This piece is part of an ongoing series about discrimination and how to prevent it.
Antisemitism is on the rise across the United States. In 2021, over 2,000 incidents of assault, harassment and vandalism were reported to the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Those numbers represent a 34% increase from 2020, and the highest number of reports since the league began tracking antisemitic incidents in 1979. During the 2020-21 school year, a third of U.S. undergraduate students at colleges and universities reported personally experiencing antisemitic hate, according to a survey conducted by ADL and Hillel International.
The University of Utah’s Racist and Bias Incident Response Team has received four reports of antisemitic activity on campus this school year:
- An antisemitic, white nationalist conspiracy propaganda mailer was sent to the university’s Center for Child Care and Family Resources.
- A swastika was drawn on a whiteboard in a residence hall.
- An antisemitic, anti-Islamic and racist white nationalist conspiracy theory propaganda letter was mailed to a U of U Health employee.
- A swastika was written on notes left in public space at Gardner Commons.
While these actions are blatant, Jewish students at the U say there are many less obvious ways they experience discrimination, such as professors sharing material in class that implies an anti-Israel bias; being subjected to microaggressions and stereotypes from their peers; and the sharing of antisemitic material on social media.
Understanding and addressing antisemitism is an important part of ensuring the U is a safe place for all members of the community. Dana Tumpowsky, executive director of Hillel for Utah, and Tina Malka, director of Antisemitism Education at Hillel International, answered some questions about antisemitism, its origins, how it can appear on campus, and resources for reporting and reducing the numbers of hateful incidents.
What is antisemitism?
Antisemitism is a perception, belief or behavior towards Jews simply because they are Jewish. Jews are an ethno-religion. Jews identify culturally, ethnically and religiously—some consider themselves Jews for only one of those factors. Antisemitism manifests in many ways, including conspiracy theories; accusations of disproportionate power; greed; materialism; and denial of the right to a homeland (Israel) for the Jewish people.
Antisemitism is often referred to as the oldest hatred, spanning nearly 2,000 years of human history. Romans were antisemitic. People in the Spanish Inquisition were antisemitic. Nazis were antisemitic.
“Something I don’t think people understand is we are not upset by antisemitism, we are afraid. Many look at the history of antisemitism and they don’t realize that the Holocaust is a chapter in the book of antisemitism, as opposed to the encapsulation of antisemitism.”
Antisemitism comes from the political left and from the political right. It appears in different ways, but it is still the same message.
What are ways that antisemitism manifests on campus?
Social media makes it difficult for students to escape antisemitism because they are exposed to it and experience it in both the real and virtual worlds.
Stereotyping is one way antisemitism occurs on campus and can include making generalized statements about Jewish people, such as comments related to money, power and control. This is classic antisemitism and is very hurtful.
Jewish holidays follow a lunar calendar which means times of significant religious observance can conflict with the academic calendar. Because of this, students may want accommodations (taking a test early, turning in an assignment late, etc.) in order to observe a holiday. Several times a semester at the University of Utah, students who have asked for accommodations with plenty of lead time report pushback from some professors. This pushback has ranged from requiring a note from a rabbi; implying the holiday is an excuse to buy more time to complete an assignment; or considering absence from class unexcused.
These situations create an issue because a student has to draw attention to themselves and tell their professor they are Jewish and go through the hassle of asking for a special accommodation. When they get pushback, a student will often ask themselves, “If my grade depends on this, am I going to make a big deal out of this, or am I going to have to go with the flow?” And, more often than not, they go with the flow because they don’t want to be difficult or jeopardize their grade in the class.
This general lack of understanding of Jewish life creates many of the issues Jewish students experience. For instance, the Jewish Sabbath runs weekly from Friday sundown to Saturday sundown. So academic or extracurricular requirements for this time disregard an observant student’s religious obligation.
To help mitigate some of these issues, a positive step taken by University of Utah officials is to publish a calendar with significant holidays for major religions. This inclusive calendar offers professors and other members of the campus community a tool for planning classes and providing accommodations for students of all religious backgrounds.
Across the country, 12-15% of the Jewish population on campuses are students of color. These students experience racism as well as antisemitism. This compounding discrimination extends to other marginalized students as well. For example, if a gay Jewish student who is pro-Israel is told they can’t join the LGBTQ group because they are a Zionist, this type of discrimination turns places that should be safe because of one of their marginalized identities into unsafe places because of their Jewish identity. When it comes to inclusion and civil rights, these are things all people are entitled to. There are no thresholds for inclusions. But sometimes Jewish students feel there are thresholds and that they are on the wrong side of those.
Is it antisemitic to criticize the state of Israel?
According to the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), it is antisemitic to deny “Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor…However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”
While it is not inherently antisemitic to criticize decisions made by the Israeli government, according to IHRA, the issue arises in “applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation” and in “holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”
Why is antisemitism harmful?
“Not too long ago I was asked by an administrator at a university if there was a mental health aspect to antisemitism. I sort of smiled and said, ‘Well, yes.’ Because anytime students are targeted for any reason, there is a mental health aspect.”
While some Jewish students may wear something like a Star of David or a kippah, things that identify them as visibly Jewish, many students cannot be visually identified as Jewish. While Hillel for Utah does not have a dedicated building, at many Jewish institutions you will see armed guards because of previous armed attacks (Pittsburgh and Poway, Texas).
When someone walks into a synagogue or a Jewish institution, that clearly marks them as Jewish, and because of antisemitism, doing so becomes unsafe. Having to think about what one would do if a gunman came into a space that should be safe and restorative takes a mental toll.
How can students learn more about antisemitism? How can students support Jewish people on campus and in their community?
Malka and Tumpowsky say U community members can be allies to Jewish students by asking them how to be supportive and by learning more about antisemitism. Hillel International has a series of three online videos that provide an introduction to antisemitism. Also, the University of Berkeley Jewish Studies program has a short, 11-minute video explaining antisemitism.
Other ways to be an ally:
- If you see an instance of antisemitism, report it to campus police. Assure your personal safety first and call 911 in cases of emergency or violence.
- Take photos or screenshots of the incident.
- Report non-emergency cases of antisemitism to the Racist & Bias Incident Report Team at the University here.
- The Anti-Defamation League also tracks antisemitism through reports made via reportcampushate.org.
Hillel for Utah is here to provide support for Jewish students throughout the state of Utah and is open to students, regardless of religious background, who would like to learn more about Judaism.