Whitman’s antisemitism problem

Cormac Uriah Li, Senior

“Just Say No!Cheering and applause filled the room of Longview Elementary in Oakland as Nancy Reagan launched the campaign against drugs. Her charming smile and the crowd’s excitement made Americans in front of the television that night feel like the ravaging crack issue was about to come to an end. Well, we all know what happened next.

The 2023 Power & Privilege Symposium session titled “Re-visioning Antisemitism in Conspiracy Theory” harkened back to Nancy Reagan’s 1980s – the innocent laughter, the audience’s excitement and the vague message of “Just reject media productions that portrait antisemitism – just stop talking about these conspiracies.” The failures of this session resemble the exact reason why Reagan’s infamous “Just Say No” campaign became a failure. For Reagan, just as for P&P, the public wasn’t knowledgeable enough on the issue, and had no understanding of how to combat such conditions – just slogans and banners flying around along with prejudice. Some of the questions that were asked at the Q&A session merely proved my worries.

Make no mistake – I am not criticizing the presenter in the slightest. The organizer of “Re-visioning Antisemitism in Conspiracy Theory” did a fine job providing the introductory session to the general public. The topic is just too convoluted to be condensed into a short time of 50 minutes, and that is including the Q&A session. However, it is clear enough that despite effort and great work, this session, and perhaps many other sessions of the symposium, failed to address the reality of ignorance and prejudice at Whitman College and across the nation.

As Jews, we live in a crazy time. Recently, neo-Nazis of the Goyim Defense League stormed through the streets of the Jewish community in Orlando, terrorizing Jews and spreading blood libel; in New York, mobs of the Black Hebrew Israelites chanted downtown, promoting lies with celebrities that Jews “aren’t the real Jews but products of Demon,” assaulting Jews physically. This is the reality of being Jewish in 2023.

In times like these when we desperately seek allies (ironic that this year’s P&P theme is ‘No More Allies’), we hear back nothing but echoes of our voices while being pressed to answer questions like, “How would we know if something is truly antisemitism or just your own feeling?”

This is the exact tension I felt in the auditorium. When questions like, “How would we know if it’s really antisemitism?” were thrown at the speaker after she suggested people talk to Jews and know how they feel, I wondered – aren’t we, the Jews, the only ones who know how antisemitism impacts us? As a Jew who’s also a person of color, I wonder – would Whitman students ask the same thing when I complain about anti-Asian hate or xenophobia? Had an LGBTQ community member been discriminated against, would they be questioned on the same thing?

Whitman is not free of antisemitism – and being antisemitic is not exclusive to the right. A student who participated in the session Q&A portion told me directly that, “Antisemitism doesn’t exist; it’s just self-dramatization of your identity.” Such unacceptable comments are frequently used under the guise of “social justice” and invade most political and social conversations. Whitman students, who mostly lack exposure to the concept, tend to unintentionally allow and accept such views to take place.

At the end of the panel, I stated that, “Antisemites don’t care about what is the ‘problem’ with Jews. They hate Jews simply because they are Jews.” There is no reasoning, no conversation and no logic in this hatred. Terms like “Jewish” and “Zionists” have lost all meaning – not that anyone actually cares about their meanings anymore; they’re nothing but labels for people to spit on.

For a long time, P&P has been a pomp and circumstance on our campus. It makes me wonder, after all the noises and excitement, if we are just yelling into an echo chamber. My frustration from the antisemitism session made me realize that – not only do we still have a long way to go – but we might have gone down the wrong track. If you want to acknowledge actual “Power” and “Privilege,” ditch the performance and start by being a good listener and a good ally first.

Editor’s Note

Avery Ehlers, who led the Power & Privilege session titled “Re-visioning Antisemitism in Conspiracy Theory,” responded to The Wire’s request for a comment with the following statement: “I appreciate the criticisms and I hope to improve as I further participate in P&P sessions. My goal this year was not to necessarily address antisemitism at Whitman, but rather antisemitism I see prevalent among our age group; I tried to address a general population in order to allow a more applicable take-away. I will note, this was my first time speaking at P&P, I have only attended one symposium prior, and I am eager to improve.”