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Cyclical American Antisemitism

Updated: Oct 27, 2022

As the new semester begins, we once again see a steady rise in antisemitic incidents personally targeting individuals for antisemitic discrimination. Too many of these incidents are reminiscent of my grandfather’s era.

By: Yael Lerman | Jewish Journal | October 21, 2022





Hushed-up institutional antisemitism at universities in the last century has recently garnered attention at Stanford and in an expose at Tablet Magazine about the Ivy League. These headlines hit home. Growing up, my mother would tell stories of my family’s ascent in America to remind us not to take anything for granted or develop an attitude of entitlement. Ours is a rags-to-riches story familiar to many Jewish families and uniquely American. However, there is another, darker family story that is also uniquely American. It is a cautionary tale of how American Jews previously experienced antisemitism—and are now experiencing it again.


My maternal grandfather, Solomon, was born in 1907 in New York to a Ukrainian-immigrant Jewish family. He placed number one in New York State high school placement tests and received a full scholarship to Cornell University, hoping to become an accountant. My grandfather soon learned that 1920s corporate America systematically refused to hire Jews. So, Solomon applied to medical school. There, he found quotas limiting Jewish admissions. Determined to become a doctor, in 1929, he moved to Germany to attend medical school, knowing no German. He returned to America with his degree in the nick of time—1936—but still couldn’t get a job as a Jew. He changed his name to Stephen, shed his identifiable Jewish identity, and found employment. Solomon-turned-Stephen’s experience of American antisemitism was in the form of formidable barriers to entry in educational and employment opportunities unless overt Jewish identity was hidden.


Then came my parents’ generation and mine. Jewish generations in 1960s-2020 America faced far fewer limits on our opportunities. We had arrived, largely in part to the choices of my grandparents’ generation. Antisemitism still cropped up, but the incidents felt like outliers.


This brings us to my children’s generation, Gen-Z, the great-grandchildren of Solomon. Mark Twain said, “history does not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” American Jews today are not experiencing antisemitism exactly as my grandfather did in 1925 America or in 1936 Germany. “Nitpicking over sloppy historical analogies [is] a convenient distraction,” writes Dara Horn in her illuminating and devastating book, “People Love Dead Jews.” The focus instead should be on how antisemitism is manifesting and how it activates “a communal memory of multiple millennia.”


As StandWithUs’ legal director, I work with a team providing students and others with legal tools to fight antisemitism and support Israel. As the new semester begins, we once again see a steady rise in antisemitic incidents personally targeting individuals for antisemitic discrimination. Too many of these incidents are reminiscent of my grandfather’s era.


Jews must remember that we have resources today available to us like never before in history: we have tools to stand up, be empowered, and fight back

Take one example of many: in spring 2022, at the University of Connecticut, anti-Israel student activists targeted a Jewish student, Natalie, for unrelenting antisemitic bullying on social media after she lawfully removed anti-Israel signs illegally posted in the school library. Her home address was posted online, and her safety compromised. She was thrown out of her student a capella group, of which she was president, based entirely on baseless accusations and without due process. StandWithUs worked extensively to ensure her safety, help her tell the truth about what was happening, and file criminal complaints with police. Ultimately, the university’s president made an admirable statement condemning what occurred, identifying it as antisemitic, and initiating an ongoing investigation. The personal nature of the antisemitism Natalie experienced likely would have felt familiar to my grandfather’s generation.


We are hearing increasing numbers of students whisper of unspoken quotas resurrecting on Jewish student admissions to colleges. Professors report of being denied tenure and merit-based raises in academic departments simply for being known Zionists or serving as faculty advisors to Jewish student campus groups.


It also hits home. In her first year of high school, during the May 2021 Gaza crisis with Israel, my daughter overheard classmates saying, “I’d never be friends with a Jew.” Her history teacher called her out in class repeatedly as “the class Jew” and directed students to Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera to learn about Israel. Her school administration was indifferent. When I speak to our StandWithUs Kenneth Leventhal High School Interns, my daughter’s story is not unique. When this generation identifies openly as Jews and Zionists, they often target themselves for antisemitic marginalization and worse.


Jews must remember that we have resources today available to us like never before in history: we have tools to stand up, be empowered, and fight back. Some university administrations, like at the University of Connecticut, call out antisemitism. And much of American antisemitism manifesting today is rooted in ignorance, not evil, making education crucial.


Yet we also must be vigilant. The brand of antisemitism reemerging today appears to be a cyclical, evolving variation of the same-old hate, awakening the millennia-old Jewish collective memory.


 

Yael Lerman is the director of the StandWithUs Saidoff Legal Department, providing legal resources to students, professors, and community activists confronting antisemitic and anti-Israel activity. She can be reached at legal@standwithus.com. StandWithUs is a 21-year-old, international, non-partisan non-profit organization that supports Israel and fights antisemitism.

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