The Jewish Community Center in West Hartford is where I would go throughout my childhood to watch my friends perform in plays, to grab a bagel from the kosher cafe or to swim in the pool. Often, when we walked in, my parents would gripe about how unsafe the building was. “Anyone could come in!” they would point out (for context: Older women who had no means to stop an intruder worked at the front desk). Every time, I would roll my eyes — did they really think Jews were in danger in 21st century America?
On Wednesday, someone called a bomb threat into that JCC. Suddenly, chaos. The preschool was evacuated. My Jewish high school across the street went into lockdown — a drill I remembered being accompanied by laughter, even from the unworried teachers. The JCC of Greater New Haven also received a bomb threat at the same time, as did other Jewish institutions across the country. Now, I see the wisdom of my parents’ concern.
President Donald Trump’s candidacy and election has empowered anti-Semites and anti-Semitic discourse. Although there has yet to be substantial physical violence as a result, the point holds: anti-Semitism is on the rise across America.
This resurgence of public and unabashed anti-Semitism has caused many young American Jews to question the sense of comfort that made us cynical toward our elders’ concerns. I am among them. Since the election, I’ve begun to fear for my safety. I recently found myself idly imagining where I would hide if a shooter came into Slifka Center. A friend of mine who wears a kippah had slurs yelled at him out of a car window last week. These bomb threats have deeply shaken my community. But physical threats against Jews are only one form of anti-Semitism. We in our ivory tower are not immune to perpetuating this violence.
Last week, I brought up the Holocaust in class for the first time ever at Yale, the upspeak at the end of my comment revealing my timidity. I felt even mentioning the Holocaust to be cheating or contextually inappropriate somehow. This is the result of other experiences I have had talking about anti-Semitism at Yale. Early in Directed Studies last year, we read and discussed the Gospel of Luke. In section, after sitting with my heart pounding debating if I ought to, I said that the Gospel’s attitude toward Rabbinic Jews struck me as explicitly anti-Semitic. Everyone in the room sat in awkward silence until the professor thanked me for raising the issue. She then immediately changed the subject.
When I had the opportunity to raise this issue again in a class about Catholicism this year, I said that Luke was “challenging to me as a Jewish person” instead. I was afraid to use the designation of “anti-Semitism.” This is a structural problem at Yale: We often read texts that put forth anti-Semitic stereotypes yet fail to acknowledge the violence of these ideas in conversation. We usually offer disclaimers about explicitly misogynistic texts yet take for granted that anti-Semitism is native to the classic texts of the Western canon. Therefore, we don’t feel the need to address it.
In the course of debate about renaming FKA Calhoun College last year, Matthew Jacobson, chair of the Ethnicity, Race & Migration Program, wrote an open letter to University President Salovey. Jacobson asked: “Have you ever reflected on how it might feel to go to school and be assigned to a residential college named for [Nazi propaganda minister] Joseph Goebbels?” This question treats anti-Semitism as a rhetorical device rather than a real threat. Furthermore, it assumes that the question of a Yale residential college named after an obvious anti-Semite is a theoretical one. In fact, it isn’t.
Jonathan Edwards, the 18th century fire-and-brimstone preacher, wrote that Jews were rejected by God, sent into exile and persecuted as repayment for their having done those things to Jesus. This anti-Jewish sentiment is not unique to Edwards but rather is endemic to the thought of Yale’s founders, and still lurking in the University’s legacy.
I am just coming to understand the painful and scary truth of feeling othered and marginalized in both America and at Yale. I don’t take for granted the work students of color have done before me in opening and continuing conversations about prejudice at Yale — the existence of spaces in which to do so is the result of their efforts. My evolving understanding calls me to stand with other threatened groups not just as an ally but in solidarity against white supremacy. I invite you to join me.
Avigayil Halpern is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .