Michael Saenger
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Keeping the light on, in my campus office

We Jews are at risk, and hiding our identity won't make us much safer. Rather, we need to signal tangibly how proud we are to be Jewish
My office at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas. (courtesy)

I have always hated The Merchant of Venice. I have heard it said so often that Shakespeare eloquently gives his stage Jew the dignity of a man. Shakespeare memorably has Shylock ask his oppressors, “If you prick us, do we not bleed?”

The implication seems to be that we, as Jews, should feel honored and thankful that the great English author had looked our way. Had he glanced at us in condescension? Sure. Had he viewed us as a fundamentally broken people? Yes, of course. Had he built an entire play that celebrates a forced conversion of a Jew on the way to a happy, romantic resolution? Well, yes.

All of that sounds really bad, but we should be thankful, I was told, that he had at least acknowledged that we feel pain, that we get cold, that we have bodies.

As a Jewish Shakespeare scholar, I have always felt a strange mix of expertise and horror when discussing the play. I can talk about it in very nuanced ways, but at what point do I get to say that this play, sitting right at the heart of our civilization, expresses a fantasy that would erase me?

All of that has been coming back to me lately. I am a Zionist, but I think all Jews have been feeling our bodies differently. I am not really shocked by the indifference of the world to the slaughter perpetrated by Hamas, but I am disturbed and angry about it. I, and many others, have argued with care so many things that we should not have to argue about.

We have had to argue that rape is wrong. We have had to argue that Jewish hostages have lives that matter. That war causes casualties. We have had to remind the world that Jews are indigenous to Israel.

All the while, a certain license has been given to social cruelty. I have seen Jews hissed at in professional organizations. I have seen people who think that they advocate for “social justice” mounting anti-Jewish protests outside my synagogue, which they think is a conduit of money to Israel. As with the Merchant of Venice, money is often used as a way to voice the hatred of Jews.

People who know almost nothing about the history of Jewish people in the land of Israel have, at times, been visibly filled with rage at anyone who wears a yarmulke, identifies as Jewish, or has the temerity to assert that we have a right to live. Some rabbis in Salt Lake City were attending a basketball game and were forced to put down signs saying “I’m a Jew and I’m Proud,” because a player on the Mavericks was not happy with seeing that.

I often wore a Jewish Star sometimes before October, and I always do now. I wear a tag that says “Bring them home now.”

I know what some will say. I look white, so I do not feel physical risk when I interact with a police officer at night. I am male, so I don’t fear sexual assault when I am alone in a sketchy neighborhood. I’m muscular, so I rarely feel fear of being mugged. I teach at a university that is relatively safe. All of that is true.

And yet.

As a Jew, I am hardwired to know what it feels like for my physical safety to be put at risk because the winds of history have shifted. And the way some on the anti-Zionist left have sealed off any discussion of the Gaza war is troubling and dangerous. For them, discussion is no longer allowed. Only emotion is allowed, and only two emotions at that: sympathy for Palestinians, and rage at Jews. No other feelings are permitted, and no logic is tolerated at all.

We Jews are a walking paradox. We are an ancient tribe in the modern world. We have a powerful nation, and a beautiful one. And it is in danger. We have a key ally in the US presidency, but that could change. We have some institutional power, but we are vulnerable in many settings. And those paradoxes are not likely to go away. There may come a time soon when professors need to hold up signs, like those rabbis in Salt Lake City, and display them at faculty meetings. As scholars, we typically speak in paragraphs, and in books. We need to learn, now, to speak without words. To speak more clearly.

Reason cannot compete with the language of TikTok, so we need to speak the language of civil protest. Since our presence is seen as offensive, in Tel Aviv, Berkeley, Harvard and Utah, we need to use methods reminiscent of protest movements to assert that we do not intend to go away. For now, our message is simple. I will keep a light on in my office as a signal that I am not afraid to be a Jew. 

I grieve for the suffering of Gaza. And compared to my relatives who bravely serve in the IDF, I have no right to complain of physical risk. I still believe in the joy of the world, and the value of debate and growth. I have seen and felt so many non-Jews reach out to me with kindness and solidarity, making it known that they are perfectly clear on what is going on.

Together with my friends and colleagues at the Academic Engagement Network, I am proud to promote a new step to combat rising antisemitism at American universities. I invite all Jewish faculty to look at our website, and if you agree, leave your light on. Sign up to receive our materials, and put our poster outside your office. I invite non-Jews who get it to join us:

Faculty Against Antisemitism Movement

We should not be at risk. But we are. We can’t really make ourselves safer by hiding our stars on the inside of shirts. One way or another, we have to learn from those rabbis in Utah. One way or another, we need to find physical ways to say “I am a Jew, and I am proud.”

About the Author
Michael Saenger is Professor of English at Southwestern University and the author of two books and the editor of another. He has been a Finalist for the Southwestern Teaching Award, and he has given talks on cultural history in Europe, Israel and North America.
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