GRAPHIC ILLUSTRATION BY STEPH LAWLOR
I never felt really “Jewish” until beginning at Fordham University. I grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y., where there are synagogues every few blocks. My grandparents were Holocaust survivors and I lived with passed down stories of their infinite suffering, but these were distant, faraway memories. So it was strange when I found myself part of a 3.7% minority at a Jesuit school, where I asked permission to miss class on religious holidays and stared hungrily at pork sandwiches in the dining hall during Passover. I reacted the only way I could – by making Jew jokes, not to belittle my faith, but wear it as a badge of honor.
I remember my first “swastika” email from the Rev. McShane, S.J. My freshman year roommates kept laughing, “Why does it matter?” and I just sat on my green McKeon Hall mattress unsure what to say. I’ve since heard remarks about large Jewish noses and Jewish political power. Then we witnessed the Charlottesville neo-Nazi rally with chants of “Jews will not replace us,” and the horrific mass shooting at a Pittsburgh Synagogue. Suddenly, I was sending out emails of solidarity and organizing vigils for stolen lives. I don’t know if I did enough. I just know I tried. And now I speak again, not as a representative of the Fordham Jewish community, but just someone who tries.
I spent three years looking into Fordham Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) with concern and cautious optimism. I’d heard of anti-Semitism from other chapters, how Vassar’s SJP posted a 1944 Nazi propaganda poster depicting a monster in a Jewish loincloth trampling a European town, holding an American flag and bag of money, or how Hunter’s SJP co-hosted a “Million Student March” event conflating tuition hikes with “Zionist” influence. The New York City Students for Justice in Palestine (NYCSJP) website features a video containing an SJP protester yelling, “Zionists own CUNY” into the camera as he and other members interrupted a play at Brooklyn College about a Jewish family in prewar Germany due to the playwright’s familial connection with Benjamin Netanyahu. This video was called “CUNY security Protects and Serves Zionists.”
The National SJP chapter tweeted a cartoon crow saying, “Anti-Semitism,” with the caption, “Remember, there really is no difference between a Zionist and a loud crow.” Meanwhile, Professor Hatem Bazian, founder of SJP, retweeted two cruelly anti-Semitic images, one depicting a man in traditional Jewish garb saying “I is chosen,” with the hashtag “#Ashke-Nazi,” and the other depicting a photoshopped Kim Jong-un wearing Jewish head garb, claiming he “converted all of North Korea to Judaism” to get American dollars and support. Bazian apologized, but the impact still caused Jewish pain. When our leaders refuse introspection, we see a grisly butterfly effect, how Trump’s racist rhetoric validates white supremacist stereotypes of Latin Americans, Muslims, and Jews, sparking horrifically unprecedented mass shootings.
Unfortunately, there was a trend throughout Fordham’s SJP’s activities to focus on First Amendment rights over those of both Jews and Palestinians. Often these tactics dip into the anti-Semitism they discredit, presenting Jews not as victims of oppression, but as cunning illusionists, feigning persecution for political goals, and these suggestions mimic Holocaust denial to minimize white supremacy.
In June 2017 Fordham SJP shared a video explaining “tactics” to silence free speech. It showed one image of a man wearing Jewish head garb and a Star of David, taping closed the mouth of an anthropomorphic Earth, with the yellow tape labeled “anti-Semitism,” and another of a giant hand adorned with a Star of David, stamping “hate speech” on pro-Palestinian activists. These images of puppeteering Jewish hands or Jews literally “controlling the world” date back to Nazi imagery. They also suggest that hate speech today is just the imaginations of oversensitive, politically-motivated Jews.
In 2016, a poster found in Lowenstein depicted Uncle Sam saying, “I’m Israel’s Bitch and So Are You!” Fordham’s SJP condemned it in a now-deleted Facebook post but added their suspicion it was “a Zionist and anti-free speech effort” to “derail” SJP. Trump would make parallel suggestions following the vandalism of Jewish gravestones and bomb threats toward Jewish community centers. He said that perhaps someone was “doing it to make others look bad”, which prompted a responsive tweet from former Grand Wizard of the KKK David Duke asking, “President Trump, do you think it might be the Jews themselves making these calls to get sympathy to push their ethnic agenda?”
