I woke up on the morning of Yom HaShoah (Holocaust Remembrance Day) thinking about my grandparents, thankful to have a day dedicated to remembering their stories. I got out of bed and prepared for what I would soon learn would be an ironic lecture on anti-Semitism in my Judaic Studies class.
As the lecture drew to a close, I checked my phone for an excuse to postpone the next item on my new homeschooling agenda. I noticed a few unread messages from a group chat for board members of the Student Alliance for Israel. I was greeted by a picture of the front of UMass Hillel spray painted with a word written in Arabic. The next picture in the chat was a screenshot of the word’s translation: Palestine.
My heart sank. During my short time at UMass, Hillel has quickly become my home. This is the place where I have spent time with friends, enjoyed Shabbat dinners, studied, and prayed. Hillel is a welcoming and joyous place, yet it had become the victim of vandalism clearly targeted at the Jewish community.
This was not my first run-in with anti-Semitism of course – it wasn’t even the first occasion on the UMass campus this year, but this incident hit particularly close to home. The moment I understood the word written on the building, it transformed into new words, ones that said “you are not welcome here” and “watch your back.” The graffiti is a target on my community’s back.
There is nothing inherently anti-Semitic about the word “Palestine,” nor is the desire for peace for the territory harmful to the Jewish community. What is hurtful, however, is deliberate vandalism regarding a highly controversial issue in which anti-Semitic arguments exist. Jewish students at UMass have a diverse array of opinions on the conflict, all of which are welcome at Hillel as long as they are presented respectfully. But this attack targeted the entire Jewish community, regardless of students’ individual political views. The fact that this incident occurred on Yom HaShoah only made it that much more hurtful. On a day that should have been spent remembering the pain that my family, and millions of others endured during the Holocaust, I was given a brutal reminder that the same intolerance that caused their suffering is still very relevant and frighteningly local.
Unsure of what I could do to help while separated from campus, I turned to Facebook for comfort and support. I created a post for a group dedicated to Hillel members from universities around the country and started receiving messages of support right away. I quickly found comfort in the Jewish unity I was seeing, but my solace was short-lived. Posts about the incident were published in secular Facebook groups and I kept a close eye on the comments of each of them. It took what must have been less than half an hour for people to start criticizing our response to the graffiti. People argued that the vandalism was an act of resistance against Zionism, and that calling it anti-Semitic was a way of oppressing the pro-Palestine movement. As a civil rights activist, I fully endorse peaceful protest but this act did nothing for the cause. Instead it threatened to politicize Judaism and isolate a population of minority students. I also agree that anti-Zionism is not synonymous with anti-Semitism, but the two were not independent in this scenario. Many people ignored that it occurred on Holocaust Remembrance Day, a fact that I am confident is far from coincidental. Some recognized the criminality of the vandalism, but claimed that it was not anti-Semitism but just a random act of graffiti.
I found these responses more frightening than the vandalism itself. The point of Holocaust education is to familiarize people with anti-Semitism and activity leading up to the genocide of millions of Jews. When a Jewish Community Center or place of worship is deliberately defaced, and it is not recognized as an act of anti-Semitism, the Jewish community is left vulnerable. Neglecting to properly identify anti-Semitism when it occurs is incredibly dangerous. I worry how far someone would have to go for people to recognize anti-Semitism and understand how truly harmful it is to our community.
In light of recent events, I’ve been asked if I still feel safe at Hillel. My response is completely, and unequivocally, yes. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism follows us wherever we go, but the one place I can feel free of it is within the walls of the UMass Hillel House. Never before have I felt so welcome, accepted, and celebrated as I do at Hillel. Every time I walk through the door I am greeted by smiling faces – validating a sense of belonging. In times of adversity, it is easy to feel isolated and vulnerable, but the Jewish community on campus, along with the support we received from Hillels across the country, proves that we will always band together and persevere.
Samantha Jaffe is a member of the Class of 2023 at UMass-Amherst.