Attacks against Jews surged around the world in the wake of the fighting between Israel and the Gaza Strip this summer, prompting a flood of articles decrying Europe’s revived anti-Semitism. One of these was by the French public intellectual Bernard-Henri Levy, who describes the various guises of anti-Semitism throughout history before explaining how it has taken to a new pretext in the 21st century – one based on a mix of anti-Zionism with a pinch of Holocaust denial.
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Yet, in his article, Levy overlooks an age-old form of anti-Semitism that still lurks among us, though perhaps in a subtler garb: facetious tropes about Jewish privilege and domination. And nowhere do I hear them more than on my college campus.
This is how I recently went through a day at college:
I woke up and checked the UChicago Secrets page on Facebook to find post #4145 with 39 likes: “I secretly think that President Zimmer doesn’t exist, and that if you were to open the door to his office, you would find a table full of elderly Jewish men making all the decisions and just passing themselves off as a single reclusive individual.”
Later, I found my way to one of the bathrooms in the bookstore and noticed the graffiti on the stall: “Jewish men run the CIA". I opened my reading for my Social Science requirement to hear Marx claim that malicious capitalists are “inwardly circumcised Jews” (Capital, Volume I). In other words, Marx associates the source and propagation of sinister economic forces with the Jew. After passing the pinwheels on the quad in honor of the horrific death of children in Gaza with no context as to what prompted and transpired during the most recent conflict there, I went to see Steven Salaita, a professor whose job offer was rescinded at University of Illinois, presumably because of a string of strongly worded anti-Israeli tweets like “I wish all the fucking West Bank settlers would go missing” after three Israeli boys were kidnapped, or “Zionists: transforming ‘antisemitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.” At the event, Salaita painted a picture that could be interpreted to suggest Jews control academia and silence views they don’t like, while repeating several times that he is not an anti-Semite.
As a practicing Jew, I’m obviously more sensitive to these themes than the average student. Nonetheless, whether we like it or not, all the sights and sounds around us either affect us directly or slip into our subconscious, and I’m afraid that when an average student hears the word “Jew,” he’ll search through the most recent file in his brain and find associations that are hateful and harmful.
This is not new to college campuses. Last year, I overheard someone in the library explaining why “Jews are annoying.” “All Jews run Wall Street. They take over all of the banks. It pisses me off,” the person said to the girl sitting next to him. “That shouldn’t make you dislike Jews,” she responded. Despite this, he went on. “That’s why I’m doing Economics. They can’t be the heads of everything.” Then, at a party, a student told a funny story about his friend who used to steal food from the dining hall. The punch line? “And he was a Jew!” My friend also woke up last year to a swastika taped to his door, while another found one etched on a desk.
Though other awful minority stereotypes are thought to be completely unacceptable, the fabrication that Jews are greedy and control everything (politics, media, finance, etc.) often goes unnoticed. Some may even claim that it’s a compliment, but the truth is far from it. Why are these sentiments of Jewish success particularly problematic? In the past, they have fueled pogroms – organized massacres of Jews – and expulsions of Jews. The Jews were blamed for the Great Depression, Germany’s terrible economy prior to World War II, and even for the most recent global financial crisis. Recently, Paris Hilton received death threats for being Jewish – even though she’s not – as the stalker thought she exhibited the "typical" Jewish trait of being stingy. In France, assailants broke into the home of a young Jewish couple where, prior to raping the 19-year-old woman, they demanded the couple relinquish their credit cards and pin numbers, explaining that since the couple is Jewish, they shouldn’t feign not having money.
As these historical and recent events show, conspiracies and stereotypes about Jews are dangerous because frustrations over any sort of entity that Jews are thought to control leads to baseless hatred toward the Jewish people.
Beyond the threat of physical attacks, the subtlety of anti-Semitism on college campuses makes the phenomenon particularly unsettling. That post is still on UChicago Secrets; either the editors of the page didn’t have enough discretion, or no one found it problematic enough to encourage them to take it down.
Malevolent Jewish prejudices have been kept relatively quiet, but they remain. These seemingly small stereotypes need to be crushed before they grow into a more patent form of evil.
Eliora Katz is an undergraduate studying Economics, Philosophy and Persian at the University of Chicago. You can follow her on Twitter at @ElioraKatz.