Liberals Must Stand Up to College Antisemitism

Bosworth Hall at Oberlin College. Photo: Daderot / Wikimedia.

It’s no secret that antisemitism is on the rise in America. Between attacks on our synagogues and literal Nazis waving torches, it hasn’t been subtle. We can argue over how much responsibility Donald Trump and his repugnant words hold — but that won’t stem the tide of violence that our people are facing. Instead, we must focus on what we can change right now, and dig into the roots of how antisemitism has flourished in America.

Along with antisemitism on the political right, the left has encouraged this problem with ignorance and complicity, and we can battle both with education and accountability.

I will be transparent: I’m a liberal. I went to Oberlin College, which is a bastion of liberal thought, with a long history of being at the forefront of civil rights. Yet it was at Oberlin where I suffered my worst experiences with antisemitism. Oberlin isn’t unique, either. According to one study done in 2015 by Trinity College, 54% of Jewish college students in the United States reported being subject to or witnessing antisemitism on their campus.

The fact that so many Jewish men and women feel discriminated against on college campuses tells us that antisemitism isn’t just coming from the right. My experience at Oberlin also tells me that the left has facilitated antisemitism’s growth by in turn participating in it and ignoring it.

In 2013, my first year at Oberlin, a Jewish senior told me in hushed tones to watch my back — because it was terrible to be Jewish there. “You always have to prove you’re a good Jew,” she said to me. “The good Jews have to be anti-Zionist.”

That Rosh Hashanah, SFP (Students for Free Palestine) put black flags symbolizing dead Palestinians all over the lawn outside of the building where services were being held, forcing us to walk through their protest to observe the holiday. SFP claimed the date was a coincidence, and the Oberlin administration (as well as the student body at large) did nothing.

This was a pattern. Something antisemitic would happen, and Oberlin would shrug and move on, while the Jewish community silently licked its wounds. There was the ever-present threat of being labeled a “Bad Jew” or even a Zionist, a title that carried threats of harassment and social ostracism, if we spoke out against SFP’s tactics and harassment. This wasn’t just an Oberlin problem; a student from Brown University wrote about a similar atmosphere on his campus in The New York Times, where he said student activists shunned anyone tangentially involved in Jewish organizations.

This apathy fueled antisemitic activity at Oberlin until a rhetoric professor, Joy Karega, declared that, among other things, Zionist Jews were behind 9/11. The reaction to her blatant old-school bigotry showed me the breadth of Oberlin’s ignorance of antisemitism. Even as Jewish students rose to demand her firing, many students on campus pushed back, claiming that she was only anti-Zionist and not antisemitic at all.

Five Jewish members of the SFP sent a letter to the college newspaper, declaring the criticism of Karega to be not only racist, but Zionist apologetics. To them, antisemitism was swastikas and explicitly Rothschild conspiracies, and objections to anything short of that were just Zionist deflections. Oberlin alumni denounced Karega, but the Student Senate as well as multiple pro-Palestine student organizations declared that the alumni didn’t understand that students didn’t believe Oberlin had a problem with antisemitism. Students like me, who felt like antisemitism had become a fact of my life on campus, didn’t speak out.

Because of the anti-Israel crowd’s non-engagement policy with Zionist Jews, I met people who called themselves anti-Zionists but couldn’t tell me what anti-Zionism was. They did not know what the blood libel was, how conspiracy theories historically led to antisemitic violence, or even how Israel was founded. They never had to defend their views in a structured setting, so they were never forced to learn about the issues beyond shallow talking points, and the college did not care enough to push them to learn.

Karega and liberal apathy are not unique to college campuses. DC Council member Trayon White, a Democrat, espoused similar conspiracy theories twice in 2018, and no one in the room spoke up when he claimed Jews control the Federal government. These ongoing “shoulder shrugs” at antisemitism have allowed discrimination to flourish on the left and facilitated the rise of antisemitism in our country. If we are to fight it, we have to start by holding our friends, communities, and politicians accountable. We have to push our colleges to educate people about antisemitism, and we cannot tolerate non-engagement policies from any advocacy campaign.

I am tired of crying impotently at the news. I am tired of feeling powerless. The best way to fight antisemitism is to fight it in our communities. Liberals have to try just as hard to educate ourselves and others about antisemitism as we do other forms of discrimination. Most of all, we can no longer excuse or ignore discrimination, no matter how it manifests itself. The only way we will fight the tiki torches is if we choke them at their source, and their source is ignorance and apathy.

Julia Redden is an Oberlin graduate with 16 years of writing experience. She works as a researcher and museum educator, and occasionally as a cow milker.

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