From Comfy U.S. Campuses, Hard to See Anti-Semitism Facing European Peers

Flags of Jobbik, an anti-Semitic Hungarian political party | CC via flickr user Leigh Phillips

It’s popular today to talk about the trouble encountered by Jews on American college campuses. We see it differently: As we wrote recently, there’s never been a better time to be a Jewish college student in America. Most supposed examples of contemporary anti-Semitism on American college campuses are actually examples of anti-Zionism mistaken for anti-Semitism, legitimate debate and opinion mischaracterized as hate speech and slurs.

The American Jewish community — especially venerable establishment organizations like AIPAC and the Anti-Defamation League — often falsely conflate anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and other milder forms of criticism of Israel. That is not to say that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist, but that we should be careful not to label everything we don’t like as such. Anti-Semitism absolutely does exist, and we absolutely should confront it whenever and wherever it rears its head. But from the comfort and ease of our lives on American campuses, it is often difficult to see the hardship faced by our fellow Jewish students abroad — especially in Europe.

A few recent events demonstrate how important it is that we keep ourselves informed about the anti-Semitic challenges our fellow Jewish university students face on the other side of the Atlantic:

  • EnglandA recent op-ed by Rachel Wenstone, a student leader in the Nation Union of Students, discussed the universalization of Judaism, whereby the author is viewed by others as solely the sum of her Jewish heritage, blinding others to the rest of her identity. “I know someone who only refers to me as ‘UJS’ (Union of Jewish Students). Not even just Jewish. Not anti-fascist. Not feminist,” she wrote. In the United States, much has been made of the tendency to define LGBTQ individuals by their sexual orientation, forgetting everything other element of their identities. Wenstone — and presumably others like her — is being pigeonholed in much the same way. This is by far the mildest example of these examples, but it should shake us from our comfort just the same.
  • Hungary: A list compiled illegally by the University of Budapest’s student government attempted to identify all of the university’s Jewish students. Jewish watchdogs believe the leadership of the school’s student government are closely linked to the anti-Semitic neo-fascist Jobbik, Hungary’s third largest political party. This comes only a few months after Marton Gyongyosi, Jobbik’s top leader on foreign policy, remarked on the need for a list of “people of Jewish ancestry” because they “pose a national security risk.”
  • SpainA 2011 study found that 52% of Spanish college students don’t like Jewish students to sit next to them. It also found that 58% of Spanish adults believe that Jews are too wealthy and powerful.

Of course, these on-campus examples are joined by many larger issues. For example, Golden Dawn, a prominent political party in Greece, has been less than subtle in its anti-Semitic propaganda. A member of parliament from Golden Dawn literally read Protocol 19 of the infamous anti-Semitic hoax “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” on the floor of the Greek parliament.

This is legitimately chilling stuff — going way beyond the predictable outrage we muster every time an American comedian acknowledges anti-Semitic stereotypes or whathaveyou. These incidents demonstrate an inherently dangerous political landscape in some parts of Europe. This is an atmosphere in which people with real political power see Jews as, at best, irrevocably tainted with terminal other-ness or, at worst, see Jews as inherently dangerous.

Perhaps the worst part of this is the relative ignorance and apathy of the rest of world Jewry. But it’s understandable; with 12 of the world’s 13 millions Jews living in the U.S. and Israel, it’s easy to see why we — the 12 million — often look at the U.S. and Israel as the entirety of the Jewish world. When anything that might be mistaken for anti-Semitism from 12 states away occurs on an American college campus, it turns into national news — at least, in the Jewish press. But the Jewish world seems to have decided that the shrinking Jewish communities of Europe are a lost cause, undeserving of our attention. And never mind the fact that Germany is home to one of the fastest growing Jewish communities in the world.

However, given the overwhelmingly imbalanced numbers (12 million of 13 million in just two countries), not all Jewish communities should be treated the same. New York, with over a million Jews of its own, absolutely should receive more attention than Budapest. If anti-Semitism was still a major force everywhere that Jews live, it would make sense to focus on the areas with the highest Jewish populations. That, however, is no longer the way things are.

In Israel mutual hatred between Israelis and Palestinians, discrimination against immigrants and semi-fascist attempts to stifle free speech are the issues — not classical anti-Semitism. And in the U.S., most incidents of perceived anti-Semitism center around the BDS movement, the movement to pressure Israel by boycotting, divesting from and sanctioning it. Proponents of BDS have been known to parrot deeply rooted anti-Semitic ideas espoused by leaders of the BDS movement. But the vast majority of that movement’s adherents in the U.S. are root-for-the-underdog idealists who wouldn’t know an Elder of Zion if one walked up and slapped them in the face — far from the dangerous anti-Semites they’re often painted as by American Jewry’s more paranoid leaders.

Organization after organization continues to pour its efforts into engaging young American Jews, but unfortunately efforts to strengthen Jewry outside of our two biggest centers are lacking. However, there are a few. For instance, our parent organization, the Jewish Student Press Service, operates a blog called the Global Jewish Voice. Written by Jewish students from all over the world, it is published in partnership with the American Jewish Committee and the World Union of Jewish Students — both of which run programs of their own that address these issues. But the issues themselves deserve a much higher profile.

A few decades ago, a great deal of Jewish activism centered on improving the lives of Soviet Jews. A few decades before that, we worked hard to help survivors trying to restart their lives in the wake of the Holocaust. But today American Jewry is hyper-focused on the challenges facing Israel, while Israel often behaves as if American Jewry is the only diaspora community left. We have forgotten that one million Jews live elsewhere.

Am Yisrael, the People of Israel, is not just the state of Israel. We can and must envision ourselves as members of a global Jewish people, transcending national boundaries, while also recognizing that our brothers and sisters in other lands may live in circumstances very different from our own. Unfortunately we in the U.S. and Israel are not there yet. It is past time for us to sit up and pay attention.

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