(February 17, 2021 / JNS) Even as anti-Semitism is rising, its common understanding seems to be falling apart. As the Jewish community looks at how the demographics of America has changed, we also must recognize that a lot of our communal messaging—often geared towards white people—fails to explain the complexities of anti-Semitism. It also lacks resonance with Gen Z and younger generations that are increasingly ethnically diverse and have a different relationship to history than previous generations.
So, how can young Jewish and Zionist students—perceived at-large as white, even though one in six American Jews are Jews of color and many other Jews live in communities of color—explain the world’s oldest hatred to the youngest generational cohorts?
While reducing anti-Semitism requires a multifaceted approach, I believe that there’s actually a simple solution, and one that alumni can help with: a starting point of defining what anti-Semitism is. You can’t try to stop anything unless you know what it looks like. When you combine this with the work of listening and engaging, you can truly start to curb hate.
The first step to engage marginalized groups is for Jewish and Zionist students to empathetically and actively listen to their non-Jewish peers talk about their own struggles with issues like racism, classism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of bigotry—issues that many Jewish and Zionist students can also relate to and even identify with. In doing so, students not only learn more about how bigotry, stereotypes and hate hurt people we care about, but also form relationships, bound by empathy, that will make it easier to talk about the pain they experience because of anti-Semitism.
One distinct challenge for Jewish and Zionist students is that they already come into conversations about bigotry with a disadvantage because of the way that anti-Semitism manifests as an iteration of the “model minority” myth. As we know, anti-Semites say that Jews or Zionists are “too powerful”—with people on the far-left and far-right falsely claiming that Jews secretly control the government, media or banks. That hatred trickles down so that people of all backgrounds have the bias that Jews are white, wealthy and powerful, even though that is not the case for the vast majority of Jews in America, much less around the world. In other words, it can be very difficult for marginalized groups to understand how anti-Semitism operates when only using the way that racism operates as a baseline.
This is why it is imperative that our communities focus on getting institutions such as government agencies, colleges, medical establishments and social-media platforms to support the most comprehensive and nuanced definition of anti-Semitism that the global Jewish community has come up with so far: The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism.
The definition was originally created to make it easier for European organizations to monitor anti-Semitism more effectively, but as anti-Semitism is increasingly brought in more and more to mainstream spaces under the auspices of anti-Zionism, the definition and its examples have proven incredibly effective as a tool to explain to the uninformed why their words are hateful. The definition has been adopted by the U.S. Department of State and is employed by the U.S. Department of Education when investigating cases of anti-Semitism under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To that end, Alums for Campus Fairness (ACF)—America’s unified alumni voice on issues of anti-Semitism, demonization of Israel and bigotry—is organizing alums to advocate for universities to adopt the IHRA definition. Already, an ACF petition with 780 signatures prompted Florida State University to adopt it last year, and just this week, Syracuse University to do so as well. ACF recently sent a letter with 275-plus signatories to Johns Hopkins University president Ronald J. Daniels calling on the university to counter anti-Semitism in all of its forms, including by affirming and recognizing the IHRA definition.
By making the IHRA definition institutionally recognized, students who are not used to navigating these difficult conversations gain an easy starting point when they see hatred they want (and need) to call out. When counterexamples of Jewish anti-Semites and Jewish anti-Zionists come up, students can explain that, just as there are people of color who are tokenized by white people to silence criticism of racism, there are Jews who are tokenized by non-Jews who silence criticism of anti-Semitism.
We recognize that hatred is growing, and our students are going to need the means to helping stop it. As such, students and alumni must work together to press universities to adopt the IHRA definition in order to advance the fight against hate and bigotry.
Joel Bond is the associate director of Alums for Campus Fairness, America’s unified alumni voice on issues of antisemitism, demonization of Israel and bigotry.
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