How non-Jews can help Jews feel safe amid anti-Semitism

World News

This story originally appeared on Alma.

“Did you see the email?”

My Jewish friend was typing her response. I was checking my heart rate.

“Not surprising. Also, like, not really something you want to see on your lunch break,” she texted back.

We were talking about the latest anti-Semitic hate crime that occurred on campus: A Jewish freshman found a swastika tacked onto their dorm room door. By this point, students at Tufts University are as familiar with anti-Semitic hate crimes as we are with the subsequent letters from our president, Tony Monaco, about how much he disapproves of anti-Semitic hate crimes. In this one, he wrote: It is with great disappointment that I inform you of an incident of anti-Semitism at our university …

Reading it over for the third time, I checked my heart rate again. No lower.

… I condemn this cowardly act of hatred and ignorance. It is a direct attack on our Jewish community and an affront to our values as an institution.

I checked the clock in the printmaking studio where I was. It was only lunch time, and I was already tired.

Yeah, it sucks, I was about to type back. I deleted, retyping, “Yeah, I’m scared.”

* * *

My drunk friend, not Jewish, coddled her tequila and coke at a party I wanted to leave 30 minutes prior.

“I just don’t think, like …” She brushed her hair aside, trying to find the words. “I don’t think that anti-Semitism is really a big thing. Like, I’m not even really sure what it is.” She took another swig of her drink. “Can you explain it to me?”

If I weren’t drunk, too, I could see myself quickly reading her a parable from the Hebrew Bible or forwarding her one of President Monaco’s emails. See, it says it right here, I would have said, eagerly noting Tony’s careful language, anti-Semitism is a cowardly act of hatred and violence. Does that clear it up for you?

Instead, I resigned, smiling into my cup. “It’s a pretty easy Google search.”

* * *

To me, these two instances — one a hate crime and the other a microaggression — are indefinitely bound. That’s not to say one was the reason for the other, but it’s also not to say that there is no effect at all from my friend’s comment at the boring party.

If anti-Semitism is a concept so abstract that it has to be explained and justified to be real — if the prejudice against us does not exist in the minds of people who aren’t Jewish — and the moments of clear anti-Semitism are viewed as one-off tragedies that can be fixed with a pat on the back, then the need to protect us Jewish students is often seen as nonexistent.

And it’s true: There is no protection at all. There are light lunches. There are scheduled community conversations hosted by the interchangeable presidents of every university. There is That sucks, I’m sorry, do you need anything? Friends and non-Jewish loved ones will ask questions or come to synagogue with you a couple times after the latest incident, but soon enough everything goes back to “normal.”

That’s not to say these attempts go unnoticed. It’s also not to say that Jewish people don’t like light lunches. It is admittedly harder to be an ally to a community than you aren’t frequently immersed in, and the Jewish population being so small (I wonder why?) can’t help that fact.

The question then becomes, what can people do to be an ally to the Jewish community? The everyday hardships of modern Jewish life, from the lunch-hour hate crimes to the microaggressive chats with friends, are ultimately not mendable by the well-meaning pleas that if only we had a little more love in our hearts, a little more humanity, maybe it would be easier to feel less other.

I can only offer so many small solutions to prospective allies before the answer dwindles down to one simple fact: Jewish people cannot keep ourselves safe alone. We cannot be our only true allies. We cannot constantly be the ones woodworking our own seats at the metaphoric table, awkwardly nudging ourselves in to ensure we get a place setting, and we can’t be the only ones validating our right to be there in the first place.

In order for us to feel safe, to achieve our right to communal peace, those seats need to be there already not just out of solidarity from others, but out of respect for our historical and contemporary culture, including everything from collective traumas to ethnic and religious traditions.

For Jews to move forward through atrocities and feel supported, really supported, Jewish people and our efforts in social activism need to be seen as a legitimate branch of the current American struggle for liberation and cultural freedom. Jews are often on the streets with other social collectives fighting for other stigmatized people’s right to peaceful existence, like the IfNotNow organization’s frontline fight for American immigration reform, and therefore already are an integral part of socially active communities that deserves equal support.

Social progression is about solidarity that is formed by sharing lived experience. For people to have a clear picture of the importance of Jewish inclusion, it is crucial that they talk to the Jewish people in their lives in order to understand who we are, where we come from and what we are facing now as a people.

So, for the sake of your Jewish friend that’s explaining anti-Semitism to a drunk person at a party they’d rather not be attending, or your Jewish classmate who fears coming home to hate symbols, try to be that ally, the one that approaches Jewish oppression with a willingness to learn and listen — to be there when we need it in a vital time in history for Jewish Americans.