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Ingber ’15: The oldest hatred in new and old forms

Anti-Semitism is not something we talk about on college campuses. While we may discuss anti-Semitism abstractly in academic conversations, it is something we believe we are beyond, something reminiscent of backward 20th century totalitarian regimes. But this ancient hatred of Jews persists around the world. From the depths of Saudi madrassas to the halls of the United Nations in Geneva, anti-Semitic tropes continue.

This past May, a gunman of Algerian descent murdered four people at the Jewish Museum of Belgium in Brussels. A few years earlier, Mohammed Merah, a French national, murdered many people — including an 8-year-old girl — at a Jewish school in Toulouse.

But this summer, following the Israeli operation in the Gaza strip, anti-Semitism was not isolated to rogue actors perpetrating violence. While many protests expressed clear messages objecting to the actions of the Israeli government, others contained thousands of protesters  — many in Germany, alarmingly — chanting “gas the Jews.”  And most striking was an incident in Sarcelles, France, a suburb of Paris. Jewish businesses were looted and ransacked by mobs in an incident resembling something from 1930s Germany. Synagogues were attacked and Jewish sites were vandalized in the suburb of what many consider to be the cultural capital of Europe.

While it is important to note that European governments have been exceptionally swift in condemning this anti-Semitism and mobilizing broad political support to stop its spread, the populist nature of these events signifies the extant nature of European anti-Semitism.

But it is no surprise that there has been virtually no discussion on this topic of campus. Perhaps it is academically passe to examine anti-Semitism in most circles. But I think most students at Brown, and in the United States more broadly, do not believe they are exposed to anti-Semitism. I write this column not to suggest that Brown’s campus is brimming with anti-Semitism — not in the slightest. But I would like to highlight certain things that have appeared across institutions of higher education that give cause for concern.

It is first crucial to remember that Jews still constitute a minority with a long history of persecution prior to a recent history of safety and security. It was not long ago that Henry Ford regularly distributed “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” and President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s State Department routinely rejected requests to accept Jewish refugees from Nazi Germany. While the triumph of the Jewish people vis-a-vis thousands of years of historical threats is nothing short of astonishing, we must remember that persecution weighs heavily on the Jewish historical memory.

And so, it is alarming that somebody drew swastikas on the facade of Emory University’s chapter of Alpha Epsilon Pi, the school’s oldest historically Jewish fraternity. While some might say that Emory is in Atlanta, and the South has more anti-Semitism than other parts of the country, a similar expression of prejudice occurred recently at Yale. Swastikas were chalked on the sidewalk outside a freshman dorm just a short time after they were found on a whiteboard inside an academic building. Scary.

But never at Brown, right? That could not possibly happen here. But it did. Last year, surrounding the now infamous Ray Kelly affair, a number of posters with Ray Kelly’s face were adorned with swastikas. Should I have to enter my dorm and look at a swastika on the door? Do we have such a short memory of 20th century events that we forget how traumatizing these symbols are for Jews, many of whom had family live through or perish in the Holocaust?

But it is easy to condemn a swastika. The more nefarious instances of anti-Semitism manifest in language, not images. They appear in language speciously germane to a conversation but actually coded in historical anti-Semitism tropes. And it is in conversations regarding Israel that these tropes come to life.

Let me be nothing short of absolutely clear: It is perfectly acceptable and appropriate to criticize the actions of Israel without venturing into anti-Semitic territory. But when criticism of Israel uses language historically associated with anti-Semitic canards, we have to be careful. Calling Israelis or the Israeli government “bloodthirsty” for Palestinian children is simply a new variation on historic uses of blood libel — the untrue and offensive notion that Jews seek the blood of non-Jewish children for religious ritual.

Just a few weeks ago, I attended a student panel on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. When asked about the United States-Israel relationship, one panelist remarked that congress gives so much foreign aid to Israel because Jewish donors control elections. I could not believe his comments were real.

More common, however, are comments equating Israeli actions with those of the Nazis. Gaza is often described as a modern-day concentration camp, and political cartoons frequently depict Israeli soldiers as Gestapo agents. The conditions in Gaza are admittedly awful, but in no way does that legitimize the appropriation of language from the Holocaust.

Why, when discussing other minority groups, — whether they be ethnic, religious or based on some other characteristic — are we hypersensitive to language, but people freely use Holocaust imagery to describe the actions of Jews? Why do articles discussing certain communities begin with trigger warnings,  something I ardently oppose due to the chilling effect they have on speech, but articles about Israel freely compare the state to Nazi Germany? This is not necessarily to suggest that campus discourse is rife with anti-Semitism, but we have to be aware of the effect some of this language has on Jewish students.

Despite my frustration, we are undoubtedly lucky that Brown, and most American campuses, are safe places for Jews in 2014. We have come a long way from Jewish quotas and mainstream anti-Semitism, but that success often clouds the still lingering presence of what is often understood as the oldest hatred.

Swastikas might appear ever so often, but we have to be aware of language’s power in conveying anti-Semitism. Comparing Israel’s actions to that of Nazi Germany not only conflates starkly disparate conflicts but also disparages the memory of those who suffered through the Holocaust. Natan Sharansky, an Israeli political activist who was jailed in the Soviet Union as a political dissident, warns that the comparison of the Jewish state to Nazi Germany is the ultimate form of demonization. Let us be aware that this sort of language and distortion of history is nothing short of anti-Semitism.

 

Zach Ingber ’15 can be reached at zachary_ingber@brown.edu.



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