In an oddball crossbreed between leftist language and retro anti-Semitic tropes, posters that read ‘End Jewish Privilege’ appeared on University of Illinois at Chicago’s campus earlier this month.
The posters proclaimed, “Ending white privilege starts with ending Jewish privilege,” followed by an image of a pyramid with Jews at the top and “goyim not drawn to scale” at the bottom.
Eva Zeltser, a UIC junior, told New Voices, “My reaction was basically disbelief. In some ways, I wasn’t surprised because of all the active anti-Semitism prevalent throughout college campuses across the country… It’s really difficult grasping that that kind of hatred is still so real and alive today.”
But that’s the thing. What’s strange about this poster campaign is it isn’t the usual anti-Semitism, real or supposed, that we often find ourselves wrangling about on campus: conflations of Zionism and Judaism or the straightforward dorm door swastika.
It’s this bizarre hybrid between the language of today’s left and some of the top ten hits for oldest anti-Semitic stereotypes, now often found on the alt-right: Jews are money-grubbing, we’re conspiratorially amassing power, muahaha.
Essentially, this is the mutant half-squirrel half-narwhal of campus anti-Semitism, the Frankenstein’s monster of campus anti-Semitism… You get the point. The parts just don’t fit together – and the result is an amalgamation of misapplied ideas from different parts of the political spectrum put together haphazardly into one perfectly weird poster project. These posters use a progressive concept, privilege, to ironically marginalize and make ‘other’ a minority group in the exact same way Jews are being discriminated against by an element on the right.
Just like mutant narwhal squirrels shouldn’t exist, neither should a left that sounds eerily like the alt-right or an alt-right that coopts the language of the left. It’s just wrong.
And, as a progressive, it also feels personal. Many Jewish students embrace and actively take part in campus conversations about privilege, which is why these posters hit so hard in the kishkes. This kind of campaign arguably misappropriates our leftist values and mixes them with the same anti-Semitic rhetoric as our alt-right Twitter trolls – which is incidentally full of the same conspiracy theories used to persecute our great grandparents.
A second batch of posters was found that same week by UIC third-year Valeriya Volodarskaya, and they weren’t any better. One read, “Maybe Jewish ‘donations’ to the University come at too high a price… Questioning the influence of university donors is not anti-Semitic.”
Other posters compared Gaza to Auschwitz and argued countries unfairly jail people who “question the 6 million.”
“The language on there didn’t make any sense,” Volodarskaya said. “Since when is attacking someone social justice?”
I find myself asking the same question. These posters are old school anti-semitism – complete with a defense of Holocaust denial – couched in social justice terms, a fascinating rhetorical crossbreed that disturbs me both as a lefty and a Jew.
This is new, and I don’t like what it means for the left on campus. Either we have a fringe that misapplies our ideology in a way that sounds more like the alt-right than our allies or a white supremacy that’s learned to use the language of the left.
In either case, as progressives, we need to lay claim to leftist terms – to ensure they remain tools in service of our highest ideals, not marginalization.
Sara Weissman is the editor in chief of New Voices. Kvell or kvetch to her at email@example.com.