Not just neo-Nazis with tiki torches: Why Jewish students say they also fear cloaked anti-Semitism

Not just neo-Nazis with tiki torches: Why Jewish students say they also fear cloaked anti-Semitism

As Julia Jassey packed up her things before flying off to college in Chicago, she had the usual concerns — beginning her life as an adult, making friends and getting her work done. It never occurred to her to be nervous about being Jewish.

She’s born and raised in New York, the eldest daughter in her family, captain of her high school fencing team. She was looking forward to becoming more active in the progressive causes she cared about — ending inequalities among Americans, supporting those who looked or believed differently from her to live their best lives.

But Jassey found herself excluded or even targeted as soon as her heritage was known.

There were the casual jokes — calling the Holocaust an extended vacation for Jews who never came back.

Then there were the anti-Semitic slurs yelled at an acquaintance wearing a yarmulke, the traditional Jewish head covering. Jassey sometimes became nervous that she, too, could be targeted if anyone saw her Star of David necklace that she had worn proudly and without hesitation for years.

“I never [before] had the experience of being scared to leave my home,” says Jassey, who is now 20 and just finished her sophomore year at the University of Chicago.

She started a “Jewish on Campus” group on social media for students like her. And she found many were like her — Jewish students finding themselves the target of hate from both the left and the right, and increasingly from their own peers.

“It’s intense,” Jassey says of her online experiences. “I’ve gotten death threats, I’ve gotten sexual assault threats, I’ve gotten called lots of slurs, my family’s gotten death threats.”

Those experiences are being felt too often now, by American Jews young and old. Anti-Semitic incidents in the country more than doubled in May amid violence between Israel and Hamas in the Middle East, compared to the same time last year, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

And anti-Semitic attitudes are consistently higher among young people, in contrast to other forms of prejudice where the more youthful tend to be more tolerant, according to a study last fall by researchers at Tufts University and Harvard University.

For Jassey and Blake Flayton, a 20-year-old senior at The George Washington University, in Washington, DC, the greatest concern is the more insidious, seemingly regular and casual anti-Semitism, the cloaked language being used — whether knowingly or not — in progressive circles they once considered themselves integral parts of.

“An American Jew is only used to perceiving anti-Semitism as Nazis in Charlottesville carrying tiki torches, or a swastika being spray-painted onto a synagogue wall, or the Christian right saying that Jews killed Jesus Christ. We’re not very attuned to and good at recognizing anti-Semitism when it doesn’t come from that extreme side of the political spectrum,” Flayton says. “But we are going to have to get used to it, because that’s what’s coming here. It’s already here.”

Anti-Semitic rhetoric has grown at alarming rates on campuses nationwide, according to Matthew Berger, vice president of strategic action programs and communications of Hillel International, an international Jewish campus organization. In the last two months alone, Berger says he’s dealt with issues on 50 campuses from coast to coast and across public, private, Ivy League and liberal arts campuses.

“I’ve been surprised how widespread it has been over the past two months,” Berger says. “Campuses that have gotten used to anti-Israel protests have said they’ve never seen environments as hostile as they have over the two months, and campuses that have never experienced these types of issues are experiencing it for the first time.”

Personal hate and global movements online

Both Jassey and Flayton explain their own positions — their culture, their faith, their support for Israel but not all the actions of its governments — with great nuance.

But nuance disappears online, where college students spend so much of the time, and the vitriol there has been particularly harsh.

“I’m a white supremacist. I’m a Nazi. I kill babies. I’m a genocide apologist. I am a racist. I support ethnic cleansing and colonialism,” Flayton says, quoting some of the abuse hurled at him. “I get more death threats than my parents would probably like to know about.”

The simplistic name calling and lack of complexity that suits social media can also lead celebrities and politicians into fanning the flames by using anti-Semitic language and images, Flayton says. And their messages go to millions who may not spend any time researching or validating, let alone understanding the complexity of what’s being shared.

Politicians from left and right have been accused of stoking anti-Semitism intentionally or unintentionally. First-term Republican Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene apologized weeks after comparing mask mandates to combat the spread of Covid to the Nazis forcing Jews to wearing yellow stars on their clothing to mark them out.

In the Democratic Party, Reps. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Cori Bush of Missouri have used the term “apartheid” referring to Israel. Rep. Omar has also referred to Israel as committing an “act of terrorism” and their actions as “ethnic cleansing.”

Omar has said these are legitimate critiques of Israeli policy, but for many Jews those words have become loaded phrases that are offensive and cloaked anti-Semitism and that are tossed around without explanation of what is meant by the allegation. Supporters of Israel argue the attacks on the country can be seen as bad faith efforts meant to question the legitimacy of the only Jewish state in the world.

Tlaib, who is of Palestinian descent, and other members of “The Squad” of progressive recently elected congresswomen have been some of the most vocal progressive voices against Israeli policies and US foreign policy in the Middle East. Those congresswomen have said they stand against all forms of hate.

But their comments have drawn criticism from Jewish Democrats who wrote a letter to President Joe Biden, saying they were veering past free political speech to being “anti-Semitic at their core,” which adds to “a climate that is hostile to many Jews.”

Supermodel Bella Hadid, whose father is Palestinian, posted on Instagram a live video from a Free Palestine march at which she took part in chants that led to the official Twitter account of Israel to call her out for her comments many view as anti-Semitic.

