Once, while standing in the lunch line of my private preparatory middle school, I turned to the boy behind me, who was decked out in purple converse and a Blink-182 shirt, and offered him some Skittles. He replied quickly: “I don’t want anything from your dirty Jew hands.” My face went numb: I quickly crushed my hands into fists and stuck them to my side. At home that night, I carefully inspected each crevice and wrinkle of my palms, only to find a rainbow of Skittle stains dusted with shame and confusion.
Growing up in the modest town of Santa Fe, New Mexico, allowed me to live in a close-knit Jewish bubble, one that fostered in me a distinct naivete of anti-Semitism until my rude prep school awakening. In combination with awkward braces, at a time when the last thing one wanted to be was different, being Jewish was less than ideal. Surrounded by a homogenous “WASP-y” environment, I began not just denying my Jewish heritage, but condemning the religion and community. I convinced myself that my mother’s original upbringing in Christianity and my blatant Aryan appearance made me less Jewish; I wouldn’t allow my parents to even entertain the idea of a Bat Mitzvah. Standing up in front of my judgemental peers, claiming the identity that caused my knees to be as purple as the shoes of the boy who threw pennies at my legs, would be, in the words of Regina George, “social suicide.” Hanukkah traditions morphed into Christmas trees — ones I begged my parents to buy each December as a crucial prop to my adopted act.
This being said, imagine the surprise of my hometown friends when I posted on social media (as is customary to do whenever traveling and a new Snapchat geotag is available), that I was in Jerusalem on a Birthright trip during the winter break of my sophomore year at UC Berkeley. Birthright is a free 10-day tour of Israel for young Jewish-Americans, aimed to connect the travelers to the the country and to each other, and meant to spark a new understanding of what it means to be Jewish. When I arrived at Berkeley as a freshman, I had planned to continue my vow of silence against a Jewish proclamation, an ideology I had solidified during my high school years. But my immersion in this new community broke the seal. I found that Berkeley allowed me to thrive Jewish-ly in a new community of diversity and fortitude, particularly bolstered by my sorority, which has a high number of Jewish girls. While I was still often greeted with a furrowed brow and a, “Wait, you’re Jewish?!” when I told people of my heritage, my Berkeley environment gave me the courage to reconsider my vehement denial of Judaism and travel across the globe to Israel on Birthright.
Denial soon turned into profound embrace. Whether it was floating in the Dead Sea or sitting on a hill-top with a Jewish Guru learning meditation, I found myself finally reciting the transliteration of an opening Bat Mitzvah prayer with shaky knees in a small room with 40 of my fellow Birthright-ers in Jerusalem. Since my trip to Israel, my personal understanding and connection with being Jewish has been redefined, and my confidence has grown as my experiences with anti-Semitism seemed to melt away.
Standing up in front of my judgemental peers, claiming the identity that caused my knees to be as purple as the shoes of the boy who threw pennies at my legs, would be, in the words of Regina George, “social suicide.” Hanukkah traditions morphed into Christmas trees — ones I begged my parents to buy each December as a crucial prop to my adopted act.
I snapped from my Israel high to fearful sobriety when I read that last year, anti-Semitic graffiti had appeared on a bathroom wall in a building on the UC Berkeley campus reading “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber,” and that swastikas had been painted on various doors on campus. Anti-Semitism? At UC Berkeley? The very place that had allowed me to overcome my greatest fear of intolerance? Despite my surprise, this situation is not unique to Berkeley, but rather has been occurring across the UC system and the nation. This aggression has arose in part as a result of Palestinian advocacy groups supporting boycotts and sanctioning of Israel. This movement, known as Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, or BDS, defines itself as forcing Israel to comply to “international law and Palestinian rights,” both of which have been called into question because of what they say is an apartheid-like atmosphere in Israel. But a great deal of backlash and aggressive rhetoric against Jews on college campuses has caused ripples of shock among the Jewish community, which is now fighting for the public to remember that they too are a discriminated minority.
My ability to contribute fully to this discussion on the Berkeley campus is limited because of the intricate and convoluted nature of the conflict at hand. I only learned the surface-level information about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict while on my Birthright trip, but the thing I understood most was that the conflict was far more complicated than anyone could begin to grasp from a few guest lectures and far more than pro-Israel or pro-Palestine. As I spoke with one of the Israeli soldiers that accompanied my trip, he explained to me that the long-standing struggle is intertwined with politics, economics and religion, and it cannot be solved with a few handshakes and a signed piece of paper.
These tensions and sentiments from across the globe have boiled over to the Palestinian and Jewish youth in U.S. colleges and have recently caught the attention of the University of California system. On March 23 of this year, the Board of Regents became the first public university system to adopt “a statement condemning anti-Semitism on its campuses.” Many Jews argued that the statement was not inclusive enough to address the direct issue at hand, while others stated the that board’s decision was a questionable infringement of free speech as well as incorrectly assumed the intentions of pro-Palestinian groups. The statement avoided direct condemnation of anti-Zionism, which many Jews believe is inherently anti-Semitic, and also averted outlining a concrete punishment for violation of the statement. Pro-Palestinians argued that the statement was used to “stifle opposition to Israeli policies” and falsely inferred that the Palestinian movement was targeted at Jews rather than self-advocacy. Overall, the statement was an important step in the right direction for protection of a minority group but is acting as a bandage (and not the extra-strength, durable, adhesive kind) for a much larger problem.
What many forget is that Jews are still a marginalized group in the United States, often overlooked because of an intense and successful effort of early Jewish generations to assimilate into American culture. While discrimination and prejudice runs rampant against all minority groups, Jewish peoples now have to work to convince the rest of the community that anti-Semitism is still alive and well, particularly in collegiate institutions.
While I am sensitive to the discrimination on both sides and do not have solid opinion on the regents’ decision, I can’t help but become frustrated with those who believe Jews do not require the protection offered from this bill. Many often filter anti-Semitism down to the Holocaust, which in turn becomes a single isolated event somewhere in our history textbook buried under the pages of World War II. What many forget is that Jews are still a marginalized group in the United States, often overlooked because of an intense and successful effort of early Jewish generations to assimilate into American culture. While discrimination and prejudice runs rampant against all minority groups, Jewish peoples now have to work to convince the rest of the community that anti-Semitism is still alive and well, particularly in collegiate institutions.
Living with the group of 20-some-year-old soldiers in Israel put in perspective the extent that Israeli youth sacrifice for the country in which they reside. I felt guilt for my own denial of Judaism for all those years as my Israeli peers put their life on the line to fight for Jewish acceptance. I realized, however, that all who identify with Judaism are battling anti-Semitism in our own way and on different scales. I don’t condone everything that Israel does: No country is perfect. The plight of the Palestinians is legitimate and needs to be addressed, but not in a way that is reflective of anti-Semitism. There is not a clear answer to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and both sides have valid concerns that deserve to be heard. But outright disapproval of a statement that only aims to protect another minority group only furthers the schism between the majority population and other oppressed communities. While I am more than fortunate to attend the No. 1 public university in the nation, live among students who come from diverse backgrounds and all have unique heritages, sometimes I’ll look down and picture my Skittle-stained palms — I’ll remember that we still have work to do.
Contact Elizabeth Gordon at [email protected]