The greatest privilege of Ashkenazi Jews is accompanied by terror and indeed what feels like weakness. This privilege is the privilege to pass as white. Unless an Ashkenazi Jew comes out as Jewish there is no need for anyone to ever find out this secret. The Ashkenazi Jew can be part of the successful white middle-class and nobody need know. It is liberating, and yet enslaving. There should be no reason to hide after the Shoah. No Ashkenazi Jew in the current year should have to hide under the floor boards like my Grandmother did. If we cannot be who we are, and are instead forced to please the white majority or other larger minorities by pretending to be white for our own safety, then what is this so called privilege even worth? What does ‘Never Again’ mean when uttered on International Holocaust Remembrance Day by all the Gentiles of the world, if the utterance is heard by Jews hiding silently and obediently under the floorboards?
The Ashkenazi Jew can only pass for so long, though. Maybe it will be their surname or a Jewish organization on their resume. Perhaps it will be breakfast at a café while refusing to eat bacon, maybe even being unable to go to a party on a Friday night. Or, perhaps it will be a joke too many that does not quite feel like a joke. Sooner or later the Jew will be found hiding under the floorboards. Rather, I hope they will be found fighting their way out like the Maccabees. No Jew should ever have to hide being Jewish. No human-being should ever have to hide who they are, period.
On most colleges, the Jewish fear of coming out is particularly strong. And why wouldn’t it be? Frequently, the campus is painted with posters declaring the Zionist massacre of Palestinian children. We drink their blood in Max Brenner Coffee while we eat their burned bodies in Sabra Hummus. At the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia upon the opening of a Max Brenner in 2013, the vile Anti-semitic rhetoric was especially terrific. “Sue me Jew”, “evil greedy money loving nature of Jews” and “tip rats” were just some of the phrases spewed from the anti-Semitic mouths of fellow students.
Similarly, a joke article by the campus paper Tharunka reporting a fake protest at Max Brenner the following year leaving Arab and Jewish students alike alienated was not only never apologized for let alone removed. However, a Jewish student who complained to the Ethnic Affairs officer about the Tharunka article was banned from attending safe-spaces organized by the Ethnic Affairs Collective for the reminder of the year.
Similarly, at the Student Representative Council elections of UNSW in 2013, a Jewish student was the target of members of the opposing party dancing around him hailing Hitler while singing “Springtime“ from the Mel Brooks production “The Producers”. While one of the harassing students did pull out of the election, the Jewish student was still labeled as a bully for fighting the harassment he received.
UNSW is of course not the only campus where anti-Semitism has been a problem in recent memory, nor the worst or even especially terrible. It just happens to be one I’m particularly close to. In campuses across Australia, America, and the world anti-Semitism is an epidemic whose victims are quietly buried keeping the outbreak of this disease silent.
Professor Jake Lynch can silence a guest speaker with a megaphone because that speaker once spoke positively on Israel while baiting a Jewish audience member and student with a $5 and $10 bill without it being deemed anti-Semitism at the University of Sydney. At many universities like the University of Berkeley Jewish students by virtue of their connection to Israel are not welcomed into safe spaces designated for minorities.
Last year Apartheid Week on campuses ended in South Africa with chants of “You think this is Israel, we are going to kill you!” and “You Jews do not belong here in South Africa!” by student ‘activists’ outside an Israel trade show. In England, an alleged anti-Semite, Malia Bouattia, has recently been elected president of the National Union of Students, and in York university a student is to receive a public apology and £1,000 from the student union for ignoring anti-Semitic abuse he was subjected to during his studies. Indeed, in 2015 there were 302 recorded incidents of anti-Jewish animus on 109 college campuses across 28 states in the U.S. and the Jewish community was the target of more religious hate crimes than any other community accounting for 62.4% of victims according to the FBI. In London, the number of anti-Semitic attacks spiked by 60%. BDS motions are so common amongst campuses across the world that they almost seem ubiquitous. Apparently the only people that don’t deserve the basic human right of self-determination are the Jews. More so if we can pass as white.
