Antisemitism as a day-to-day experience
Updated: Sep 8, 2021
Despite being a Jew for over nineteen years, it took me until my sophomore year of college to understand that antisemitism was a day-to-day experience. Antisemitism is something I've been keenly aware of as long as I can remember: My grandfather fled the Holocaust, and my mother works in Holocaust education. I'm used to the idea that someone might hate me for something that I cannot control.
I've always thought of it that way: Hate. The antisemitism I was told about involved acts of terrorism, genocide, and other forms of violence that were abhorrent manifestations of hatred. There were always security guards outside my synagogue during the high holidays, and whenever I walked by them, I considered that they may be necessary.
But I never considered antisemitism as something I'd actually experienced. It was something terrifying, but far away. Chances are the person who spray-painted swastikas under the highway does not live in my neighborhood or go to my school. Even when a swastika appeared in a residence hall at my university, I imagined a MAGA-hat wearing psycho, and not a fellow student (it most likely was a student).
I'd never been a victim of an act of hatred, and so I'd never experienced antisemitism. Those security guards were indicative that antisemitism was something that existed, and could manifest itself all at once in the form of extreme violence. But as long as that did not happen, antisemitism had little bearing on my life.
Now, beyond violent hatred, I've come to learn that antisemitism can be contempt, distaste, and ignorance. On campus, I've felt it in more varied and subtle ways than I ever have before, and I've matured enough that I have the language to name it. I started reflecting on antisemitism in my day-to-day experiences after seeing this post on Dear Blueno, a Facebook group for anonymous posts from Brown University students:
I had an immediate gut reaction upon seeing this post, a kind of discomfort in my stomach. And then I thought about why this made me so uncomfortable: Why single out Jewish men? And why did this person feel the need to post about it? When they wrote the post, did they consider that this was a stereotype about Jewish men?
And then, the worst feeling of all: To what extent is this person relying not on stereotype, but on observation? This person must have noticed some Jewish men fetishizing Asian women, perhaps it even came from their personal experiences with Jewish men. Are they right about Jewish men (including myself)? Is this antisemitic at all, or just correct?
I hope my superfluous use of rhetorical questions illustrates the kind of spiraling self-doubt that this post awakened within me. The power of stereotypes is that they resonate with people. I think about the Jewish men that I know, and I notice that some of them have had Asian girlfriends. I don't think about the many more Jewish men that I know that haven't. I don't consider that these men can have Asian girlfriends without fetishizing Asian people. The same dynamic applies to stereotypes about Jewish wealth: I immediately think of all the wealthy Jews I know. Never mind the wealthy gentiles, or the middle-class Jews.
In many ways, that self-doubt is the first hint that you've stumbled upon a damaging antisemitic stereotype. These stereotypes are everywhere, and I barely even noticed them until recently. One phrase that brought them to light was the use of the word "zionist" which, among many people I know on campus, has come to mean "the kind of Jews I don't like." In their minds, they don't associate Jews with stereotypical traits. They do, however, think of "zionists" as entitled, wealthy nerds who complain too much — a conception that is often completely separate from their critiques of zionist ideology.
Most shocking to me, is how unwilling people are to acknowledge this subtle antisemitism. As with all forms of 'microaggressions,' people are immediately defensive when called on them. They don't believe that they are antisemites, and will defend themselves from the accusation. However, much like with racism, one does not need to be an antisemite to say things tinged with internalised antisemitism.
This problem is compounded by the stereotype that Jews are complainers. Jewish women are fickle and Jewish men are neurotic. In American media, Barbara Streisand-types are divas, Woody Allen-types wallow in self-pity, and John Mulaney's girlfriend's stomach hurts. Once, a friend of mine tried to defend her home country's role in the Holocaust. When my Jewish friend called her on it, she complained that "not everything has to be about the Holocaust." According to the Anti-Defamation League, thirty percent of people worldwide believe that "Jews still talk too much about what happened to them in the Holocaust."
Beyond that, discussions of antisemitism on campus often get confused by the concept of privilege. The largely left-leaning people I talk to on campus believe that a group's relative privilege or marginalisation determines the validity of their complaints. Thus, the phrases "Black power," and "white power" take on different connotations, and "straight pride" is obviously idiotic. To me, this is intuitive and logical.
This intellectual framework breaks down when it comes to discussions of antisemitism. Jews are stereotyped as wealthy, powerful, and broadly privileged. These stereotypes are damaging, but if you believe them, and adopt the aforementioned intellectual framework of 'privilege,' Jews are not entitled to complain about them, as they are not marginalised.
Thus, more Dear Blueno posts like this one, in which somebody claims that Jewish complaints of antisemitism are actually a tool of white supremacy. The poster even says that most of Jews complaints of antisemitism are based on their experiences in Europe, as if antisemitism was a uniquely European phenomenon that died in 1945.
I am not going to hedge, nor add caveats, nor discuss the role Jews need to play in fighting antisemitism. Antisemitism is real, and what is most insidious about it is that it is self-justifying: People who have internalised it are more likely to believe that Jews are entitled complainers, and that they are exaggerating.
The problems that I've discussed are subtle and, in the grand scheme of things, small. But one of the things I appreciate most about the people I've met in college is their willingness to critically examine small issues. Critical examination of the use of the words "guys," or "Latinx," or whether or not the word "Black" should be capitalised matters because the things we say matter. This self-awareness and open-mindedness needs to be extended to antisemitism. Listen to Jewish people, and do not dismiss their complaints. To do so on the grounds that they are "too sensitive" is itself antisemitic.
Antisemitism is a lived experience. The fact that I've only come to realise this now shows how pervasive it is.