For college students today, anti-Semitism is not old news

For college students today, anti-Semitism is not old news

There were two bumper stickers on my mother’s station wagon when I was growing up in the late 1980s and early 1990s: “Follow Me to a Hadassah Meeting” and “Star Kosher Meats — My Family Deserves the Best!”

I tell this to my students at the University of Florida when explaining that they are living through an era of dramatic change in the American-Jewish experience. I ask: Would Jewish families today feel this same ease about broadcasting their Jewish commitments? My own family thought nothing of it during my childhood and teens. But now, my undergraduates instruct me that it might not be prudent to drive around certain parts of the country with such affiliations on display.

When I was their age, anti-Semitism was a topic studied in a history class. In the late 1990s, it felt like bellyaching to claim that anti-Semitism was a contemporary phenomenon — a soapbox speech fit for grandparents and elders stuck in an earlier age. We end-of-century Jewish young adults pointed to “Seinfeld” and then to Jon Stewart, as if Jews in comedy was something unique to our era and empirical proof of our good times. Today, my students nod matter-of-factly upon hearing about increasing rates of anti-Semitism in the U.S. Of course,their faces tell me. That’s old news.

But it’s not such old news. And it feels important to make this clear to those coming of age — and into my classroom. Last year, after the horrific shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, my Jewish studies and history colleagues emailed each other frantically before teaching, to ask, “Wait, am I correct in saying that this was the deadliest attack on American Jews in history?” Self-consciously adding a new line to lecture notes and future textbooks, my fellow teachers and I wondered — in op-eds, scholarly panels, and social media posts, as well as in the classroom — about the implications of this tragedy. And because we are writers and classroom storytellers, we thought about the effects of this tragedy on the story of American Jews.

Had the “golden era” of American Jews officially ended? Was Pittsburgh proof of that? Many of us else felt otherwise — that the supportive response from non-Jewish Americans after the Pittsburgh shooting was a sign of hope. Either way, the rise in anti-Semitism, intertwined with that of white nationalism, was not to be gainsaid.

Most teachers in universities today are old enough to remember a very different BEFORE to this moment. With my college students, that is less true. And without that sense of change — that is also provided by learning history — it is harder to grasp the significance of what is happening now. Unlike my own generation, today’s college students do not need to take a history class to understand what anti-Semitism feels like in the moment — the news of it appears on their phones if it hasn’t affected them directly. But they do need classes in history, literature, religion, and humanities to understand the change that their moment represents. If they choose these paths in their education, they will have an unusual vantage point for understanding the sometimes surprising loops and circles that are made by history. 

In a few weeks, my students will watch “Gentleman’s Agreement.” The 1947 film about anti-Semitism in America won an Academy Award for Best Picture, and became its own bumper sticker of sorts, for postwar America’s ANTI-anti-Semitism creed. The late 1940s certainly did not mark an end to anti-Semitism in America. But the postwar years did witness new ideals and shifting attitudes in America. In class, I compare the ANTI-anti-Semitism of the late 1940s to the social movements of today: #MeToo has not ended the bad behavior it calls out, but it has changed the conversation around sexual harassment and assault.

In the mid-20th century, liberal Americans, having absorbed the image of themselves as the liberators of concentration camps and the victors against Nazism, sought a more tolerant version of themselves to broadcast to the world. Opting for an amnesic view of their own anti-Semitic past, many late 1940s Americans cast anti-Semitism as Nazi behavior; Americans were tolerant. That a film like “Gentleman’s Agreement” could be made and acclaimed in this country became another sign of American democracy and the strength of this country’s commitment to religious tolerance.

When my students watch “Gentleman’s Agreement,” I will be interested, as I am every year that I screen it for undergrads, to hear their reactions. From past experience, I’m guessing they will smirk with the jadedness of 18-year-olds, at the overly dramatic, romantic embraces between Gregory Peck’s character and his fiancée, Kathy Lacey. My 21st-century students want Peck’s character to choose the smart, funny, career woman, played by Celeste Holm, over the demure Miss Lacey. That part of the story will surely seem dated — clearly from another era.

That’s a reaction I can count on. But what about the anti-Semitism in the film? I’m not sure. When I was their age, the film’s slurs and discrimination directed against Jews seemed to belong to the black-and-white universe of old movies. But to students today, I wonder how the film’s anti-Semitism appears. That way back then Jews were wary of being Jews in public and had their antennae up for any possible jabs might not seem like such ancient history.

Rachel Gordan is assistant professor of Jewish studies and religion at the University of Florida.

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