One month ago, the Phoenix reported on bias incidents of swastikas that were found spray-painted on campus and detailed the college’s plans to address these concerns. In the article, one student, Jonathan Cohen ‘17, said he believed the Dean’s office did not fully recognize how severe the issue of anti-Semitism is to students.
In response to feedback similar to Cohen’s, the Lang Center and the Intercultural Center teamed up with many of the college’s social sciences departments to address anti-Semitism in the college’s community and around the globe.
The talk, which was initially held only for Professor Sa’ed Atshan’s Israeli-Palestinian Conflict class, was opened up to the general public in response to the recent occurrences.
Rabbi Alex Weissman was featured as the guest speaker, and over 50 students and ten faculty members attended to hear his thoughts.
To begin his presentation, Weissman asked all of the Jewish people in the audience to come stand at the front of the room. After giving everyone a few moments to register this request, he proceeded to ask everyone how they felt. Some responses included “terrifying” and “I feel singled out for something beyond my control.” The activity served to give a notion of what it is like to be targeted based on some aspect of one’s identity.
Weissman then spoke in great detail about the history of anti-Semitism. Even as a child, he recalls that the early Jewish texts included some acknowledgement of religious persecution. For him, the idea of persecution was, and always has been, a part of Jewish tradition. He then proceeded to trace the different stages of anti-Semitism throughout the ages, from the pre-Christian to the modern era.
In order to reinforce that discrimination against the Jewish community has always existed, he asked the non-Jewish people in the room for early perceptions of Jews that they received from media and their schools, while asking those in the room who identified as Jewish for their first experiences with anti-Semitism. The audience then broke into small groups to discuss their individual answers to the questions posed.
Most of the people in the room first learned about Jews and the concept of anti-Semitism through their studies of the Holocaust and religious persecution. Weissman found it to be disheartening that this tragedy is the extent of our knowledge of Jewish history in the past 2,000 years.
In order to connect the history of anti-Semitism with the discrimination against Jews in the present day, Weissman described the four ways that he believes Jewish people are used. The first way is the Jewish function as the “middle-person.” He states that he has seen many Jews involved in careers like social work and teaching, which causes them to become the face of the state that oppresses poor people and people of color. Secondly, Jews can be used as “buffers,” forced to live in dangerous places that are susceptible to outside attack. They are also used as “pressure valves” to alleviate the pressures of the economy through their personal successes. Finally, there is the “Court Jew,” who Weissman sees as a Jewish person with some power in government, who, despite this privilege, is ultimately expendable.
Rabbi Weissman ends his talk by urging the audience to affirm that Jewish rights are basic human rights. “Fighting anti-Semitism is not about whether you’re a good Jew or a bad Jew. It’s about human dignity and justice,” said Weissman.
In terms of overall effectiveness, some felt that this space was extremely conducive to fighting the anti-Semitism that has appeared on the school’s campus, while others found it to be less productive.
Director of Religious and Spiritual Life, Dr. Joyce Tompkins, who was present to support the Jewish community and to learn more about the issue of anti-Semitism, believed her expectations were met.
“I’m hearing from students about different experiences, and it wasn’t just a lecture; there was a lot of sharing back and forth,” said Joyce. “I learned a lot, and felt privileged to hear the deep personal sharing that students were willing to divulge.”
In response to the swastika incident, she responds, “We don’t know a lot about who did this, but we’re clearly not a perfect community. This can be a learning opportunity. We have a lot more learning to do about how anti-Semitism impacts people personally.”
Several students felt that this event helped them to better understand and analyze the problems of discrimination and injustice at the college. Christian Galo ’20 said that he had become desensitized to anti-Semitism as it was so apparent throughout his middle school, but recently, he has become more aware of sensitivity to these issues.
“I had dismissed the swastika incident as childish vandalism, but when I talked to other people, I realized many were very offended and had strong emotional reactions in regards to the incident,” said Galo.
Some, however, found the talk to be less helpful than they had originally anticipated it to be. Ben Stern ’20 believed that the event focused too much on painting a picture of oppression and not enough average Jewish experience.
“Growing up as a Jewish person in the U.S., I felt that I didn’t really have that experience of oppression and emotional trauma,” said Stern.
Despite the varying opinions on the overall effectiveness of Rabbi Weissman’s talk, the key takeaway, according to several students who were interviewed, was that anti-Semitism does exist and as students of a school that prides itself on diversity and understand and address, as members of a global community, it is essential that we do our part in staying aware of these issues.
“We are like fish in water. Fish don’t take note of the water around them,” said Weissman. “We breathe and live in a water of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and racism, but it’s hard to see the thing surrounding us sometimes.”
Throughout the various attempts to provide safe spaces for learning and discourse, it is important to note that the school does not take student feedback lightly.