article for all Hoyas to read, particularly non-Jewish ones. Antisemitism has been proliferating on campus in subtle ways for the past few years but no one is talking about it. Thank you, Rabbi Rachel, for speaking up for our community!

  5. Jane Hoya says:

    Rabbi Rachel’s “service” in the area of Palestinian human rights asks Palestinians to “take a leap of faith” and “jump into uncharted waters” along with Israelis, completely ignoring the heavy inequality in resources, safety, and power that exists between Israelis and Palestinians.

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