It never would have occurred to me that I would use my platform to speak up about antisemitism, not because I couldn’t imagine doing so, but rather, the thought of antisemitism being so unapologetic and emboldened in 2023 seemed unfathomable. That my new college freshman would have to research antisemitic incidents at any potential school in his college search was never something I would have considered when I thought about raising children today.
Truth is, every time I bring attention to an incident (which seems daily at this point), there seems to be shock from some people. I don’t think that it’s out of deliberate ignorance, but the reality is that for many of us, unless some terrible thing happens to us, it just won’t be on our radar. So here’s a well needed wake up call: 57% of American Jewish college students, according to a survey by the World Jewish Congress (WJC), have either witnessed or experienced an antisemitic incident. And the American Jewish Committee (AJC) found that while 82% of American Jews said antisemitism had increased in the past five years, only 47% of U.S. adults agreed; 43% of Jews said that antisemitism had increased a lot, compared to 16% of U.S. adults. That discrepancy has enormous implications for Jewish people at schools, online, and in the workplace.
Let’s just acknowledge that bringing attention to the exponential rise in antisemitism isn’t easy when Jews are only 2% of the American population.
My guess is that most of you (unless you have Jewish friends or family or work in related fields) probably didn’t hear about what took place at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, this past weekend. On campus, during the holiest time in the Jewish calendar, Yom Kippur, when Jews were gathering to fast and pray, a literary festival called, “Palestine Writes” was taking place. It was “supposed” to be celebrating Palestinian culture and literature. However, the speakers were a who’s who of Jew-haters (some of whom were neither Palestinian nor writers of literature). Perhaps that shouldn’t have come as a surprise when the organizer, Susan Abulhawa, wrote: “Every Israeli, whether in a synagogue… or shopping mall is a colonizer who came from foreign lands… The whole country is one big, militarized tumor.” Musician Roger Waters, who has been condemned by the U.S. State Department for his antisemitic actions, was also a featured speaker. (Though at the last minute, Waters claimed he was disallowed from campus, but the UPenn administration insists he was never banned. But don’t worry, he spoke on a Zoom panel rather than in-person.) These are only two of the many examples of speakers with a history of blatant antisemitism presenting at a time when Jewish students and faculty wouldn’t be able to respond, attend, debate, or protest. (Trust me on this, antisemitism, including Holocaust denial and distortion is not a bug, it’s a feature of this event.) I never felt my “otherness” as a Jew when I was a student at Penn; I cannot imagine how scary it is for Jewish and Israeli students and faculty there today. I was always proud to be a Penn alum, today, I can’t say that with certainty.
Now if you’re not attuned to campus antisemitism, you may not have heard about Palestine Writes nor the plight of the Jewish and Israeli members of the Penn campus. But two organizations did and stepped up to call out the hate fest and support the students: Alums for Campus Fairness and JewBelong.
In the week leading up to the event, ACF’s mobile billboards were on display, highlighting the antisemitic words and rhetoric of the speakers so that the administration couldn’t feign ignorance. On the eve of Yom Kippur, JewBelong parked their pink trucks with provocative mobile billboards next to Houston Hall, where Jews gathered for Kol Nidre.
When a conference sponsored by four Penn departments hosts people who attack Jews with Nazi imagery and language, it is completely appropriate for a billboard to say: “We’re just 75 years since the gas chambers. So no, a billboard calling out Jew hate isn’t an overreaction.”
For those of you who aren’t part of the Jewish community, please know that this is not an overreaction. I pose JewBelong’s question to you: “Does your church need armed guards? ‘Cause our synagogue does.” Two days before the festival started, Penn Hillel (the main Jewish gathering place on campus) was vandalized by someone who shouted obscenities about Jewish people while knocking over furniture. Yes, these campus events are related. You cannot host antisemitic speakers and think that there aren’t going to be real life consequences for Jews.
Sadly, my guess is that most people never saw that headline, but at least on campus, many people saw the messaging the pink trucks displayed and I have to imagine it made Jewish students feel seen, rather than invisible. As JewBelong’s signage says: “Can a billboard end antisemitism? No. But you’re not a billboard.” We all have a role in staying vigilant against all kinds of hate. But invisibility is not an option for us. We have to make sure that our peers understand our lived experiences as Jews and Israelis. America has a surging antisemitism problem. We must not suffer in silence. There should be no place on any campus for antisemitism. Free speech is protected; hate speech is not. Penn (and others) have a responsibility to keep their students and faculty safe. This time, they failed.