Born in the last two decades, many college-aged Jews have little experience with violent acts of anti-Semitism in their daily lives.
But since January, there have been over 100 bomb threats called into Jewish Community Centers and day schools, and at least three Jewish cemeteries have been vandalized. The incidents have suddenly made anti-Semitism a reality for them.
For early 20-somethings, the bomb threats and vandalism are unlike anything they’ve seen in their lives. "Never again" is a post-Holocaust refrain taught in Sunday schools and synagogues to convey the horror of Nazi death camps and the anxiety over threats to Jewish existence. But many, particularly those raised in heavily Jewish areas, say the overt anti-Semitism across the country has been unsettling and caused them to think about what it means to be Jewish on a college campus, and in the United States.
“I wouldn’t say I was skeptical of anti-Semitism, but I grew up in Jewish day school and they’d always drop it in there now and then,” said Jonah Kasdan, a freshman at Johns Hopkins University. “I grew up in a Jewish community, everyone around me was Jewish and I never saw it, so I was like ‘Oh, whatever.’ So it’s been kind of weird to see, ‘Oh, wait that actually does exist.’”
“It’s just been so much more prevalent that you can’t help but notice,” Kasdan said of the uptick in violence against his community.
Kasdan described his campus as generally free of political controversy, but noted that Hopkins has an active chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. In conversations with McClatchy, many Jewish students cited the organization as a contributing factor to anti-Jewish and anti-Israel sentiment on their campuses.
SJP describes itself as working for “freedom, justice and equality for the Palestinian people,” and counts one of its “points of unity” as “ending Israel’s occupation and colonization of all Arab lands and dismantling the wall.” It has chapters on nearly 200 campuses across the country and is also responsible for driving much of the BDS movement, which seeks to boycott, divest and sanction Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians.
As a part of “Israel Apartheid Week” last month, members of the group painted a campus statue of Johns Hopkins’ blue jay mascot with a Palestinian flag and the words “End Israeli Apartheid.” One of Kasdan’s friends painted over it, an action SJP called “a microaggression geared towards silencing any criticism of the Israeli settler state.”
The Anti-Defamation League confirms anecdotal evidence of SJP’s increasing profile on campuses, calling it the “primary organizer of anti-Israel events on U.S. college campuses and the group most responsible for bringing divestment resolutions to votes in front of student governments.” A study of 100 U.S. colleges with the largest Jewish populations conducted by AMCHA, an organization that combats anti-Semitism on campus, found a “strong correlation” between the presence of groups like SJP and overall anti-Semitic activity.
“Certainly we know that efforts to delegitimize Israel on campus have created tension that has led at times to a rise in anti-Semitic activity,” said Matt Berger, spokesperson for Hillel International, the largest Jewish campus organization in the world.
ADL’s last annual report found that anti-Semitic incidents on campus nearly doubled from 2014 to 2015. There were 90 reports at 60 colleges, which include graffiti involving swastikas, slurs against Jews and references to the Holocaust. In the first half of 2016, there were 100 more incidents than during the same period the prior year.
An incident doesn’t need to take place on campus to rattle students. When a Jewish cemetery was vandalized near the campus of Washington University in St. Louis in February, it was sophomore Peri Feldstein’s first direct experience with anti-Semitism.
“It’s a little freaky,” said Feldstein, a sophomore at Washington University. “It’s one thing to hear about JCC bomb threats across the country and to see a cop car in the back of Hillel, general safety and protection — you know Jewish organizations have to look out for themselves — but to have an attack happen against the Jewish community just like three minutes away from where I live and study was really bizarre and a little discomforting.”
Washington University has a robust Jewish life on campus — around 30 percent of the student body is Jewish — so Feldstein said the response to the cemetery incident was overwhelming. Students raised money to rebuild and carpooled to the site to help clean up the approximately 150 headstones that were overturned.
“I’m used to talking about anti-Semitism as an undertone as opposed to an overt action,” Feldstein said. “It definitely reminded me that there are people who not only have anti-Semitic thoughts, but take real action.”
Jonah Yesowitz has never felt unsafe or targeted at the College of William and Mary, a Virginia state school with a small Jewish population. The class president and a member of Jewish fraternity Alpha Epsilon Pi describes the anti-Semitism he encounters on campus as subtle.
“There’s a lot of little stuff that occurs on campus. For every swastika, there’s a million little conversations that go on that are much more harmful than that. Everyone can get behind, ‘Alright, there’s a swastika. That’s ridiculous, that’s not OK,’” said Yesowitz, a sophomore. “But for the little conversations that are more political in nature people just assume that it’s OK to say, ‘Well, you’re a Zionist, so I don’t like you,’ and that’s part of our culture.”
While no suspects have been arrested in any of the cemetery incidents, Jews around the world were shocked by an arrest for the JCC bomb threats in the U.S. and several other countries: an Israeli Jew who also holds American citizenship. Michael Kaydar, who was arrested by Israeli police on March 23, is described as having “a very serious medical condition” that could have contributed to his actions.
Leah Grynsztein, a junior at Florida International University in Miami, said she’s concerned people will use the fact that a Jew may have been responsible for all the bomb threats as reason to dismiss any real threat to Jewish communities.
“It’s unsettling, but at the same time, it’s one person. I don’t think it speaks for all of us,” Grynsztein said. “It gives people the ability — not that it’s right — but it gives them the ability to say, ‘A Jew is doing it as well, so where’s your argument?’”
Ken Waltzer, former director of Jewish studies at Michigan State University, said the level of active anti-Semitism is higher now than at any point previously in his career. Now executive director of the Academic Engagement Network, Waltzer organizes college faculty against BDS and anti-Semitism on campus, training them to work with students and oppose movements against Israel.
Waltzer said the anti-Semitism Jewish students confront today on campus “is not the anti-Semitism of the Nazi period,” but a more modernized threat.
“They don’t feel so much physically threatened as they feel personally wounded when these kinds of things happen. It calls into question who they are and what they think they are and how other people view them,” Waltzer said.
Feldstein, who grew up in a family that was actively pro-Israel, said her campus experience has led her to be more thoughtful about policy towards the Jewish state and how she interprets anti-Semitism.
“I have learned to ask questions and to think about what was said before viscerally reacting and being like ‘AHHHH, anti-Semitic!’” Feldstein said. “Now that I’m growing up, I’m learning to think more for myself and take the pieces that I agree with and think critically.”