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Antisemitism Awareness

By Dr. John Johnson, Vice President for Diversity and Inclusion

A colorful background with multiple outlines of the Star of David.

Content Warning: Today’s message contains references to antisemitic activities as well as a link to a video produced by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. This material is being provided to educate the community about some of the historic and contemporary manifestations of antisemitism. The content herein and the images depicted in the video may be disturbing to those who practice Judaism or align with Jewish practices and identities.

Exactly one month into my time at Whitman, in the summer of 2021, I received notification about graffiti located in a campus building. That graffiti included references to what we believed to be a gang associated with select individuals incarcerated in the Washington State Penitentiary. It also included a swastika. Our institutional response to this incident was swift and involved multiple members of the Campus Security team, the Dean of Students, representatives from Communications, Facilities, the Senior Inclusion Administrator and the President.   

Since we did not regard this incident as constituting an immediate threat to public safety, we elected not to send out a campus message at that time. Our Facilities team removed the graffiti. We checked in with folks on our staff who work directly with our Jewish student organization to gauge the climate and assess the impact on students. We also shared information about this incident in a summary of the bias incidents that we responded to in that year in Whitman Today, being careful not to amplify this heinous action.

About a year later, in the summer of 2022, it happened again. Another swastika was found on campus. This time, the hateful symbol was written in chalk on the ceiling of a loading dock. No references to a gang. Just a symbol to announce and express antisemitism and white supremacy. Similar to 2021, we did not view this act of vandalism as an immediate threat to campus and no specific person appeared to be targeted. The image was removed. We followed up with the leadership of that facility to determine what, if any, supportive measures were needed for the people who discovered the graffiti and did not feel it would be appropriate to send out a campus message alerting the community to this incident.

While there was no swastika found on campus in the summer of 2023, we believe a message to the community is warranted because of the persistence of antisemitism in the United States. The recently launched U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism reminds us:

“For over 2,000 years, Jews have been targeted for persecution and violence for their practices, their beliefs, their identity—even their very existence. They have been driven from their homes and barred from certain jobs or compelled to take others. They have been denied citizenship and forced into ghettos. They have been scapegoated en masse and systematically killed. Antisemitism has enabled some of the darkest moments in history, including the Nazi campaign to exterminate the Jewish people during the Holocaust.” (p.8)

Expressions of antisemitism have been on the rise in this country in the last several years. In one recent interview, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) reports that we are in the midst of a “five year upswing in the number of antisemetic incidents'' being recorded. In a press release from earlier this year, ADL notes that “antisemetic incidents surged to historic levels in 2022, with a total of 3,697 incidents reported across the United States.” That number reflected a 36% increase from the year before and a record high since the organization began documenting such incidents in 1979.

The U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism was released in May of this year by the Biden-Harris Administration. This historic initiative, generated with input from more than 1,000 Jewish community stakeholders, elected officials, faith and civil rights leaders, and others, contains four strategic pillars, that describe specific efforts to:

  • Increase awareness and understanding of antisemitism, including its threat to America, and broaden appreciation of Jewish American heritage.
  • Improve safety and security for Jewish communities.
  • Reverse the normalization of antisemitism and counter antisemitic discrimination.
  • Build cross-community solidarity and collective action to counter hate.

The comprehensive plan commits federal resources to address this issue and also calls on Congress, state and local leaders, educators and everyday citizens to work together to combat the scourge of antisemitism. As we all bear witness to the resurgence of this age-old form of identity-based hate, the U.S. National Strategy encourages us to remember:

“The American Jewish community is diverse, and Jews from a wide variety of backgrounds and identities face hate and antisemitism. That includes Jews who adhere to different levels of religious observance or denominations of practice, Jews of color, first-generation Americans, LGBTQI+ Jews, Jews with disabilities, Jews who live in urban and rural communities, Jews of different political affiliations, and Jews of different socioeconomic and income levels. Though there are many ways of being Jewish, any Jew or anyone perceived to be Jewish can be the target of antisemitism.” (p.9)

The whole-of-society approach articulated in the strategy calls upon all of us to do our part to combat antisemitism because all of us are impacted. As Audre Lorde notes, “there’s no such thing as a single issue struggle, because we do not live single issue lives.” Here at Whitman, we are striving to create a welcoming and inclusive campus community where everyone feels valued and a sense of belonging. We can disagree about sensitive issues, but we want to be careful not to let disagreement devolve into disrespect or hateful speech acts. We will continue to protect free speech, but also want to make sure we understand that some speech, while legally permissible, can still make minoritized individuals in our community feel devalued—even when the speech is not directed at them personally. 

In one of my favorite videos for educating people about the impact of microaggressions, a young person succinctly states, “Think of what you say and how it can affect the person you’re saying it to.” We want to entreat the Whitman community to learn more about antisemitism and to leverage resources like the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, the U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism and the Weitzman National Museum of Jewish American History for continued self-education on this issue. To build the kind of community we all want and deserve at Whitman, we should take care to think about what we say and who we are saying it to.

As a reminder, Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 protects all students, including students who are or are perceived to be Jewish, from discrimination based on race, color, or national origin. If you are feeling marginalized or mistreated because of your Jewish identity, please contact the Division of Diversity and Inclusion at diversity@whitman.edu. We are here to help and support you. 

Published on Sep 20, 2023
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