I read the stories of Jewish students who were encountering harassment and threats from classmates.
And while I think it's horrible and something ought to be done to crack down on student harassment of every kind, I also found myself thinking back to my own experiences with anti-Judaism. That, in turn, led me to ponder.
The students quoted in the article all expressed a high degree of Jewish pride and/or involvement in Jewish communities. For many, this may be their first encounter with strong anti-Judaism speech and behavior.
When I was in middle school, I was subjected to harassment by a small handful of especially nasty classmates, because I was the only Jewish kid in a school of 800 students and their parents were members of Posse Commitatus (a white supremacist group). Getting off from school for Yom Kippur required a note from my mother in advance. Packing lunches centered around matzoh during Pesach made me the subject of curiosity and occasionally a little derision. But my parents did nothing to help me figure out how to navigate those difficult days. We did not discuss anti-Semitism or anti Judaism much at home, except in historical terms vis-a-vis The Holocaust, a historical event writ large in our minds but seldom talked about. My parents came from different backgrounds -- Mom was raised sort of Orthodox and Dad was raised agnostic, and their default position was to avoid trouble by raising us mostly secular/American -- so I guess they were simply not equipped to have those conversations with me.
We didn't belong to a synagogue; we couldn't afford to live in affluent Jewish neighborhoods, and we were basically on our own, out in the hinterlands of east Multnomah County, Oregon in the 1970's. It sucked, and there was really nothing I could do about it until I was old enough to move out and live somewhere else. So I did what any sensible seventh-grader would have done: I kept my head down, tried to avoid the bullies at school and the passive-aggressive drama at home, and waited for high school, where I had a hunch that things would, if not become suddenly fantastic, would at least suck a whole lot less. Thankfully, my hunch played out, though it took until my senior year for me to begin to feel at least a little more comfortable in my skin.
College was harder, but also better; if it challenged my assumptions and forced me to contend with people and ideas radically different from my own, at least it did so in an atmosphere founded on respectful discourse and honesty. In spite of my discomfort, I thrived on the honesty. It would be many more years before I found my way to Jewish communal life, but when I got there, it was after I'd grown into someone as close to my true self as I could possibly be, able to acknowledge the simultaneous states of longing for community and yet wanting to hold it at arm's length, someone who wanted to put down roots but who wasn't ready to give up my freedom. In short, I was an American Jew, or a Jewish American -- is there really a difference? -- someone walking the tightrope between tradition and modernity on my own terms, though informed by both the tradition and the demands of living mindfully in a complicated world with others who are not like me.
I encountered a lot of expressions of "Jewish pride" when I found Jewish community. It befuddled me. Was I supposed to be "proud" of being Jewish? or American? or gay? or anything that is a result of my birth and/or upbringing? Those were also conversations that did not happen in a family filled with talented, independent outsiders, ill-equipped to put down roots in a community, so for a long time I simply didn't deal with questions of "pride".
Lessons in building and affiliating with a community would come much later, when I was an adult and had to figure it out for myself. I've gotten pretty good at communal connection, but still have a ways to go on the pride piece.
Which leads me to the responses of the students in the article. If they grew up connected to the Jewish communal bubble, this may be their first encounter with such intense anti-Semitism, and if so, their sense of freak-out makes a lot of sense. What doesn't make sense is that Jewish communities seem to be doing little to actually teach kids how to function well outside the Jewish bubble. So when these kids head off to college and discover that (a) some other students see them as an enemy; and (b) the discussion has shifted from developing a thicker skin and broader intellect to one of making our campuses "safe spaces" where no one feels threatened, ever, for anything, I think that's a recipe for trouble. College is supposed to make us squirm, it's supposed to challenge the assumptions of our childhoods and force us to grapple with living in the larger world. Squirming is what leads to evolution of ideas. If we never squirmed as a society we would never live to see marriage equality become reality. If real, deep debate is stifled and students are never taught how to develop the skills to navigate that larger, more complex -- and yes, scarier -- world, then what exactly is college for?
I think that no students deserves to be attacked or threatened for being who they are. That doesn't mean we shield our young people from disappointment and fear, or from someone else's disagreement. It means we develop in our young people an ability to have those deeper explorations and conversations with each other, and if they end in respectful disagreement, that's okay.
The problem is that today's parents -- and professors and administrators -- are uncomfortable with respectful disagreement. For them, it's all or nothing, destructive war or a peace that benefits their way of seeing and being, winners and losers. It's too black-and-white a situation for the kind of nuance and depth required. Worst of all, this black-and-white, fear-fueled spectacle that passes for "discourse" is what gets Facebook clicks and sells ads and attracts more viewers and listeners in a media-driven universe. Colleges have succumbed to the media, paring down their academic mission into into easily-digestible sound-bites and lowering academic, philosophical and political expectations as a result. (Don't believe me? Look at who's running for President right now.)
If I had a teenager today, I'm not sure I'd want to send her to college right away. I might instead encourage her to go to trade school first, be out in the working world for awhile, and perhaps go to college later. It was one thing when colleges were "ivory towers" of rigorous intellectual and ethical exploration. But when college students are clamoring for their campuses to become space so "safe" that even a disagreement is seen as an act of terrorism, they are only acting out the helicopter upbringing of their parents, who raised them to believe that every single one of them was exceptional, special, and deserving of every consideration -- and perhaps to desire to be only with others who are a lot like them.
And that is not what college is for, or ought to be for.
I feel for these kids, Jewish and Palestinian alike, but don't know how to help them get past their parentally- and communally-conditioned fear and loathing of each other. And judging by the comments at the end of the article, neither do a lot of other folks.
In the larger world, we don't always get the consideration we deserve, and we aren't always "safe", and we bump up against all sorts of different people every day (unless we choose not to -- and in my travels I've met a shocking number of American Jews who've deliberately taken that route). Let's protect our students from real physical harm, but not from having their assumptions shaken. And let's be smart enough to know the difference.