The reality of being a Jew at Penn

American Jews feel unwanted and excluded from conversation

When I began the college application process two years ago, I was warned that my demographic put me at a disadvantage. Being a white, Jewish, female from the suburbs, the daughter of two hard-working doctors, made me indistinguishable from many college applicants. In short, I was a dispensable commodity, and that made me individually less desirable.

Jews make up less than one percent of the world population, but in higher education our ratio grows. Jews make up a quarter of the student body at Penn, and while in many ways there is safety in numbers, in my experience, this has also lead to a resentment of the “majority”.

In my two and a half semesters at Penn, I have come to recognize how unpopular it can be to be shamelessly, transparently Jewish. We have too many holidays and weird traditions, too many strong opinions; we’re too loud, too in-your-face, too many. Personally, I find it ironic that at college, a place where people are encouraged to express their most far-reaching and absurd opinions to create a dialogue that informs everyone, we have created an environment where people might be criticized for expressing their opinions too much.

Even if it isn’t something that’s explicitly hated, even if anti-Semitism isn’t obviously apparent in the form of swastikas and hate slogans, being Jewish is something that is nonetheless subtly resented. It’s evident in the backwards criticisms that there are too many Jewish clubs on campus, and that these clubs are too active. It is evident in the comment that Birthright is only a way to make sure Jews marry other Jews. It’s evident in the spiteful jokes regarding relationships between nominally Jewish fraternities and sororities. It’s evident in frequent association made between Jews and money, and the malicious tone that most often accompanies these recognitions.

It is perhaps most evident in conversations surrounding Israel. Because dialogue on college campuses tends to lean towards Palestinian sympathy, Jews on college campuses have to some extent been required to shoulder the blame for the injustices Israel is blamed for. Not only have we received a lot of resentment as the next-in-line for blame, but our mere participation in the conversation is altogether resented.

In my History of the Modern Middle East class, I learned the hard way that the opinion of a Jewish female who, yes, went to Israel with a youth group organization, is not a wanted opinion. I learned to stay silent in recitation, because no matter how critical or supportive of Israel I was, I was either dismissed or blamed. It doesn’t matter that I was reading the same texts as everyone else in the class, it doesn’t matter that I myself am often critical of Israel. I’m Jewish, which immediately makes me contaminated, brainwashed, wrongly informed; I can’t possibly have anything constructive to offer, can’t be trusted in my sources or views.

This fall, Students for Justice in Palestine put on a demonstration that involved covering college green in flags to represent victims in Gaza. In an email to the University’s Jewish community, Hillel warned about this demonstration, and outlined their reasons for choosing not to respond. While I personally agree with this strategy and think it was an eloquent response to a charged situation, I can’t help but notice that it recognizes that American Jews feel unwanted in and excluded from a conversation that very directly and often personally involves them. To respond would be considered as adding fuel to the fire, not engaging in constructive conversation. To respond would be to risk criticism for being to aggressive; to counter or correct ideas would risk a new wave attacks.

When swastikas were painted on the side of a Jewish fraternity house at Emory University, people were seemingly shocked at such blatant anti-Semitism that seemed to come out of nowhere. But if we recognize the subtle yet pervasive rhetoric that Jews face even at a school with such a vibrant and thriving Jewish community such as at Penn, the escalation of such resentment isn’t so surprising.

The point is that everyone should have the opportunity to participate in every conversation, without risking resentment, blame or exclusion. Everyone should be allowed to celebrate who they are, proudly, without feeling the need to defend themselves. While I’m sure my experience as a Jew at Penn has been a lot more sheltered and easier than it would be at a lot of schools, it would be naïve to say it’s perfect.

UPenn: Penn