Learning to deal with campus anti-Semitism

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What do Urban Outfitters and Israel rallies have in common? Both exhibit certain subsections of the Jewish stereotypes present in our culture — and both can go too far in the portrayal of the generic Jew.

These two facets of Jewish stereotypes were both discussed recently by participants in the Anti-Defamation League-sponsored program “Hate on College Campuses: Drawing the Line Between Legitimate Criticism of Israel and Anti-Semitism,” organized by two ADL Kohn interns, Shoshana Resnikoff and Yelizaveta Ruzer. The program was held at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.

The hosts encouraged discussion on a variety of topics, focusing on witnessing anti-Semitism on the college campus. For example, Urban Outfitter’s popular T-shirt slogan, “Everyone loves a [insert minority here] girl,” enraged consumers when it paired the Jewish girl with dollar signs. (The company eventually switched the symbol to hearts.) The original T-shirt furthered the concept of the Jewish American Princess, a stereotyped view of spoiled daddy’s girls who care only about wearing designer clothes and having a high status.

“We are dealing with a culture that surrounds us,” said Jewish Community High School of the Bay’s Student Life coordinator Lissa Schuman, one of the participants in the event. “On one hand, we are embracing the culture. I have the ‘Everyone loves a Jewish girl’ shirt, but it has the heart. You have to think about when things go too far.”

With the help of ADL’s Regional Director Jonathan Bernstein and Associate Director of Campus Affairs Marnina Cherkin, the organizers hoped to leave students with the tools to recognize when statements like these go too far, and how to combat this negativity.

“Our main goal in the workshop is to empower college students to feel confident to make that definition of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel statements,” Resnikoff said. “Whether or not people walk away feeling they can be a gung-ho advocate, they feel prepared to talk about issues in places that aren’t necessarily comfortable environments.”

Resnikoff and Ruzer began by having attendees decide whether certain statements fell into categories from “Legitimate Criticism of Israel” to “Not Sure” to “Anti-Israel” and finally “Anti-Semitic.”

“A lot of times people feel like they are being too sensitive,” Ruzer said. “It’s a question of deciding when to speak up.”

Bernstein explained that while certain statements can mask discrimination, when a few words are changed the fact that they are prejudiced becomes obvious.

“There are statements that can sound the same, but we feel that they are not the same motivations,” Bernstein said. “‘Zionist’ is being used to replace ‘Jewish’ people, and a lot of times it is racism.”

Colorado College student Mariel Honigman’s experience on visiting day with a Middle Eastern Studies professor who extolled lies about Israel and Gavi Elkind’s observations about the “loud Jewish voice” on her Wesleyan campus make it clear that campuses greatly vary in their students’ affiliations and actions. Cherkin added many horror stories about the acts of anti-Semitism she responded to only in this year, from swastika graffiti in dorm rooms to op-ed pieces in school newspapers denying the Holocaust.

“All aspects of anti-Zionism really do exist on campus,” Cherkin said. “It’s real, and something to be aware of. We could see a lot this fall, especially because this war is particularly controversial.”

Bernstein added that situations like Honigman’s were, in his opinion, the biggest problem on college campuses, because the authority of the professor makes it hard for students to speak up.

The program ended with advice on how to counter these acts of anti-Semitism, from submitting pieces to the school newspapers or educating yourself on the facts to be better prepared in a debate.

“We assume that people on college campuses are more open-minded,” Resnikoff said. “But I think that people who are educated are not necessarily open-minded, maybe just more sophisticated in their argument.”

An Israel advocacy handbook and a book about the myths of anti-Semitism were supplied to the participants. Whether the speaker is a neighbor down the hall or a powerful clothing company, the message of the program was that everyone should be prepared to fight back.