By Alanna Margulies
There are many ways I could chart the course of my past two years as a college student. Semesters completed, grades earned, life milestones, papers written, dorms lived in. And then, there is a more disturbing way to chart the course — anti-Semitic events that have either made national news or occurred in my community along the way.
I started as a freshman in August 2018. Two months later, I was sitting in the Hillel building when I first heard about the tragic shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. That spring, friends of mine walking to mincha on Shabbat were accosted by some afternoon partiers who shouted obscenities and an anti-Semitic slur at them from a balcony. We reported the incident to the university but were met with sheepish apologies and assurances that if there was any way they could possibly to identify the perpetrators, they would be punished.
The next fall, a security guard began joining us in Hillel on Shabbat afternoons after a local woman approached a kippah-wearing student outside of the building and berated him, saying “Take off your hat!” and “Your religion is stolen!” We did not make a big deal about this incident and campus news did not cover it because, we thought, there are always going to be crazy anti-Semites out there, so what good will drawing attention to this one do?
Then there was the onslaught of violent attacks against ultra-Orthodox Jews in the New York area while I was home for winter break, just having completed my sophomore fall, punctuated by a deadly shooting in a Jersey City kosher market and stabbing in Monsey.
Finally, just last week, Eagles player DeSean Jackson posted quotes attributed to Hitler and virulent anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan on his Instagram page, which were supported by former NBA player Stephen Jackson, who claimed that DeSean was “speaking the truth.” As a few sports commentators and NFL players pointed out, the response to this display of anti-Semitism and ignorance was underwhelming.
For me, this event and the lackluster response it garnered were all too familiar. It was a public verification of what I already knew and statistics have been telling us, that anti-Semitism is alive and well in the United States and that the majority of people can barely muster up the energy to care.
However, there were three key differences about this instance of anti-Semitism that set it apart from the others that have punctuated my college years.
First, it was publicly perpetuated and defended by mainstream figures. DeSean Jackson and Stephen Jackson are professional athletes who hold positions of high esteem in our society. Steven Jackson has risen to prominence recently because of his activism in the Black Lives Matter movement. Adults cheer for them, children look up to them, teams need them. They cannot be written off as fringe or unhinged like the violent assailants and drunk college students who I have previously encountered.
Second, Jackson’s posts came in the context of a national reckoning about race. Following the tragic killing of George Floyd, Americans have mobilized to call out racism and discrimination where they see it in institutions and their daily lives. Especially people of my generation have heeded the call, organizing protests and taking to social media to advocate for systemic change.
This brings me to the third reason why this time is different. In the face of anti-Semitism by a mainstream figure, in the context of widespread activism, American Jews of my generation have stepped up and called out this egregious act. Initially, there were cries of frustration about how NFL players and others who had been so vocal against racism for the past several weeks were silent about this instance of unequivocal hatred, a sentiment encapsulated in a tweet by ESPN analyst Matthew Berry. However, upon realizing that their frustration was not yielding action, young Jews looked around and saw that they had a model at their fingertips to call out this injustice on their own.
Unlike the Tree of Life massacre, this event occurred after activists for racial justice had begun using a new model to promote their cause. Simply adding a filter to your Facebook profile picture no longer qualifies. By creating the types of educational social media posts that many of them had used and seen used in the conversation surrounding racism, American Jews have called out DeSean Jackson and his sympathizers and started a conversation about how serious and rampant anti-Semitism is. Instead of looking inward to mourn and reflect, as many did following the attack in Pittsburgh, many Jews of my generation have turned outwards to create awareness and educate.
Now that DeSean Jackson, along with Steven Jackson and actor Nick Cannon, have given a public face to outright anti-Semitism, many Jews have come to the realization that they can advocate for racial justice while also being proud of their Jewish values. The result, on social media at least, has been attempts to educate peers about what makes anti-Zionism anti-Semitic, discussions about anti-Semitism on college campuses and an exposure of the deeply anti-Semitic underpinnings of the phrase “Jewish privilege.”
By some accounts this response has succeeded. In conjunction with outreach and education by the Jewish community, Jewish football players like Julian Edelman and Mitchell Schwartz have promoted public conversations and provided forums for Jackson and others to learn about why the comments were ignorant and anti-Semitic. Since then, Jackson has issued several apologies, including one in which he promised his apology would be “more than just words,” and has met with a Holocaust survivor and Jewish leaders.
While it has been heartening to watch people come to the realization that their advocacy for racial justice and their Zionist and Jewish beliefs should not have to be mutually exclusive, I worry that this moment of standing up for ourselves is just that, a blip on the radar. Self-pride does not come nearly as easily to American Jews as self-preservation. Years of discrimination have implanted a lingering voice in the back of our heads saying, “Don’t make trouble, it will only attract more attention and animosity.” This lingering voice often manifests in retreating instead of making our voices heard in the face of anti-Semitic injustice.
And our work is not done. While DeSean Jackson has taken his transgression seriously and taken steps to educate himself, figures like Nick Cannon, who was recently fired from ViacomCBS for spreading anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, gave an equivocal and deeply unimpressive apology. Less well-known individuals will continue to spread anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism with words and violence.
So my challenge to my generation of American Jews is this: Take this moment of collective pride to recognize that your Judaism and Zionism should never have to be diminished in order for you to advocate for other causes that you care about. Being a proud Jew and Zionist should not preclude you from standing up for others; in fact, it should be celebrated. Most importantly, take this mindset with you as you head back to college campuses and anti-Semitic incidents inevitably occur. You have the tools and a taste of what it feels like to break the American Jewish mindset often characterized by silence in the face of anti-Semitism. Carry this pride with you and do not be afraid to stand your ground in the face of damaging hatred.
Alanna Margulies is a rising junior at Johns Hopkins University and a foreign policy fellow at the Endowment for Middle East Truth.