When anti-Semitism arose at their events, Fordham’s SJP remained silent. At “BDS at Universities,” speaker Sarah Aly complained that, “Zionists are going to use you for their agenda” and “The Jews…The Zionists are using you as the token brown guy,” referencing a pro-Israel Latino student. I sat there in the Fordham Ram Café atrium, paralyzed with fear and shame, waiting for event organizer Sapphira Lurie to say, “Wait, don’t attack Jewish students in anger toward the administration!” But she remained silent.
Aly also suggested framing SJP’s legal issues around First Amendment rights rather than Palestinian liberation, to win over those who “may not necessarily be left wing.” And then I saw it: the parallel with Trump’s right-wing, anti-censorship vitriol, the unifying belief that free speech should have no limits no matter who it hurts.
Fordham’s SJP again turned a blind eye when screening a documentary narrated by Alice Walker. Walker had previously published a violently anti-Semitic poem on her website called, “It Is Our (Frightful) Duty To Study The Talmud,” with such lines as “Are Goyim (us) meant to be slaves of Jews?” She has also endorsed conspiracy theorist David Icke, who wrote of world control by “Rothschild Zionists.”
If you can’t call out anti-Semitism among public figures, how will you call out Fordham friends? Because it will come up – it always does. One comment underneath The Fordham Ram article “Fordham vs. SJP” said, “Fordham does not want to offend future or existing Jewish donors!” and questioned Fordham’s motives in the SJP case based on its establishment of a Jewish Studies program.
Founding members Gunar Olsen and Sapphira Lurie have both independently blasted Fordham’s decision to hear Jewish anxieties about SJP. Lurie bemoaned how USG was “instructed by the administration to solicit opinions…from Zionist professors and the Zionist Jewish Students Organization,” belittling anxieties of Jewish students and faculty as simply “Zionist” politics. The derogatory use of “Zionist” for Jewish groups also has neo-Nazi origins, though I hope this wasn’t Lurie’s intended invocation. Fordham SJP co-president and founder Gunar Olsen, a vocal critic of the MeToo movement who had to resign early according to Lurie, has publicized the identities and emails of Jewish Fordham students and faculty who had privately raised concerns about SJP, both on his social media and in his recent article for The Nation, a choice I find unsettling and disappointing.
When Fordham’s SJP organized a “Rally against Islamophobia” following the 2017 Muslim ban, it transformed into a “students’ rights” and “free speech” protest against Fordham’s SJP decision. Suddenly, Fordham students out in solidarity with Muslim immigrants were shouting “student power” under Lurie’s direction, as she called for a “militant movement” against occupation. That was the first time I felt really afraid, watching my Christian friends stand in solidarity with an anti-Semitic club, forgetting the Muslim-American students barred from coming home. Lurie took advantage, handing out signs calling for SJP’s reinstatement at Fordham and passing out sign-up sheets, asking protestors to join her club and “bring this energy to the movement.”
Sometimes I worry about the new Jewish community at Fordham who just want to feel safe. That’s why we pick the Lincoln Center campus, because it feels warm and inclusive, because it feels like home. All I ever wanted from Fordham’s SJP was to know they’d try; try to fight anti-Semitism, try to be allies of the Jewish community, try to welcome Jewish participation. They had three years to take a strong stance against anti-Semitism, three years of swastikas at Fordham, of hate speech around the country, of neo-Nazi rallies like in Charlottesville and mass shootings like in a Pittsburgh synagogue. It would have been so easy but they never reached out the way other clubs did. That could have made me feel safe, could have shown Fordham that Jewish communities and pro-Palestinian advocates can come together in times of crisis and lend an outstretched hand. But their hands were closed; they didn’t try. And for three years I waited, hopeful that they’d just once affirm that they’ll be our allies. That never happened.
It was strange writing this, looking back when SJP started, before the Pittsburgh mass shooting, before the Virginia white supremacist rally. Just yesterday I read that a man was arrested for threats to an Ohio Jewish center. And it reminded me that things are getting worse for Jews in America, as they are for immigrants, Latin-Americans, Muslim-Americans, people of color, the LGBTQ community and countless other marginalized populations.
And when I think about my time at Fordham, I feel like I’ve let my community down. To those who work toward Palestinian activism, I ask that you walk the path of light even if it isn’t the one in front of you; there are so many roads to justice for Palestinians and so many people who would lead the way. And to my Jewish friends, I’m sorry that my trying wasn’t enough. Please stay safe.