The Pittsburgh Tree of Life synagogue shooting shook me out of my happy American life in which, I believed, anti-Semitism did not exist. Having emigrated to the United States from the Soviet Union in 1989, I believed we had left anti-Semitism behind for good.
Did I simply not pay attention or are things really that much worse now? In response to the steady barrage of news over the past year, memories, long buried in some dark dusty closet where all redundant memories go, have been emerging and presenting themselves in full color. And the release this week of the American Jewish Committee’s new anti-Semitism survey brought more of those to the surface.
The part that jumped out at me the most appeared in a piece by Avi Mayer, AJC’s managing director of global communications: “Young people are significantly more likely to have been victims of anti-Semitism.” Forty-five percent of the survey respondents between the ages of 18 and 29 reported having been targeted by anti-Semitic remarks or physically attacked for being Jewish.
Why did I find it so troubling?
Ask any Soviet Jewish parent why they emigrated, and they are likely to tell you it was because of their children. They did not want their kids to live in a country where anti-Semitism would be a constant feature of their lives.
In our family, it was my and my brother’s specific experiences that convinced my parents we couldn’t wait any longer. In my case, it was being rejected by my third choice of college despite having scored among the top five on the entrance exams. (I had been advised against applying to my top two schools and departments because they never took Jews.) The devastation I felt, seeing, at 17, my life’s dreams crashing all around me, was bad enough. But it was worse for my parents. One day, my younger brother didn’t come home from school until very late. When he finally appeared, we learned that older kids had held him up in an empty lot. They didn’t harm him, but, for whatever reason, they kept him there, and one of the things my brother understood was that it had something to do with his being a Jew.
We were gone the next year.
When it comes to young people—even with the slightly older, 18- to 29-year-old age group that the AJC polled—it’s not just they alone who experience anti-Semitism. Their parents live it with them. And for the parents, it becomes a question of what kind of life their children are embarked on and whether it is the best life they can give them.
The big question, of course, is what exactly about that group made it prone to experiencing anti-Semitism at a higher rate. The survey does not offer an explanation, but we can hazard a guess based on what we know.
One of the things the poll has done is to show clearly that Jews perceive eliminationist talk about Israel as anti-Semitic: 84% of those surveyed felt that way about the phrase “Israel has no right to exist.” About the same portion view the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions movement—whose founders and leaders don’t mince words about envisioning the absence of any Jewish state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea —as anti-Semitic.
That alone suggests possible sources of anti-Semitism disproportionately affecting younger American Jews—the group that is likely to include undergraduate and graduate students on politically leftist campuses and young professionals in left-leaning liberal workplaces.
The news from campuses in particular hasn’t been very encouraging.
This year, more than 20 American colleges and universities across 10 states hosted the annual Israel Apartheid Week—an event that every year turns Jewish students into easy targets of harassment and contributes to their fears, anxiety, and sense of exclusion and isolation.
Jewish students’ desire to pursue study abroad in Israel has now turned into a politically charged issue: in September and October of 2018, two University of Michigan professors declined to write letters of recommendation for students intending to pursue such programs, citing pledges of academic boycott against Israel.
Next came California’s Pitzer College, which in December 2018 voted to suspend its study abroad program with Haifa University. But the real doozy came this past May, when BDS-supporting faculty and students drove NYU’s Department of Social and Cultural Analysis to sign a “pledge of non-cooperation” with NYU’s Tel Aviv campus.
Some of those doors slammed shut did eventually open: after a public outcry, the University of Michigan professors’ decisions were reversed, and NYU’s leadership said no student would be prevented from going to Israel to study. But these are pyrrhic victories. What can’t be reversed is the social cost that the original action imposed on the student, or the stigma that may be attached to someone choosing to participate in a program that “progressive” faculty and students oppose.
A particularly tough and independent-minded student might be able to shrug off potential losses of friends and social opportunities and move forward with his or her course of study. But not everyone will have such emotional stamina. In any case, expecting that Jewish students should be jumping through hoops every time they want to study in Israel is morally wrong. As Liel Leibovitz astutely observed, these kinds of actions turn Jewish students into second-class citizens. I, of course, mention here just a few of the cases that made it into the news. How many are there that did not? In AJC’s survey, 20 percent of the polled said they or someone they know experienced anti-Semitism on a college campus.
I read about these cases and I think back to my 17-year-old self failing to comprehend a system in which, instead of getting the hard-won prize, I was shown the door because of things I could not change about myself. The decision might be reversed (as it was, in fact, in my case after my parents jumped through hoops). But the memory of the original experience stays with you. And it changes you.
Experience of anti-Semitism has a powerful ability to focus your mind. When you find yourself to be a target—especially when it’s your people; your fellow students, your social movement comrades, your professors—who are targeting you, it forces questions of identity and belonging.
What kinds of questions are the young people in the AJC survey who experienced anti-Semitism asking themselves? What questions are their parents asking when their kids share these experiences? And what is the experience of Jewish youth below the age group AJC polled?
From the example of two school districts in the country—one in California, the other in Massachusetts—that are currently the battleground of Israel-related curricula, we know that BDS proponents are trying to institute narratives and perspectives that people in the AJC survey see as having anti-Semitic connotations. What kind of a classroom environment will it create for younger Jewish children?
At this point there are more questions than answers. We have to keep asking those questions. This is about what kind of a country we want to leave for the next generation.
Izabella Tabarovsky is a writer in Washington, DC. She works at the Kennan Institute (Wilson Center). Opinions expressed in this article are hers alone and do not reflect the views of her employer. She can be followed on Twitter at @IzaTabaro