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The Pizza of Privilege: My Experiences with Anti-Semitism in Academia

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Anti-Semitic graffiti similar to this has been found on U.S. universities. This comes from a private residence in New York. Photo credit: Alex Silverman/WCBS 880.

Since I joined Southern Fried Science in 2009, I’ve written almost 1,000 blog posts. This post has unquestionably been the most difficult one for me to write. Although I’ve always enjoyed sharing and debating my opinions (even when they’re unpopular in certain circles,) I’ve never been comfortable discussing negative personal experiences. And yet, I feel that the topic of anti-Semitism in academia , something that is in fact much more pervasive than most non-Jews believe, is too important for me to remain silent any longer. More than 40% of Jewish students reported being the victim of some degree of anti-Semitism at their college or university. This can range from mockery to exclusion to  the Michigan State student who was beaten while his attackers made the Nazi salute last summer.

I want to state upfront that it is not my intention in writing this post to start a “which minority group is the most oppressed” competition, nor am I naive enough to believe that my post will be the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back and fixes these issues once and for all. I also want to state that while I could write a whole book about my experiences with anti-Semitism in the context of my personal pro-Israel advocacy, this post is not about that, other than to say that while not all criticism of Israel and Israel’s policies and actions can be considered anti-Semitic in nature, some of it certainly can.  Finally, it’s important to note that while not all of these examples are necessarily anti-Jewish specifically, all are anti-someone-different-from-me and contrary to a culture of diversity and inclusiveness. My goal is simply to continue an important and ongoing conversation about academic culture by sharing my personal experiences, and perhaps to bring another group into that conversation.  Please feel free to share your own experiences in the comments section.

Like almost all Jews alive today, I have distant relatives who died in the Holocaust and in the centuries of pogroms in Russia and eastern Europe, relatives killed simply because they were Jewish, because they were different. My grandfather was denied the chance to purchase his dream home by would-be neighbors who demanded a letter of recommendation from a member of the clergy. My great uncle’s sailboat is named “Finally,” as in “Finally, Jews are allowed to join the yacht club.”  My mother was once in a boating accident, and her rescuer almost left her in the water after he recognized her as a member of a local Jewish family (he actually told her this). I could write extensively about my family’s experience with anti-Semitism, but I think we can all agree that anti-Semitism has a long history in Western culture, including in the United States. What some may not be aware of is that it is still very much a problem.

Despite being as much of a nerd in high school as I am now, I was never “beaten up” in the traditional sense, even on the day (ok, fine, days) that I wore a Star Trek uniform to class. I did, however, experience plenty of anti-Semitic bullying. Even though I don’t strictly keep kosher, it was deeply troubling when some of the other kids at summer camp put bacon in my bed. Following a local racially-motivated shooting spree that left one Jewish woman dead, one bully told me that he wished that more Jews had been killed.  Another asked me why Jews couldn’t be more like chicken nuggets, as “chicken nuggets don’t complain when you put them in the oven.” Ever a smartass and unhealthy food aficionado, I pointed out that chicken nuggets are typically fried rather than baked, causing him to storm away angrily. Words have always been powerful weapons for the Jewish people, and I often use humor to attempt to defuse situations like this, but it doesn’t mean that this (and many, many similar incidents, including countless times I’ve been called a “dirty Jew” ) don’t affect me.

Once I left high school and entered academia as a college undergraduate, the specific details changed, but the bullying and exclusion continued. I haven’t been threatened with violence or made the subject of Holocaust jokes just for being Jewish since high school, though many other Jewish students have.  It’s annoying and not exactly welcoming when so many people say, “You’re Jewish? My next door neighbor’s babysitter’s boyfriend was Jewish,” as if I should be excited by this news, but it’s hardly a major problem.

Other than fellow students being not quite sure how to talk to someone who has a different background from them, the biggest issues I’ve faced concern religious holidays. One professor refused to let me make up an exam on another date because “Jews have too many strange holidays to keep track of” and I might be lying to cover for not studying. I received the highest score on the exam despite making numerous references to the professor being an ignorant jerk in my essay responses.