So it is not surprising that Ashkenazi Jews would hide their Jewishness preferring to assimilate and just accept the privilege to pass as white. On a college campus, and indeed the world, everyone is a possible anti-Semite. It does not matter their religion, their ethnicity, or their skin color – before the Ashkenazi Jew chooses to stop passing and come-out, the person they are passing in front of needs to prove beyond reasonable doubt they are safe. Until that time, kippot will be removed from heads, magen Davids and chamsas will hide underneath shirts, and shirts with Hebrew writing will stay unwashed in the laundry. Jewish students assimilate and hide because it is not safe. It is this need for safety which argues an overwhelmingly compelling case for strong Jewish communities on campus such as that offered by Hillel and the different Unions of Jewish students around Europe, South America, South Africa, and Australia. Indeed, it is further a strong indictment of those insidious organizations, professors, and students which actively target Hillels and the Unions of Jewish Students as the last remaining safe spaces for Jewish students on campus.
However, of all the campuses I have overseen, attended, visited, or read about, Florida State University (FSU) is unique in the safe community it has created for its Jewish students. Jewish students do not feel as though they must remove their kippot, or hide their Jewish themed Jewelry. IDF shirts and others with Jewish themes and Hebrew written saliently in large bold font are proudly worn on campus without fear of harm. 52 student leaders, Jewish and not proudly stood with Israel in a leadership statement organized by the FSU NolePac, while a BDS motion has never been brought to the student Senate, let alone look like being moved. Indeed, within my first week of working at Hillel at FSU, the student Senate unanimously passed a funding application for students to travel to a Hillel conference. While my friends in Australia and New Zealand were fighting BDS in student governments across 23 campuses, the student government at Florida State University was helping Jewish students create a progressive and dynamic Jewish community on campus. There is no passing at FSU, no Jews hiding silently and obediently under the floor boards. The Seminole Jews, proud members of both tribes, can shout the Shema in the center of campus on the Landis Green with kippah on head, Magen David donned around their necks, and an IDF shirt wrapped around their back without any fear of scorn or derision.
What makes this campus unlike any other campus? How has FSU split the Sea of Reeds and freed Jewish students from beneath the floor boards where students of other campuses are shackled in passing? What makes the Jewish students of FSU feel like B’nei Yisrael rather than Hebrew slaves submitting to the assimilating will of the White Pharaoh? Perhaps it’s the strength of the Jewish community on campus. Hillel at FSU over the last Semester organized and sponsored an average of 5 programs per week including 27 Israel themed programs, Noles for Israel similarly organized 12 large and highly successful programs, and NolePac was so successful that not only were the students instrumental in campaigning for Florida’s anti-BDS bill, but received AIPAC’s Activists of the Year honors. When Jewish students are united and involved in the campus Jewish community, Jewish Students are safest.
Perhaps it is Florida State University’s location in the capital of one of the most Jewish friendly state governments of the USA, and indeed the world. When there is only good news coming from the capital, and when the student body and administration have as close a relationship with the capital as FSU does, the impact of the capital is strong. Whether blue or red, Florida politicians have almost unanimously sided with Jewish causes and the Jewish state in Tallahassee. University staff and students alike seem to have noticed.
It might be the structures that FSU have put in place to ensure unity and courage, rather than fear and division. Fraternity and Sorority leadership must undergo compulsory leadership training by FSU which teaches how to disagree without being disagreeable, and civility in conflict. There is strong unity of FSU’s Interfaith Council where all faith organizations meet once a month to strengthen their relationships and work on university policy that impacts the religious community on campus. The staff of Arabic and Hebrew and indeed Middle Eastern studies and Religious studies all work together to ensure each-other’s success rather than using politics to enable their colleague’s failure and contempt.
It could simply be that the majority of the student body has grown up with Jewish friends in South Florida. After all, the greatest weapon against ignorance is exposure.
More than likely, it is all of these factors combined and more. FSU offers a unique case study which the administration of other universities would do well to analyze as an example of best practice for empowering their Jewish students. The safety, empowerment, and acknowledgement of Jewish students should be seen as no less important than any other minority group on campus. They are no more privileged, that is an anti-Semitic myth and clearly visible in the FBI statistic. They should not have to hide under a white disguise, nor should they be forced to walk on narrow bridges until the end of their study, fearful of rebuke from their professors or peers. They should not need to please anyone. Like all human-beings, they should be able to just be who they are, and who they are they should be able to be proudly – Jews.