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The unbearable loneliness of being Jewish in America

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On Saturday, April 27 in San Diego, California, three people were injured and one person was killed. These people were attacked in a place of worship because they were Jewish. This, only a few months after 11 people were killed at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

I am Jewish, and I am so incredibly scared. Every time this happens, my phone lights up with news alerts from the New York Times and Washington Post. These alerts tell me that a synagogue or Chabad has been attacked and that people have been hurt. They do not tell me where this tragedy took place, or who was injured. So I spend frantic minutes searching, desperately, hoping that my family is safe. There’s no actual need for me to get these alerts – it’s not as if I can do anything about their content – but I keep them on out of some misguided sense about the importance of staying informed.

After Pittsburgh, I wrote that I was tired and desperately sad. After Poway, I found myself sobbing uncontrollably at random intervals in the days following the attack. I know no words to describe the fears I have. The fear that one day, my loved ones will be in danger. The fear that this is the new normal. The fear that no one seems to care.

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This past week, I’ve been uncomfortably aware of how unaware the rest of Stanford’s campus is. When I try to talk about my grief, fear, and anger with my non-Jewish friends, I am met with confusion. They haven’t heard about what happened in Poway. They don’t understand why I care, given that I have no personal connections to San Diego.

This is hurtful not only because it is painful to realize that a large part of your life seems incomprehensible and even silly to your friends but also because the majority of my friends are deeply involved in social justice activism on campus. These people identify as defenders of minorities, fighters of oppression, as liberals working to dismantle unjust structures in our society. Yet their activism does not extend to Jews.

An example: I was complaining to a close friend that Stanford institutions meant to promote diversity and inclusion often overlook and ignore Jews. In this case, I’d learned that one group appeared to be unaware that Jews who are white-passing and/or of European descent may not identify as white. The context of this question is long and complicated, but suffice it to say that even the Torah sometimes treats Jews as an ethnic group and sometimes treats us as a religious group. Many Jews in the US are white-passing and have access to the privileges that come with that. Tragically, white privilege is not a very effective shield against anti-Semitism, in part because many anti-Semites do not view Jews as white. My friend, an activist and person of color who’s involved with several ethnic associations on campus, turned to me. She asked, “why does it matter?” I couldn’t respond. She continued: “I mean, there are so few of you.”

I didn’t know how to respond. How to say, there are very few Jews because we have been the victims of genocide too many times to recall? How to ask, why does the size of our group matter if we are being discriminated against? How can I reconcile this callous, unfeeling question with the caring friend I know? Can I call someone who thinks I matter so little my friend?

I am embarrassed to admit that I said nothing. I let her change the subject to something more comfortable for her, and I swallowed my questions. Months later, I can’t fully let go of my pain.

Another example: various people, including people I’ve never met before, are comfortable debating with me about whether a given incident is anti-Semitic. I’ve been told that Ilhan Omar’s innuendos about Jews and money were not anti-Semitic. I’ve been told that jokes about Jewish people’s appearance are not necessarily anti-Semitic, because “sometimes it’s true.” Most liberal people, and many conservatives, accept that general idea that only members of a marginalized group get to determine whether something is discriminatory towards their group. Very few people would feel comfortable telling a person of color that some comment wasn’t actually racist. Quite a few people are comfortable sharing their thoughts on what anti-Semitism is and isn’t with me.

One last example: sometimes, when I try to talk with non-Jewish friends about anti-Semitism, they point out that I am not experiencing “real” discrimination because I can pass as non-Jewish. These same people know that I am bisexual. They would never suggest that bisexuals do not experience discrimination because bisexuals can have heterosexual relationships. Because they understand that being forced to deny part of yourself in exchange for safety is not a privilege. They understand that being offered the choice between authenticity and safety only forces you to participate in your own oppression. Yet they ask me why anti-Semitism matters, since, after all, I don’t “look Jewish.” They don’t even pause to consider the anti-Semitism inherent in the assumption that Jews look a certain way.  

