How the Stanford anti-Semitism Debate Pits Jewish Students Against Students of Color

On paper, Stanford is smiling students biking down a boulevard of palm trees into eternal startup bliss. In reality, Stanford is a community of many communities, which, like any other, must at times confront various forms of hate from within its own student body, including racism and anti-Semitism. This is not to say “life here is hard,” but rather to acknowledge that conversations and dynamics on campus mirror those beyond.

Stanford’s Jewish community was reminded of these issues during last week’s campus-wide debate over a student senator’s anti-Semitic comment during a senate meeting on a bill addressing anti-Semitism. Gabriel Knight declared that it was “not anti-Semitism” to claim Jews control “the media, economy, government and other social institutions… Questioning these potential power dynamics, I think, is not anti-Semitism. I think it’s a very valid discussion.”

Students wrote op-eds, Hillel issued statements, the Jewish community held a rally, the Students of Color Coalition (SOCC) that had endorsed the senator was called upon to rescind their endorsement, and the senator in question ultimately suspended his re-election campaign. This cascade of reactions followed a pattern similar to an anti-Semitism debate that erupted last year.

These events, conflicts and debates have left different sets of questions unresolved for two communities of which I am part. For the mainstream Jewish community, the key questions are: are campuses unsafe for Jewish students? Is this incident part of a larger anti-Semitic current in student circles and in academic environments?
Communities of color represented by the Students of Color Coalition have asked: How can Jewish people be oppressed if they’re white? Why, based on this incident and previous ones, does the administration speak up more loudly and quickly against anti-Semitism than racism?
From both: Is there any connection between Israel-Palestine activism and anti-Semitism?

Dividing this issue into two clear sides I realize is part of the problem. But my experience of campus activism has at times been this polarized.

Last year I walked into a town-hall meeting on a divestment from Israel bill. I was met with a literally black-and-white landscape and a screaming match. On the right side of the aisle sat my friends from Hillel Shabbat dinners all dressed in new, white t-shirts with “Coalition for Peace” printed across their chests; on the left side, were representatives from every student of color organization on campus.
As a half-Korean, half-Jewish freshman, I stood frozen in the aisle, unsure of where to sit. I could either join the people I prayed with on Fridays – friends who had also attended Jewish day school, to whom I felt culturally connected, or the people who looked like me and who share a public commitment to racial and economic justice on this campus (mainstream Jewish groups, institutions, and the students who participate in them are not part of campus activism except when it comes to Israel, whereas students who are part of communities of color are). I ended up sitting on the floor in the back, worried that picking one would mean abandoning the other.

The room’s sharp divide reflected longstanding tension created by both parties. In that town hall and on other occasions, members of my Jewish community indiscriminately accused the divestment coalition of “anti-Semitism,” refused to discuss the occupation in a public forum, and threatened to exclude those members of the Jewish community who did. This signaled to the divestment coalition, made up of mainly students of color, that the Jewish community was only interested in dialogue on their terms, and that all other perspectives were “divisive” at best and “hate speech” at worst.

On the other side, the divestment coalition called Stanford Out of Occupied Palestine (SOOP) had at times flattened the issue of divestment to “human rights or not” in a way that made Jewish students feel antagonized on campus. They did not listen to the experiences of Jewish students with the same open ears for which SOOP had asked for its own views.

The danger of this separation is increasing ignorance about each other. Part of what the student senator’s anti-Semitic comment revealed was his lack of knowledge about the history of anti-Semitism. Knowledge of anti-Semitism is not emphasized within activist spaces because Jews in America are not institutionally oppressed. Jewishness and whiteness, or at least significant privilege, have always gone together in my head. It can be hard for American students to imagine a different geographical and/or historical context in which this wouldn’t have been the case: the instinctive reaction is to forget that the comfort of contemporary Jewish American life is a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish history. We have a tendency to think the way it is now is the way it has always been. Clearly, however, the past is never really behind us.

Furthermore, anti-Semitism, or anti-Jewish oppression, can be trickier to identify because unlike oppressive speech that makes the Other inferior, (which has also used by anti-Semites) some anti-Semitic tropes function by portraying Jews as all-powerful. At first it may not sound harmful to stereotype “Jews as powerful/wealthy/influential,” but this leads to scapegoating that has historically justified unconscionable violence.

Despite the marginalization of Jews across history, within my mainstream Jewish community, we seldom speak of current institutional racism in the United States or Israel. We organize Challah for Hunger, which donates money to addressing world hunger, take pride in our interfaith text studies, yet have not stood en masse in solidarity with our campus’s largest social justice movements, such as Black Lives Matter or Who’s Teaching Us (campaigning for faculty diversity). During our rally against anti-Semitism, we asked for other groups to be our allies, while we have not been “allies” to them.
As the great Rabbi Hillel asked, “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, then who am I? And if not now, when?” We have certainly been for ourselves, but I fear, in the mainstream, perhaps only ourselves. Who are we for if not for marginalized groups? We of all people should know what oppressive systems look like, as anti-Semitism is one of the oldest forms of European Christian supremacy. Fortunately, there are Jewish organizations already doing anti-racism and anti-Occupation work. It is time to center their efforts in our institutions.

If we are committed to fighting anti-Semitism, then we must also be committed to educating ourselves about racism. If we are committed to fighting racism, so too must we be committed to educating ourselves about anti-Semitism. Not acknowledging anti-Semitism and racism’s shared roots, as Sherman Jackson writes, adds “to the power and efficiency of white supremacy as the ‘invisible institution.’” For, as the saying goes, a rising tide lifts all our boats. We must all take part in that tide.