At the beginning of every fall semester, UMass-Amherst hosts an activities expo to give students a chance to sign up for new clubs and meet the members. Registered student organizations such as political clubs, social clubs, Greek life, and recreational sports teams set up tables and pitch to students why their club is the best on campus.
My first week at UMass was everything I could have dreamed of. I attended FreshFest with my roommate, a three-day program hosted by Hillel that allows Jewish freshmen to meet before the rest of campus arrive. I quickly made friends on my floor, and I was excited to attend the activities expo for the first time. I signed up for organizations such as Student Alliance for Israel, Ski and Board Club, and sorority recruitment.
I noticed a rabbi at the expo and decided to start a conversation. He was handing out small cards with positive messages from the Old Testament and informed me that they were for “people of all religions.” I smiled and told him I happened to be Jewish.
My statement seemed to surprise him, and he quickly questioned me, “How?” For a moment I was in shock that someone had just asked me how I, an Asian-American, could possibly be Jewish. I politely informed him that I was adopted, and after an awkward pause I walked away confused and hurt.
A year has passed, but the feeling of alienation remains. Just recently at a Hillel event, another student exclaimed, “I wouldn’t pass you off as Jewish – that’s awesome!” when he discovered I did BBYO in high school. The people around us stared at him with quizzical looks. I uncomfortably sauntered off, understanding that he wasn’t coming from a place of malicious intent, but still thinking to myself, “Really, dude?”
Recently, I decided to begin a club for Jews of color at UMass. As I was brainstorming ideas for the club with the social justice fellow at UMass Hillel, a man who assists Hillels’ around the country revamp their programs offered us advice. As I mentioned there were some people in my Hebrew class of color, I said that I was unsure of the ethnicity of one of the members of my class. The man chuckled and said, “Maybe she’s just dirty!”
The Hillel fellow and I exchanged uncomfortable glances, and I mumbled, “Uh, yikes.” I was aware he meant no harm, but the internalized racism that we as a society continue to label as “jokes” are perfect examples of the racism and prejudice I’ve discovered within the Jewish community.
When others look at me, they are only able to see my dark hair, monolid eyes, and golden skin. They are unable to see the years of Hebrew school, the hours of work put into studying for my bat mitzvah, and the loving Jewish home I was raised in. I feel as if I’ve been ousted from a group that I’ve spent my entire life trying to fit into, whether it be through prayer or through political ideologies.
Before this, I never once questioned my Jewish identity. I was raised in a Jewish household that always celebrated the high holidays, encouraged me to have a bat mitzvah, and attended Hebrew school from the time I was six. I was an active member of BBYO, visited Israel twice, and worked with organizations such as the Lappin Foundation and Jewish Teen Initiative. I’m beyond thankful I grew up in a community that never once questioned my Jewish faith. However, this does not erase the fact that there is an evident divide that separates Jews of color and white Jews. This begs the question if Jewish people of color will ever be able to fully assimilate with white Jews, or will we always be seen as outcasts within our own religion?
These interactions have not only forced me to question my personal faith, but also question my unwavering support for Israel. I reflected on the article I wrote after the BDS event at UMass and determined while the event insinuated anti-Semitism, and I cannot help but acknowledge the fact that as a woman of color, there are parts of the BDS movement that resonate with me. It is an undeniable fact that the BDS and Black Lives Matter movements have created a larger platform for people of color to speak out on racism and prejudice we face, something I would fight tooth and nail for.
On the other hand, I struggle with the anti-Semitism that is rooted within the BDS movement. Although most BDS supporters are not anti-Semitic themselves, there are anti-Semitic values undeniably held within some aspects of the movement. However, now, whenever I look in the mirror, I don’t see a Jewish girl anymore. I see an Asian-American who has started to question her faith and her beliefs. I see someone who does not fit into any group, no matter how hard she tries.
As others have continued to question the legitimacy of my Jewish faith, I’ve been forced to rethink how blindly I’ve supported the Jewish state in the past and take a harder look at how prominent racial tensions are in Israel. I decided to educate myself on what life is like as a person of color in Israel and Palestine and the current governmental state of the countries, and am now faced with the question: “Should I view this situation as a woman of color, or should I view this as a Jew?” because apparently, I cannot be both.
Mae-Lou Zaleski grew up in Danvers and attends UMass-Amherst.