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It’s not just my friends. Members of the Stanford community at every end of the political spectrum are failing to uphold basic values of pluralism and inclusion when it comes to Jews.

The Stanford College Republicans club likes to write Facebook posts about their storied history of protecting Jews, calling themselves the best ally to Jews on campus — and then inviting Dinesh D’Souza to speak here. To quote the Stanford Daily,

“D’Souza also joked about the Holocaust in a Stony Brook University talk earlier this year, falsely claimed that Adolf Hitler was not anti-gay and retweeted Twitter posts with the hashtags #burntheJews and #bringbackslavery.”

D’Souza made his career on peddling anti-Semitic conspiracy theories — the same theories that motivated the Pittsburgh shooter. And SCR brought him to campus on Stanford’s dime.

Liberal groups on campus have their own problems. Many liberal spaces on this campus, primarily student groups focused on activism, have established a clear set of criteria for Jews. Jews who are anti-Zionist (against the general concept of a Jewish state) and anti-Israel (against the current Jewish state) are acceptable. All other Jews are not. Some Jewish groups seem to have bought into this in many ways; Jewish Voice for Peace has defended this type of behavior.

This standard is unacceptable. No one would ask American citizens to disavow America, which has its own shameful history. And American citizens can affect America’s policies, unlike American Jews, who have no electoral representation in Israel. A large majority of American Jews see Israel as closely connected to them. If you decide that Jews must oppose Israel in order to meet your standards, you are writing off most American Jews.

It’s also worth noting, as Daniel Slate and Ari Hoffman have in The Daily, that anti-Zionism and anti-Israel criticisms can veer into anti-Semitic territory, often by invoking anti-Semitic tropes in ad-hominem attacks or using Palestine as a political prop for attacking Jews. I have written about critics of Israel’s problematic tendency to hold all Jews responsible for Israel.

This week, Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace are bringing a cartoonist known for using anti-Semitic tropes to campus. In support of this event, some group members posted upsetting, anti-Semitic cartoons on posters around campus. SJP has since acknowledged, in an email to the kibbitz email list (which is intended to serve Stanford’s Jewish community), that it was “inappropriate” to distribute these flyers without “context.” But they have not addressed the fundamental problem: a Jewish cartoonist is using anti-Semitic ideas and narratives to attack other Jews while claiming that he is doing it for our own good. SJP has not cancelled the event.

Individuals have also made harmful mistakes. Ironically, SCR ended up being the first group to report that Kimiko Hirota, a candidate in Stanford’s most recent student election, published an anti-Semitic tweet in 2018, including retweets of a site called “Electronic Intifada.” Kimiko responded by claiming that she did not know what intifada meant when she retweeted the site’s story and did not check. How nice it must be, not to know that intifada is a term describing two bloody waves of violence between Israel and Palestine which is now used as a rallying cry for attacks on Israel, and, in some cases, Jews.

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It’s not just Stanford. Jews, like many other minority groups, seem to be caught in a political no-man’s land. Republicans flirt with anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic groups like the KKK and neo-nazis. It can seem as if Democrats take Jewish support for granted because they usually pass the low, low bar of not associating with neo-nazis (although this problem is more recent, and American Jews still heavily favor the Democrats).

Jews find ourselves alone and ignored. The Democrats did not ultimately take meaningful action to discipline Ilhan Omar, U.S. Representative for Minnesota’s fifth district, when she first tweeted an anti-Semitic innuendo about Jews and money and then, less than a month later, implied that Jews have divided our loyalty between the US and Israel. Sure, Representative Omar apologized. But it turns out that she has a history of making anti-Semitic comments, apologizing and promising to educate herself and do better– and then doing it again. At this point, she’s either anti-Semitic, incapable of learning what anti-Semitism is, or both.

