A little over a week ago, a swastika was spray-painted onto Duke’s East Campus Bridge. Hopefully you’re already aware of this incident. After the hate crime occurred, I attempted to process via Gen Z’s unhealthy coping mechanism—online.
I took to Twitter, writing: “in light of the swastika painted @ duke, I want to be clear—as a Jewish student—that anti-Semitism here does not come from Pro-Palestinian orgs. It comes from alt-right white supremacy that threatens us all. Let’s not blame other communities actively harmed by the same ideology.” The logic behind my Twitter spree was a dilemma faced by many young progressive Jews: we want desperately to build community, but we are deeply conflicted by our blindly pro-Israel establishment.
We’ve heard it before, whether at BBYO Conventions or at our local Jewish Community Center or from those who claim to be allies: anti-Semitism from the left is just as bad. While I do agree that anti-Semitism, as with all other forms of xenophobia, is not limited to one side of the political spectrum (and when existing on the left, it typically originates from white gentiles), Pro-Palestine dialogue, unless utilizing harmful tropes, does not fit the scrope of this -ism.
Granting the label of ‘anti-Semitic’ to this ideology is at best, counterproductive; at worst, dangerous. You may be asking, what does Israel have to do with the swastika painted on the bridge at Duke specifically? Valid point.
Well, shortly following news of the hate crime, Jewish Life at Duke sent out an email with a validating and affirming message. Scrolling through its text, though, I discovered that the Center for Jewish Studies would be inviting Bari Weiss to campus in response to this attack on Jewish students.
Bari Weiss, in a recent Op-Ed, argued that “If hatred of Jews can be justified as a misunderstanding or ignored as a mistake or played down as a slip of the tongue or waved away as “just anti-Zionism,” you can all but guarantee it will be.”
Okay, Bari. Anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. Just like any other rhetoric, it can be. But the correlation is almost nonexistent. For the Center of Jewish Studies to bring such a controversial speaker to campus demonstrates the department’s views on the conflation of these two terms. In fact, Duke, as an entity, aligns with the opinions of CJS. After settling a complaint of anti-Semitism at the Middle East conference, “The University took steps to encourage “a climate supportive of Jewish students,” including a training session to combat anti Semitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel bias.”
I’ve engaged in a painful amount of unlearning since I’ve arrived at Duke, most of which has been isolating, anxiety-producing, and lonely. For many American Jews, Zionism is a nonnegotiable aspect of our lives. We grew up belting the Israeli national anthem, memorializing the Star of David, chronically dreaming of Birthright: of course any attack on this country feels like an attack on us. It’s hard to fully understand that even though Zionism was founded by Theodor Herzl in 1897 to establish a Jewish state amidst rising anti-Semitism, the movement is curently driven by Christian evangelicals, who’ve funnelled over 65 million dollars into Israel’s Occupied land to promote their own agendas. It’s heartbreaking to acknowledge the pilgrimage site on the West Bank built to celebrate Baruch Goldstein, a man who brutally shot 29 Palestinians during a religious ceremony. It’s jarring to learn of the Israeli government’s transportation blockades to render daily commutes impossible, its denial of medical permits, and the authoritarian limits of electricity—all directed at Palestinians residing in Gaza. It’s also important to note that Hamas, the group which rules Gaza, has committed crimes against Palestinians, suppressing protests violently.
I’m not pretending to give a full history lesson. But at the core of this conflict is the British Mandate for Palestine—or the military occupation of Palestine from 1918 to 1948—which facilitated the creation of a Jewish state while subjecting Jews and Arabs to colonialism, resulting in mass revolt and longstanding intergroup resentment. (Seriously, can’t most of the world’s problems be traced back to imperialism?)
Based on all of this history, I’ve concluded that criticizing Israel does not undermine our Jewishness; this ability to speak truth to power is, rather, key to our identity as a people. The story of Judaism is one of Queen Esther sacrificing her safety to expose Haman, one of Moses leading former slaves through the Red Sea to freedom, one of the Maccabees defeating an entire army of oppression.
But more importantly, speaking out against Israel’s injustices will not promote hatred of Jews. It won’t cause our mass destruction. We’re not at the brink of a leftist, Bernie Sanders (some even go so far as to claim he's not Jewish) -led revolutionary demolition of our institutions.
Anti-Semitism is dubbed ‘history’s oldest hatred’ for a reason: it has existed for as long as our otherness could be clearly defined. This form of xenophobia is not grounded in pro-Palestinian sentiments. Anti-Semitism is grounded in white supremacy.
So when a swastika is painted on the bridge at East Duke, we must receive this crime as a marker of white supremacy. The swastika first unearths historical legacies of violence toward our community—but it is also a threat to Black and brown people, to nonbinary people, to Palestinians.
I wish that, instead of hosting Bari Weiss’ next speaking event, the Center for Jewish Studies would host a session on how to better support ourselves and our peers. Yes, more than 80% of Jews belong to the Eastern-European Ashkenazi ethnicity—myself included—but how are we creating spaces more accessible to Jews of color, who were targeted based upon multiple, racialized aspects of identity? How are we cultivating campus dialogue around progressive Jewish values? How are we challenging the narratives we were taught, many rightfully grounded in intergenerational trauma?
White supremacy is alive and thriving, and casting the blame on those critical of Israel actively aids the true perpetrators by dividing marginalized groups of people. We, as Jews (and especially white Jews), must condemn white nationalism, work to understand our nuanced and complex roles in the world, and promote racial equity in our synagogues. We are the core victims of the Swastika graffiti. But we are not the only victims.
Lily Levin is a Trinity first-year. Her column, “overcaffeinated convictions,” runs on alternate Mondays.
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