A couple weeks ago past midnight, a friend and I were brushing our teeth in the bathroom of the Center for Jewish Living at Cornell University when we heard some voices outside. At first, they were unintelligible, but then suddenly as they screamed louder, there was no mistaking what they had said: a derogatory and anti-Semitic slur. I will not write it out here as it was quite vulgar, but it had to do with a sexual act and the fact that Jewish men are circumcised.
At first I was taken aback, not sure what to think. Just some drunk fraternity boys, I thought to myself. But this was different than intoxicated college students screaming nonsense. They had specifically screamed an anti-Semitic insult at the Jewish house. They knew what they were doing.
Anti-Semitism is not in the vocabulary of Jewish students at Cornell. After all, we represent around 20% of the student body and the University President is Jewish. Anti-Semitism is a thing of the past, that is what we have been taught, and so we dismiss it. On this aspect, American Jews are doing far worse than many other minorities.
Only a week earlier, white students sitting on the roof of a fraternity house verbally harassed and threw bottles at black students walking by. This incident created a frenzy of publicity, with students organizing an “Assembly for Justice,” and protestors delivering demands to Cornell administrators. These ambitious demands included, “Create an Anti-Racist Joint Task Force,” and “Require all faculty and staff to undergo ongoing anti-oppression and social justice trainings”. The administration sent out several emails addressing the issue and the fraternity was put on suspension.
Earlier this year at Cornell, Asian-American students defaced posters for the performer Margaret Cho, because posters used a bamboo-style font named “Chop Suey” that was deemed racist. The posters were replaced and the administration sent out a similar response.
These two events show student groups reacting and mobilizing against racism. Yet, anti-Semitic acts have been perpetrated against the Jewish community at Cornell, without any similar responses.
In addition to the act I described in the beginning, the Center for Jewish Living has had food thrown at it, and its property has been defaced. Again and again we say the same things, that they had not done it because this was the Jewish house but because it was a house and they were drunk. But after a while it stops feeling like a coincidence.
So why, when the African-American and Asian-American students took action against racist incidents, do young Jews today choose to ignore similar actions?
I think part of it is because we feel privileged. In today’s America, Jews have simply become white, and white automatically means privileged. A white person cannot complain of racial discrimination, that would simply be ridiculous, right? Jews also tend to be well to do and be found in excess at many prestigious Universities and jobs. And there’s the oft-cited statistic of Jewish Nobel Laureates.
Young Jews in America have grown up with privilege and this brings along with it a sense of guilt. When we go to college we feel bad for not needing financial aid and not qualifying for work-study. Unlike other minority students we know that we will not be the only Jewish person in the classroom or at the workplace. Jews are more assimilated than ever, and while we are much better off than we were a century ago, we must be aware that stereotypes and prejudice still exist in our society. The events I described show that anti-Semitism is alive, even at an Ivy League college campus.
When discussing these incidents with friends, some thought I exaggerated or made it too big of a deal. But this is precisely the problem. When faced with similar situations, other minority students chose to act instead of questioning their gut reactions. I think it is better to exaggerate rather than ignore discrimination. Small actions that are not addressed are what lead to more serious problems.