Antisemitism is growing on college campuses, as is an unsettling fear felt by Jewish students. Whether it be antisemitic graffiti, verbal harassment, or antisemitic rhetoric on social media, some Jewish students feel like they are walking on eggshells both in their place of learning and their place of residence.
This semester, three incidents of antisemitic graffiti that were found in a Mount Holyoke residence hall bathroom were reported to my college’s public safety and services department. The administration acted swiftly by launching an investigation and releasing a statement condemning the cowardly acts of hate. Unfortunately, this is a hard case to solve. Privacy restrictions prohibit cameras from being inside residence halls, and the presence of college police roaming the dormitories can be uncomfortable and threatening for students whose marginalized identities might be in conflict with law enforcement. It is easy to feel like the investigation has hit a dead end, and knowing this makes me feel uneasy.
Graffiti is not the only kind of antisemitism proliferating on college campuses. Social media allows for people to share antisemitic tropes, misinformation, and hateful rhetoric with the click of a button. Infographics that are not fact-checked or whose author has a conflict of interest generate thousands of likes, comments, and shares on social media platforms. It is impossible to compete with the rapid spread of incorrect and out-of-context information circulating online.
At the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, seeing antisemitism on social media was painful, but it existed only on a screen. Now that the world has opened back up – at least for now – I am forced to see the reality of antisemitism’s presence at my college and others across the country. I can no longer simply unfollow someone and stop thinking about it when I know I will see them in class the next day, citing misinformation as evidence for an argument, or in the dining hall where their blatant antisemitism is casual table talk. The worst part is that these people wouldn’t even consider themselves antisemites.
In the 21st century, people do not view American Jews as marginalized. We are seen as powerful and wealthy. Ironically, some people see us as co-collaborators in the white supremacist cause. We are stripped as survivors of some of the darkest hatred in history, our experiences of persecution detached from the American Jewish image, and our ethnoreligious identity conflated with political power in Israel. American Jews are tasked with supporting ourselves, amplifying our own voices, and fighting for our own social justice.
At my college in South Hadley outside Springfield, I am the chair of our Jewish Student Union. Fighting to create a space that is safe and welcoming of Jews, for myself, and my community has been exhausting. It distracts me from my schoolwork and takes a massive toll on my mental health. Each time a Nazi swastika was found, I and other board members were awake all night meeting with the college’s administration, writing emails to concerned Jewish students, drafting and editing a powerful statement, and assuring alumni and parents that we were taking action. We endured countless sleepless nights and countless days of forgetting to eat, not having time to shower, and panic attacks. We cannot just choose to stop doing this work because our lives depend on it.
In the wake of the first incident, our Jewish Student Union released a statement about how disheartened we were to hear that a Nazi swastika had been found in a residence hall bathroom. We called on our non-Jewish peers to step up and learn about antisemitism. The statement, originally posted on Instagram, generated 911 likes and was reshared well over 100 times. The Jewish Student Union Instagram account, however, has only 574 followers, compelling me to believe that our response to a harmful antisemitic incident was more interesting to my peers as a social media trend than as a worthy social justice cause.
At a college of roughly 2,200 students, a significant portion of my peers have never met a Jew before. Whether international or domestic, a Jew is an alien concept to them. Therefore, part of this process of fighting antisemitism has been to humanize myself. I feel the need to make myself approachable and friendly in order to be respected and combat potential preexisting notions of antisemitic tropes.
Now that it is winter break, I am looking forward to resting and taking care of my mental and physical health before returning to campus for the next semester. While this work of fighting antisemitism is draining, I am proud to be on the frontlines creating a community where Jewish students not only feel that they are included, but that they belong. The Jewish people are a stiff-necked people, and I am not backing down.
Emma Mair grew up in Middleton and attends Mount Holyoke College.