“It was not all about Israel: My take on the ADL conference” by Christopher MacDonald-Dennis
Over the past two weeks, I have been inundated with reports and articles discussing the recent ADL conference on progressives and antisemitism in San Francisco. Although the articles come from different organizations with various takes on the conference, all of these pieces simplify the conference. They solely focus on Israel and the question of whether criticism of Israel is antisemitic. As a participant and a presenter, I am frustrated that other discussions about Jewish identity and antisemitism that were held at the conference have been obscured. This piece is an attempt to clarify that Israel was not the only topic at the conference.
The educational session I presented was entitled “The Academy: Anti-Semitism on College Campuses.” The presentation was based on my dissertation that explored the racial, ethnic and ethno-religious position of Jewish undergraduates. In my presentation, I examined the antisemitism some Jewish students experience at purportedly multicultural institutions of higher education.
In my presentation, I discussed how antisemitism was still a force on college campuses. I reported that Jews, unlike other minority groups, were not seen as part of the multicultural movement and that this impacted Jews. My 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 them 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.
In my session, I highlighted the antisemitism these students faced 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. Jews were seen as undeservedly wealthy and not victimized by discrimination; they also represented and personified the wealthy White person who benefits from whiteness at the expense of people of color.
I shared that the students were also victimized by forms of antisemitism that go deeper than general dismissal of minority status. Yes, we did talk about Israel but for only a few minutes. I
shared how some students had seen posters equating Israelis with Nazis. They had met people who said to them that Jews and Israelis were controlling the world and had malicious plans on world domination.
Mostly I reported about antisemitism in the form of the stereotype of Jews as wealthy people, who segregated themselves from others to form a clique of rich people. In addition, a common euphemism was used on campus 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 “urban” 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.
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.
Lastly, I discussed that many Jews dealt with religious antisemitism on campus. With the rise in Christian fundamentalism, more Jewish students are being accosted for being non-Christian and/or Jewish. Students had been told that the Jews killed Jesus and that the Jewish
people would always be responsible. Christian students tried to convert the students to Christianity, telling them that Christianity had “completed” Judaism. Some students dealt with Christians who pitied them for spending eternity in hell because they had not accepted Jesus as their savior.
While Israel was an important topic for some people, it was not the only item on our agenda. There were presentations that dispelled various myths about Jews including the idea that all Jews are white and Ashkenazi. As my presentation showed, antisemitism takes many
forms. My research showed that the “old” antisemitism in alive and well in many corners of this country. The conference discussed various manifestations of antisemitism, not just Israel. By only focusing on Israel, we are in danger of not confronting the many ways we are still affected by antisemitism.
Christopher MacDonald-Dennis, Ed.D, assistant dean and director of intercultural affairs at Bryn Mawr College, is active with Meretz USA, Ameinu and Brit Tzedek V’Shalom.