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After Colleyville, we fight antisemitism by teaching about it

A few years ago, a guest speaker made antisemitic statements on a panel at Princeton University, where I lead the Center for Jewish Life — Hillel. Alarmed by his comments that Israelis “are biped bloodhounds drinking the blood of one million [Palestinian] children,” I met with an administrator to discuss its impact on Jewish students.

I was shocked to learn the administrator had never heard of the blood libel, the medieval lie accusing Jews of baking Passover matzo with the blood of Christian children. But why would he? He isn’t Jewish, and antisemitism hadn’t been a problem during his tenure at Princeton until the past few years.

More recently during the latest round of hostilities between Israel and Hamas in May 2021, a university staff member offered support to students concerned about violence in Gaza — but not in Israel. Another campus partner argued that the decision was political but not antisemitic or even exclusionary. I realized that even colleagues who work closely with Jewish students often don’t understand the ways in which they feel excluded, especially in times of escalated tensions and rhetoric around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

This month’s hostage-taking at Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas demonstrated that attacks on Jews are not a piece of history. It underscored the dire need to educate our potential allies who have never fully learned about antisemitism.

It’s our responsibility to provide them with the tools to recognize and respond when words and actions are antisemitic. And we need to go beyond facts and statistics to make the human connection that allows others to understand why many Jews feel so scared today.

When I was in Hebrew school in Cleveland in the 1980s, we spent years learning about the history of antisemitism, culminating in a comprehensive study of the Holocaust. As the daughter of a Holocaust survivor, I knew in my gut — my kishkes, as we say in Yiddish – that hate begins with bias that can escalate to words, vandalism and violence.

Most of the college students and many of the university administrators I work with today didn’t have a similar education, since teaching about the Holocaust isn’t always the norm in secular education in many communities. Only 22 states currently require Holocaust education in public schools. So it is no surprise that the students and administrators I spoke with are ill-equipped to recognize antisemitism and hesitant to call it out.

This is made even harder when antisemitic tropes — such as drinking the blood of children — are veiled as criticism of Israeli policies and, conversely, when legitimate criticism of Israeli policies is wrongly labeled as antisemitic.

Teaching about antisemitism wasn’t what I expected when I came to Princeton 17 years ago. At that time, addressing discrimination toward Jews meant talking about the university’s Jewish quotas and institutionalized exclusion of Jews from the eating clubs during the mid-20th century. By the 1980s, 1990s, and 2000s when I arrived, all of this felt like ancient history to many of our students, who hadn’t directly experienced this type of hate.

Then, in the late 2010s, we began to see a surge in antisemitism. Synagogues were attacked in Pittsburgh and Poway. And on our campus last year, Jewish students were harassed while praying outdoors and wearing a kippah, and bullied on social media when Israel was at war.

At first, I tried not to draw attention to antisemitic acts, thinking they were isolated incidents and that highlighting them would undermine the progress Jewish students had made at Princeton in the prior generations. But last May, during Israel’s latest military conflagration with Hamas, dozens of campuses around the country experienced antisemitism at the same time. I realized that if we don’t name hatred against Jews when we see it, we are not helping others recognize and combat it.

The resurgence of hate has been striking: Only two percent of the US population is Jewish, yet about 12% of all hate crimes and nearly 60% of all religious hate crimes target Jews, according to the FBI. One in three Jewish college students said they had an antisemitic incident directed at them last year.

Amazingly, at the same time, nearly half of all Americans say they’ve never heard of antisemitism or don’t know what it means, according to 2019 research by the American Jewish Committee. That’s where education is vital.

We need to educate both inside and outside the Jewish community, as I did with a group of Princeton students four days after Colleyville. I led a voluntary workshop about antisemitism for both Jewish and non- Jewish Princeton students, that I had been planning for months. It was co-sponsored by Princeton’s Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Studies and Office of Diversity and Inclusion, with a new curriculum created by Hillel International in consultation with the Anti-Defamation League. I have since held another voluntary workshop for 60 administrators.

In each workshop, we discussed that the Jewish community is not monolithic and should never be painted with a broad brush. We talked about historic antisemitic stereotypes, including that Jews have too much power, are disloyal, greedy, or use Christian blood for rituals.

We discussed that criticism of Israel too often takes on these tropes and goes from being political to being patently antisemitic. We also acknowledged the danger in suggesting that all criticism of Israel is antisemitic, when it is not, and we reviewed specific examples of criticism of Israeli policies to see the difference.

By having these conversations, I hope our students and administrators can understand why Jews feel so vulnerable right now. I want them to be empowered to recognize, acknowledge and condemn antisemitism. And I hope they understand that antisemitism is real and hurtful, and it makes all the difference not to feel alone.

To contact the author, email editorial@forward.com.

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