A Weekly Message from Rabbi Sam Levine 2.11.22

February 11, 2022

A congregant emailed me a link to an article this week with the headline “US to Investigate Antisemitism in Brooklyn College.” The article, from JewishPress.com reports that the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights, a federal body, “has launched a formal investigation into a complaint alleging Jewish students at Brooklyn College have been subjected to severe and persistent anti-Semitic harassment from both professors and peers.” The article, with the byline Jewish Press News Desk, describes complaints of an untenable situation at Brooklyn College, with students, particularly in the Mental Health Counseling master’s program, being harassed on an ongoing basis around issues of identity politics, as well as more run-of-the-mill antisemitic incidents.

JewishPress.com, a conservative news outfit (Meir Kahane was an editor at one point) which is geared toward an Orthodox audience, is not a news source that I would trust without some counter-weight. An article by Stewart Ain in the Forward on the same day corroborated the reporting, and I felt as though I had a balanced view. 

Both articles reported some disturbing interchanges with professors, like the one “who claimed that Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated to America have become ‘oppressors.’ In another, a professor allegedly rebuked a Jewish student for ranking the student’s Jewish identity before their white identity, suggesting the student ‘did not understand oppression.’”

Many of the details in the reporting are murky. It would be very difficult to reconstruct and understand the series of events and encounters that the two students (on whose behalf the complaint was filed) experienced. Having said that, it should surprise none of us to hear that students are experiencing antisemitism on campus, and in this age of hyper-sensitivity to identity politics in academia, it should not surprise us that professors might be the ones doing the attacking. 

Whether or not the students’ account of things is accurate, the reporting does raise a larger issue. When it comes to identity politics, Jews draw the short end of the stick. It’s difficult to wrap our minds around what that even means, though. “Jews,” in that context, has little meaning; there are Jews of Color, Ashkenazi Jews, Mizrachi Jews, and so forth, and so the experience of “Jews” is not monolithic. Many Ashkenazi Jews (myself included) do not identify as White; “White,” for me, means the dominant culture, and as a Jew who has experienced (mild) antisemitism and is clear-eyed about the history of our people in the diaspora, I neither want to, nor feel I should identify as “White.” At the same time, as a light-skinned person of privilege, there is no doubt that I do not experience the life-long disadvantages and daily barbs that someone of a visible minority does, whether they are Black, Asian, or “visibly” Jewish. And so if these students were being attacked based upon their self-identification as “Jews” first, and, say, “Whites” second, then that is simply wrong.

The Department of Education complaint was prepared by the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law. As the Forward article reported, “On its web site, the Brandeis Center has linked antisemitism on college campuses to an emphasis on identity politics in the classroom. ‘The campaign against Jewish students comes at a time when virtually every other group which claims an identity of its own is permitted to define its identity which then can neither be questioned nor commented upon by outsiders,’ wrote Diane Kunz, a scholar-in-residence at the center, in a recent blog post. ‘Only Jews are denied that right. Ironically, proliferating safe speech/safe spaces regimes on campuses [has] made the problem worse for Jews.’”

I believe that discussions about identity are incredibly important. I am committed to having them, because I believe that this country must face its racial demons and that goal cannot be accomplished without understanding and unpacking what “identity” means. But the conversation needs to be a conversation, not a response to an attack. If these professors did indeed pigeonhole these students in a way that is contrary to their self-identification, then that is hypocritical and counter-productive, and possibly antisemitic. Identity politics is not, and should not be, a zero-sum game. In an us-versus-them dynamic, all the nuance and complexity of the issue is tossed away, once again leaving us yelling at one another and filing federal complaints rather than having productive, communication-and-understanding-building discussions that further all of our goals.

And so, once again, our task is to stake out a position in the reasonable center. Let’s explore issues of race and identity, let’s understand where others are at and help them understand where we are at. Harmony is the goal; the only win is one where everybody wins.

Shabbat shalom um’vorach – a peaceful and blessed Shabbat,

Rabbi Sam Levine