Back in the 1970s, when I left my parents’nest for Vassar College, I never worried about anti-Semitism. Only a train ride from New York City, I felt safe and accepted at my home away from home. Vassar, in particular, had been welcoming to a diverse population—especially gay and transgender students—long before such efforts to diversify were considered educationally desirable and politically correct. Apparently those days are over, with respect to being Jewish—not just at Vassar but at other elite colleges here and abroad. 

     The freedom to enjoy elite colleges for Jewish Americans lasted for only a brief window in U.S. history. In my mother’s generation, many colleges had “quotas” (limited number of spaces available) for Jews. My best friend’s mom was accepted to Mt. Holyoke as part of the Jewish contingent in the late 1940s. Later, the quota system was abolished. So Jewish Americans enjoyed a temporary sweet spot in academia between the abolishment of the quota system and now.

     An article entitled “Vile at Vassar” (in last year’s New York Daily News) described how current college President Catharine Hill allowed an “anti-Israel infection” to linger for months before finally criticizing the rhetoric of anti-Israel Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). The criticism came only after much provocation, including the Anti-Israel group display of a cartoon labelled “Liberators” that shows a monster stomping on a European city while wearing a Star of David and carrying a U.S. flag. Before that incident, SJP had hosted an “Israel Apartheid Week” in an attempt to disrupt a Vassar-sponsored trip to Israel. Even more disturbing is the fact that some faculty members participated in the anti-Semitic fever. Thirty nine professors protested after President Hill finally decided that Vassar would not join the American Studies Association’s call to boycott  Israeli universities. As an alumna, I remember receiving letters and emails from Hill trying to explain and justify the school’s position in this toxic affair. I was just happy my son had avoided most of the cross-fire by graduating in 2013.

    Vassar is not alone with anti-Semitism problems. The debate over what constitutes anti-Semitism has spilled into Stanford University student government elections, according to an article in The New York Times this week. While seeking an endorsement from the Students of Color Coalition, a Jewish student was asked how her religion affected her view of divestment from Israel. This question shifted the focus from the campus election to a fiery argument about ethnic identity and loyalty. When the Jewish candidate revealed that she opposed divestment, there was an awkward silence after which her interview ended—without gaining the group’s endorsement. I’d vote for this young woman based on her honesty alone, and I’m rooting for her in the Stanford University election.

     I am the first one to defend freedom of speech. But protesting Israeli government policy is NOT the same as anti-Semitism. The problem occurs when anti-Israel sentiment is exploited and propagandized to feed and fuel anti-Semitism. Currently, anti-Semitism on college campuses is growing at a terrifying rate, with more than half of Jewish students reporting they have suffered some form of anti-Jewish harassment, according to a recent study conducted by Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. The survey (which included 1,157 Jewish students at 55 American colleges) found that 54% experienced or witnessed “anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of the 2013-2014 academic year.” 

     “The patterns and high rates of anti-Semitism were surprising,” reports Ariela Keysar, an associate research professor at Trinity College who co-authored the report. “Rather than being localized to a few campuses or restricted to politically active or religious students, this problem is widespread. Jewish students are subjected to both traditional prejudices and the new political anti-Semitism.” Keep in mind that the Trinity survey was conducted BEFORE last year’s conflict in the Gaza Strip, before anti-Jewish sentiment spiked globally. I don’t know about you, but these frightening findings make me want to stay home.
     Have any of you also noticed the alarming increase in anti-Semitism here and around the world? If you’re Jewish and grew up in New York City in the ‘60s, the subject didn’t come up nearly as often as it does now. If we talked about anti-Semitism, it was WWII, a cautionary tale for us kids about a time when racial prejudice and aggression ran wild. Tales of anti-Semitism were always followed by reassurances that American Jews had been safe during the war and would continue to be safe. At school and camp, I pledged allegiance to the American flag with special gratitude and passion.
     Of course, I know anti-Semitism has always existed, long before World War II. Scapegoating is an ancient and primitive human pastime, driven by emotions like envy, spite, and fear. Bigotry–against Afro-Americans, against Jews, against Asians, against whoever we cast as “other”— will continue to haunt humanity into the future. But when I headed off to college, travelled to Israel, Egypt, and many other parts of the world, I was exposed to very little anti-Semitism. Even in Arab countries where anti-Semitism became a palpable presence—when my friend’s passport with an obviously Jewish last name was stamped—I never felt personally attacked or unsafe while travelling, the way I would now.

     Henry and I used to love vacationing in France, but not anymore. Paris is still romantic; the resorts in the south are sublime in their beauty and elegance. Too bad all I can think about in Paris now is the slaughter of Charlie Hebdo journalists and the kosher butcher shop where customers were gunned down. After a long Arctic winter nestling deep into my nest, (see “Hunkering Down,”3/6/15) it would be nice to fly to one of my favorite foreign countries.  But this year it won’t be France. Did you know that last week a French soccer player, Nicolas Anelka, created a furor by publicly giving a reverse Nazi salute, the quenelle, after scoring a goal during a match?

     Where did this oblique version of Sieg Heil originate? Dieudonne M’bala M’bala—a popular French comedian who has been repeatedly condemned and fined by French courts for his anti-Semitic comments—performs the backward quenelle, and it has quickly become an internet sensation. Since its resurgence in popularity, the quenelle has been used by athletes in France, the United Kingdom, and even here in the US. Earlier this week, San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker gave a public apology after a photo surfaced of him giving the reverse Nazi salute  with Dieudonne.

     French authorities are considering shutting down Dieudonne’s one-man show, which has been playing to packed houses in Paris.  After a recent performance Dieudonne quipped that hearing Patrick Cohen, a Jewish journalist, makes him yearn for the return of gas chambers. (!!!)  Who is laughing at that joke? Not the 6 million Jews who died in WWII, nor the 15,000 homosexuals, 250,000 mentally and physically disabled people. Not the 25 million Russians killed fighting the war, or the 15,000,000 Chinese. In fact, the 8 million Germans who died are not laughing either.

     I’m hoping the next global generation will regard all past genocide missions –Bosnia, Armenia, Native Americans, Australian Aboriginals, Pygmies, Rwanda, and Kurds, IN ADDITION TO the approximately 72,468,900 people who died in WWII— and feel  HORRIFIED instead of amused. How would Dieudonne, of Afro-American descent, feel if a popular white comedian in New York said he longed for friendship with the Ku Klux Klan and wished he could invite them to bring a lynch mob onto his show? But that would never happen, right? Because that would be racism . . .

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
—Martin Niemöller


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