Antisemitism (again)

Recently some students came to see me about their fear that antisemitism might be growing at Wesleyan. They were cautious about making any claim, knowing that this university has been a welcoming place for Jewish students, faculty, and staff for about fifty years now. Yet they were also aware that Wesleyan is no bubble, and that attacking Jews has, on the right, become a key aspect of white supremacist talk and, on the left, a feature of criticism of Israel and of American elites. They did not disagree that Israel and elites are reasonable subjects for critique; they also were conscious of the fact that scapegoating Jews comes as easily to many people as other forms or racism and discrimination. I told the students that I would share their concerns more widely, and so I decided to write this blog.

There’s no doubt that public antisemitism is on the rise, and it’s not just Ye. According to the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents in the United States reached an all-time high in 2021. Expressions of Jew hatred are ever more commonplace in the public sphere, and Twitter’s recent welcoming back of known antisemitic accounts is yet another sign that this traditional form of hate speech has found a compatible outlet in contemporary social media. 

The students who came to see me recognized that many at Wesleyan would roll their eyes at concerns about bias against Jews, who many regard as privileged. At the same time, they were cognizant of the fact that over a very long time (and in some of the most learned places), Jews have periodically become objects of discrimination, public scorn, and violence. As Sigmund Freud ironically put it about a century ago, Jews, by being objects of aggression, “have rendered most useful services to the civilizations of the countries that have been their hosts; but unfortunately all the massacres of the Jews in the Middle Ages did not suffice to make that period more peaceful and secure for their Christian fellows.”

I’ve written before about the scapegoating in America of queer and trans people, and about the pernicious, deep-seated effects of anti-Black racism. That these remain top of mind for many of us at Wesleyan is no reason not to be alert to the despicable and dangerous nature of antisemitism when it rears its ugly head.