After Hadid was criticized for posts that were seen as anti-Semitic, she explained “this is not about religion” or “spewing hate,” but in the same post went on to use charged language viewed by many Jews as anti-Semitic when she called Israel’s actions “colonization,” “ethnic cleansing” and “apartheid.”

Flayton fears that many of Hadid’s 43.5 million followers — more than three times the estimated number of Jews in the entire world — may accept her posts without question or taking the time to form their own opinions.

“If a third of her Instagram followers see her posts … then all of those people are going to think that,” Flayton says.

“If just a fraction of them share it on their social media pages, then think of how many millions and millions and millions of people are seeing this information and perceiving it as true. We are greatly outnumbered.”

He believes the impact of social media cannot be overstated. It helped galvanize progressives behind justice for George Floyd, and brought attention to anti-Asian hate. But it can also be weaponized to the point it can put Jewish safety at risk, Flayton says.

“If Adolf Hitler had an Instagram account, the Holocaust would have happened a lot quicker,” he says. “Because the public would have been convinced a lot sooner, that the Jews were plotting to overthrow Germany, and weed out the Aryan race and take over Europe,” Flayton adds. “I’m being glib here, because it’s an imperfect comparison. But it shows just how dramatic of a situation this is when anybody can say anything they want about the Jewish people and about Israel.”

Thrown out of spaces

Jassey and Flayton both consider themselves progressives. They want to support social justice movements, fight climate change, to join clubs championing progressive causes on campus.

But they found their religion being used as a litmus test. And if they tried to talk, it became a Catch-22: explaining the history of being an oppressed people only to have that argument dismissed.

“I was often put in this position where I had to defend Israel before I could be taken seriously with my other political opinions,” Jassey explained. “A lot of the time, you can be as progressive as you’d like to be on anything else. But the second that you accept Israel’s existence as something that you want to remain, or something that’s important to you, you’re ostracized from those circles.”

Flayton knows that feeling all too well. The time when organizers said he couldn’t bring a Pride flag with the Jewish star on it to a LGBTQ march because it was deemed nationalist and could offend someone. Or the time he arrived for a meeting about canvassing for a Democrat in a shirt with Hebrew writing and was made to change by the coordinator.

“You have Jews, especially Jewish young people, who, their Zionism is a part of their identity,” Flayton explains “And they’re entering these spaces like the campus, and they want to get involved in all of these organizations and movements. They want to fight for $15 minimum wage, they want to fight for universal health care. They want to push for the legalization of marijuana nationwide, but they’re being forced to check their Zionism at the door — any sense of Jewish peoplehood, they’re being told to check it at the door.”

Flayton and Jassey say they are not given a chance to explain their stance, reference their family history or have a debate. Jassey says she isn’t given the space to explain she finds the situation for Palestinians “heartbreaking” or that many Jews criticize the government of Israel more than anyone else.

Her issue is when those critiques go further into dangerous territory, especially when all Jews are held responsible for the actions of Israel, a specific defined example of anti-Semitism adopted by the US and dozens of other member nations of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

“There are definitely ways to critique the Israeli government without being anti-Semitic, but it’s not what people are doing a lot of the time,” she says.

Jassey says that if she tries to talk about the complex history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that has existed for centuries and remains an almost intractable international geopolitical issue, “you’re instantly on the wrong side.”

Flayton says, “If a Jew who is a liberal, who is left wing says, ‘I’m a Zionist,’ they’re not given the space to explain all of what that means. That word means is that you support the Jewish right to self-determination in part of our ancestral homeland, not even specifying where the borders are, not even specifying which government they would like to see in charge in Israel,” he says. “They’re not given the space to explain that. They’re banished.”

What happens next

In many ways, Jassey and Flayton feel they are being trapped in the middle by inflamed rhetoric on both sides.

“It was much easier to visualize this when Jews were ghettoized,” Flayton explains. “Now, you’re talking about a world, a largely online world for the younger generations, in which Jews are being excluded from places now, but just in a different way, but the effect is the same.”

The fear and antagonism of words is increasingly bleeding into the reality of actions.

Flayton sometimes takes off his yarmulke when he goes out on the streets in New York. He’s seen the attacks against people in his own Brooklyn neighborhood, people targeted for being visibly Jewish, and takes the decision with a heavy heart.

“At the end of the day, I don’t want to get attacked on the train,” he says.

Jassey also worries about the physical impact of it all, rattling off incidents around the country: bottles thrown at Jews eating sushi in Los Angeles; synagogues defaced and defiled; a young Jewish man punched, kicked and pepper-sprayed in New York’s Times Square.

Jassey is now nervous about bidding farewell to remote learning and returning to campus in such a charged climate. And she worries about the long-term impact of so many young people being filled with hatred for Jews.

“College anti-Semitism is a small thing until those people grow up,” she says. “Those people grow up and became doctors and lawyers and politicians and lawmakers.”

Flayton promises to refuse to be cowed, whatever is aimed at him online and off.

“I can’t imagine a world where I let that break me, because then they would win,” he says. “What they’re trying to do right now is bully Jews off and out of the public forum … because we’re saying things they don’t like. And it would be a colossal waste if we gave into that. That has never been a winning strategy for our people. Ever.”