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The worst college story you’ll read all year

You send your kids to college. Everything will be just fine. Really?

“It can’t happen here.”

That is the name of Sinclair Lewis’s dystopian political novel, written in 1925, about the rise of a totalitarian dictator in the United States.

Ever since then, and certainly in recent days, it has been an ironic catch-phrase. “It can’t happen here” has morphed into “Well, it could happen here…” It has become a cautionary statement about the rise of a right wing government that would threaten citizens’ basic rights and freedoms.

Point well taken. We have recently seen the portents of the danger to democracy in the United States, with a majority of Americans seeing MAGA as a real threat to the American way of life.

So, too, American Jews have been comforting themselves with this fact: The real dangers of antisemitism seem to be mainly located on the right.

Oh, yes, the extreme left makes a lot of noise, and makes Jews uncomfortable. But, to put it alliteratively: The Right has weapons; the Left has words. The recent CNN special report on antisemitism sent that message: Yes, there is anti-Israelism and anti-Zionism on the Left, but it isn’t “that bad.”

Here comes a shofar blast.

It can get “that bad,” and on one college campus, it already has.

When I think of Vermont, I think: quaint, bucolic, beautiful, rustic, and liberal.

That is not how it has been unfolding at the University of Vermont. At least, if you are Jewish and care about Israel — which, let the record note, defines the overwhelming majority of American Jews.

The U.S. Department of Education has launched an investigation into claims of antisemitism at the University of Vermont.

In the words of the Burlington Free Press:

Jewish students have reported being discriminated against, intimidated, harassed and targeted based upon their ethnic identity and say the university has failed to act in accordance with federal Civil Rights protections. The complaint was submitted by The Louis D. Brandeis Center and Jewish On Campus both of which are Jewish advocacy groups.

“Jewish students have expressed fear about identifying publicly as Jewish, report hiding their Jewish identity and have considered transferring out of UVM due to the hostile environment toward Jews,” The Brandeis Center said in a news release.

What happened?

This is according to the Twitter feed of Jewish On Campus

Around April 2021, a teaching assistant at the University of Vermont suggested on her personal Twitter account that it would be “good and funny” to lower the grades of Zionist students in her class, and she further encouraged other students to cyberbully Zionist students.

Then, in May of 2021, the student-run club “UVM Empowering Survivors” — a group that encouraged students to share their stories of sexual assault — stated that they would block any “Jewish Zionist” students from following their Instagram account.

So, two things. The TA marginalized Jewish students, and this group did the same thing.

And then, the student book club “UVM Revolutionary Socialist Union” announced that they wouldn’t tolerate “racism, racial chauvinism, predatory behavior, homophobia, transphobia, Zionism, or bigotry and hate speech of any kind.”

Get that? They listed various kinds of hatreds and bigotries, and then threw Zionism into the mix. As if to say that Zionism is part of that bulging file folder of pathology. The club further required each of its members to openly reject Zionism.

You get that? They required a verbal loyalty oath — a loyalty against Zionism. Since most American Jews would be sympathetic to at least some Zionist ideas — i.e., that the Jews deserve a sovereign state — that directive is not aimed at a political philosophy.

It is aimed at the Jews.

It gets worse.

On September 24, 2021, a group of University of Vermont students targeted a dormitory portion of the campus’ Hillel building. For about a half an hour, they threw rocks at the windows of students living there.

A student in the building asked them to stop. One of the rock-throwers asked: “Are you Jewish?”

The Brandeis Center said in a news release: “Jewish students have expressed fear about identifying publicly as Jewish, report hiding their Jewish identity and have considered transferring out of UVM due to the hostile environment toward Jews.”

I cannot blame them for feeling that way.

The University of Vermont has pledged to investigate this toxic situation.

What do we learn from this?

First, let us remember what we cannot ignore.

Right wing antisemitism is vicious.

So is left wing antisemitism.

It can come from smart people — the latte drinking, vegan eating, NPR listening cool people with whom I like to hang out. It happens in elite, intellectual environments. It comes from people with advanced degrees, and those people who aspire to such degrees. It can be very subtle — like a paper cut, which bleeds even when you barely feel it.

But, it is nevertheless ugly.

There is a book about the Holocaust that will have an eternal home on my shelf. I had heard about the book years ago, and one day, I happened upon it — at a garage sale.

The book is Max Weinreich’s Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes Against the Jewish People. It is a classic — a chronicle of how the German intellectual class aided and abetted Hitler’s rise to power. It shows how intellectuals are capable of great evil.

Let us remember, as well, that the acts of violence and book-burning on German college campuses came at the impetus — not of Nazi officers — but of faculty and students alike.

I am not saying that the aforementioned teaching assistant at the University of Vermont was aiding and abetting genocide. Far from it.

But, at the very least, that TA is aiding and abetting Jew-hatred.

Second, let us remember something that we cannot forget. We have seen the rise of antisemitic violence on the Right. “The Jews will not replace us!” they chanted in Charlottesville. The victims of Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh died from bullets fired from the gun of a right wing racist.

We have comforted ourselves with my aforementioned observation. To get alliterative again: The Right is violent; the Left is “merely” verbal.

Except, until they start throwing rocks through the windows of Jewish students.

Except, until, say, they start harassing students who go on Birthright trips.

Until they start beating up Jewish students.

Overwrought?

I submit this to you.

There is a one hundred percent probability that ugly ideas will become ugly rhetoric, and that this will morph into ugly acts.

All acts of politically-influenced violence began as politically influenced ideas. Every. Single. One.

One last word.

Our hyper-sensitive culture has made us all aware of “trigger warnings” and “microaggressions.” 

Trigger warning: a piece of writing, video, etc. contains potentially distressing material, and you should approach it with extreme care.

Microaggression:  “a statement, action, or incident regarded as an instance of indirect, subtle, or unintentional discrimination against members of a marginalized group such as a racial or ethnic minority.”

I have become sensitive to both of these.

But, let me now ask you.

Trigger warnings. This must also apply to Jewish students — say, those whose grandparents are Holocaust survivors — who might experience something that would be antisemitic. Imagine a Jewish student, whose grandmother was a child during Kristallnacht, having stones thrown their dorm window. Imagine the glass breaking. Imagine a Jewish student whose grandparents were forced from Iraq in the 1940s.

Microaggressions. Since Jews are, in fact, an ethnic minority, it should be the case that acts of “indirect, subtle and even unintentional discrimination,” i.e. “no Zionists allowed!” would also be considered microaggressions.

Frankly, such statements are neither indirect, subtle, and even unintentional.” They are nothing of the sort. They are a verbal war against the Jews.

Or, is it simply the case that, as David Baddiel wrote in his book of the same name — that when it comes to sensitivity, “Jews don’t count”?

If that is the case, then I want to congratulate, and thank, that TA and the others at the University of Vermont.

You have just made a very compelling case for the necessity of political Zionism. You have just demonstrated why Jews need a safe place.

From the grave, Theodor Herzl thanks you.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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