Republicans, meanwhile, continue to shelter white supremacists and follow Trump. Some Jews, including people I like and respect, do not think that Trump is anti-Semitic. It is true that he finally managed to fully condemn anti-Semitism following the Poway attack. But it’s also true that Trump has a well-documented record of making anti-Semitic jokes about Jews’ ability to negotiate and be accountants.

It’s not just political parties.

Last year, it became public that organizers of the Women’s March pushed out Jewish leaders and refused to disavow anti-Semitic affiliations. One leader, Tamika Mallory, once called Louis Farrakhan the “GOAT” (greatest of all time). Louis Farrakhan, for those fortunate enough to be unaware of him, has made a career out of trafficking in anti-Semitic tropes and blaming Jews for the world’s evils. Of course, these revelations only crystallized and publicized existing concerns about the Women’s March’s ignorance of and indifference to anti-Semitism.

Last week, The New York Times published an anti-Semitic cartoon seemingly without noticing. In an example of truly painful irony, climate change “agnostic” (read: denier) Bret Stephens, who was hired to be the Times’ token conservative following the 2016 election, wrote a genuinely excellent piece covering the insidious rise of anti-Semitism in America and the shameful complacency that institutions like The Times have shown in responding to the problem.

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In light of this indifference, I’ve found myself turning inward to the Jewish community at Stanford. I am grateful to have the ability to do so, and the fact that I have been able to turn inward, to share these experiences with other Jews, is worth celebrating. This is not a solution, though. It is not just, nor is it wise, for me to avoid confronting my friends and fellow activists about anti-Semitism simply because I have found a community in which I do not have to do so.

But if I withdraw into the Jewish community and hide this part of myself from non-Jewish friends I am surrendering to anti-Semitism. If Jews cede the public square, we are ceding a field fertilized by ignorance and indifference to the opportunistic weed that is anti-Semitism. So I can speak up, I can be visible, I can refuse to let people call themselves my protector and ally without my consent.

I do not feel like the right messenger for this moment. I cannot remember ever believing in a divine power, although I have tried. I had to be forced to go to synagogue until recently, and I had my Bat Mitzvah only because I was told that failing to do so would hurt my family. I am not comfortable going to events at Stanford’s Chabad because men and women pray separately there. I’ve realized that part of my dislike for Judaism and everything associated with it came from the same fear I feel now, a fear created by anti-Semitism.

It is difficult to explain this fully, but I grew up knowing about the Holocaust. I cannot remember learning what genocide is; it feels as if I have always known. Just before my Bat Mitzvah, I told myself that it didn’t matter whether I went through with it or not — most anti-Semites view Judaism as an ethnicity, so if someone wanted to hurt Jews, they would go after me because of my family history, regardless of whether or not I was officially a Jew.

I had those thoughts in 2013, which now seems incredibly long ago. At the time, I called myself ridiculous and melodramatic, because I have always lived in the United States and, as far as I knew, no one was actually going around hurting Jews in the US. That is not true anymore.

In the past year, I have found meaning and community in Judaism. But the danger posed by anti-Semitism seems more urgent now than ever, and I find myself feeling defenseless. Around me, student groups, political parties, and self-proclaimed allies ignore, excuse, and defend anti-Semitism.

If there’s a moral to be found here, it is perhaps that non-Jewish people need to care more about hatred, even if it’s directed at “invisible,” “small” minorities. I’ll be honest, though. My previous columns on anti-Semitism seem to be read exclusively by Jewish people. I’m not hopeful that a single column in a college newspaper will have any real impact. So I don’t know what the moral is, and I don’t have any solutions. I can offer only pain, fear, and anger, and that is not enough.

Contact Sarah Myers at smyers3 ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Sarah is a freshman from Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, studying International Relations, Physics, and Human Rights. On campus, Sarah writes for the Daily's Opinions section, tutors for East Palo Alto Tennis and Tutoring, and is a member of Stanford in Government's Community Service Committee. Sarah enjoys reading and obsessively refreshing her news feed.