Wednesday, October 19, 2022

On Loving "Campus Jews" While Hating Campus Jews

It is no revelation to say that Jews on campus experience their share of antisemitism, and deserve our support. But one of the more frustrating aspects of that reality is how that "support" often manifests in a fashion that is almost tauntingly unconcerned with what the Jews on campus actually want. "Support", too often, is not support at all -- it is a way for outsiders to exploit a headline or to ride their own hobbyhorses, and the campus Jews themselves are an afterthought. I do not know if Berkeley Jews wanted Noa Tishby to pay a visit to Sproul Plaza. I am very sure they did not want a Hitler billboard truck parked outside their door.

But those who drive the Hitler truck "in solidarity" do not at all care whether the Jews they "support" find their intervention all that supportive. By golly, Berkeley Jews are going to get this allyship whether they like it or not! And this is hardly an isolated event. Jewish students at the University of Michigan were livid at the Canary Mission putting their campus under the spotlight, complaining that it was making the environment for Jewish students on campus worse rather than better. No matter. Canary Mission's support for campus Jews is cheerfully indifferent to whether campus Jews feel supported.

So we should ask: Why are the actual Jewish students so often an afterthought in campaigns nominally about protecting Jewish students?

Part of the answer goes back to the story I told a few weeks ago, about the man who became furious with me when he found out my experience at Berkeley wasn't the hellscape he insisted it must be. What kind of self-hating Jew doesn't hate it at Berkeley?

Jews on campus are a diverse bunch, and even as individuals often have complicated feelings. They are typically not, contra some very vocal activist groups, a collective of screaming anti-Zionists. They also typically are not eager to spend their collegiate days engaged in ideological trench warfare on Israel's behalf. They do not appreciate "allyship" that forces them into a combative posture they may not wish to take and may not think is warranted or effective under the circumstances.

And the tragedy is that too many of their would-be supporters won't defer to that judgment. No, it's worse than that -- they actively reject it. They are aghast at the university Jews who do not support their form of support. They view those Jews as craven, cowards, or perhaps even (as my troll thought of me) antisemitic sympathizers. Incredulity becomes resentment becomes rage, at these terrible campus Jews who are refusing to cooperate with the best-laid plans for keeping them safe.

At the extreme, the loudest voices outside of campus waging war against campus antisemitism sometimes seem as if they're almost as angry at the Jewish students themselves as they are at the antisemitism the students endure. Those who have invested so much into their identity as protectors of the Jews cannot easily accept the idea that they are, in fact, making Jewish lives worse. Far easier to decide that if one is fighting antisemitism, than the only persons who could have a problem are the antisemites, and if the Jewish students have a problem, then ergo.... 

In this way, the Jewish students become just another enemy -- and an enemy far more vulnerable and easily targeted than the antisemites are. It is another iteration of the theme I wrote about in "On Loving 'Jews' and Hating Jews": the defense of "campus Jews" is a defense of an imagined "campus Jew". If actual campus Jews turn out to be more complicated than the imaginary picture; if they don't want to play the role they've been assigned -- well, love for "campus Jews" very easily can breed hatred for actual campus Jews.

None of this is to say that campus antisemitism isn't real, terrible, and destructive. It creates a toxic environment for Jews at our nation's colleges and universities. But how much more toxic that environment is, when those afflicted by it know that too often the banner of solidarity will actual just generate a new vector of dismissiveness, disdain, or even hatred. Such is the terrible, tragic circumstance of being a Jew on campus.

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