This concerns not only Jewish holidays, but also Christmas and how it is celebrated on campus. I don’t really care if the cashier at Target wishes me “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays,” as they are really saying “I hope you have a pleasant few weeks during this time of the year that is significant to many people” and not ” you should convert to Christianity or else you’ll go to hell.”  However,  I once asked if I could, at my own expense, provide dreidels, a menorah, and latkes (a Hanukkah food) at a graduate school  ”holiday party” that was going to consist primarily of singing Christmas Carols and hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree while wearing sweaters featuring Santa Claus. (ProTip: If you call something a “Holiday Party” but every single other detail of the party is identical to a stereotypical “Christmas Party,” this is not an example of inclusiveness.) I was told by a fellow graduate student (not the official organizer for the party) that I should “leave my weird traditions at Jew Church” and “let people celebrate the real holiday in peace.”

One of the most ridiculous experiences I’ve ever had with anti-Semitism, exclusion, and mockery was also associated with a religious holiday. The graduate student association at my university recently announced a once-a-semester social event designed to welcome new students and foster inter-department cooperation. They generously provided pizza for what promised to be a great event. There was one problem, though. The pizza party was scheduled during Passover, when Jewish students can’t eat leavened bread (i.e. pizza).  An event designed to facilitate a sense of broader university community was, due to an entirely preventable scheduling mishap, excluding several dozen students from participation in the event (and, by extension, participation in the broader university community). I e-mailed to inquire if we could change the date of the event to a time when Jewish students could participate. The event organizer politely and quickly replied that she was sorry for the inconvenience but that it was too late to change the date, which is fair enough. I also asked if we could get other food provided in addition to the pizza, and was told that it wasn’t in the budget.

Some of the other responses I received from fellow students were extremely troubling. One student told me that it was extremely rude of me to make the graduate student representative who organized the event feel bad by pointing out that it needlessly excluded dozens of Jewish students (apparently this is more significant of an issue than being made to feel bad by being excluded.)  Several suggested that I should just attend the event and “quit whining,” and criticized the “special treatment” I was requesting. One claimed that by politely requesting that we have an eating-bread-based social event during a time that Jewish students can eat bread, I was encroaching on her freedoms, that I should “leave my stupid religion out of the workplace,” and that if I wanted to be a successful scientist I should stop believing in God.  Please note that I didn’t request that we remove references to evolution from science textbooks, I asked if we could reschedule a student social event.  The worst response was so bad that I’ll quote it in its entirety. “The Latino students couldn’t eat bread the other day except Monday. Same with the Antarctica students. Also the Indian. Not to mention the Zimbabwean. Oh yeah, the Russian too. ” For those of you who have never been discriminated against, allow me to translate: “You’re really different from me and that’s weird and I’m going to mock you for it.”

I’ve been  fortunate to always have a fantastic support network to help me when these problems strike. Without support from my family and friends, I would have been discouraged about the future . Teachers, principals, professors and deans have always been there to make sure that I’m ok, and to make sure that the offender knows that what they did or said was NOT ok, though it’s worth noting that this is not the case for all victims. Even in cases where no specific disciplinary action was taken, it makes me feel a whole lot better just to know that others in the community agree that I have been wronged. If you observe such a problem in your school, I think the single best thing you can do is to publicly state that you agree that it isn’t acceptable. A private message to the victim helps as well, but speaking out publicly is more effective.

I’m fortunate that I’ve never been denied housing or employment because of my religion, and my life and health and property have never been seriously threatened. I have, however, been made to feel terrible, made to feel that I’m different and don’t belong and am not welcome. This is an absolutely awful feeling, particularly when it comes from your peers and from people with power over you, particularly when it comes from an environment that’s supposed to be a meritocracy and a beacon of diversity and inclusiveness. If an able-bodied fourth-generation American middle class heterosexual white male can be made to feel this way, I can only imagine what it must be like for other minority groups. If our goal is diversity and inclusiveness in academic culture, we can and must do better.


Further reading (please add your own suggestions for further reading in the comments) 

Anti-Semitism in academia:

Anti-Semitism on Campus 2012, by Jocelyn Grecko

Discrimination against women in academia:

Tenure denied: cased of gender discrimination in academia

The magnifying glass ceiling,
by Jane Hu

Understanding the patriarchy in scientific academia by Dr. Isis

Discrimination against ethnic minorities

A Dream Deferred: How access to STEM is denied to many students before they get in the door by Danielle Lee

Other discrimination issues in academic culture:
A field guide to privilege in marine science: some reasons why we lack diversity by Miriam Goldstein