Anti-Semitism on the rise

BY BEN MARKS | MARCH 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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In the past month, vandals painted swastikas on the walls of a Jewish fraternity at the University of California-Berkeley and inside a dorm at George Washington University, in Washington, D.C.

A study released this month found 54 percent of Jewish students reported having witnessed or been subject to anti-Semitism on their campus in the past six months, a number which researchers said was surprising.

However, in Iowa City, one leader in the Jewish community said there has only been a handful of such instances like those seen in California and D.C. — and most of these incidences are comments, as opposed to acts of vandalism.

“In many cases, these are people who have never known Jewish people before,” said Gerald Sorokin, the executive director of the Hillel House. “They may be well-meaning, but they don’t have a good sense of what they’re saying.”

Sorokin, who has been executive director of the Hillel House for 17 years, said he has seen only a “handful” of examples of students receiving explicitly anti-Semitic comments or messages and said the UI is committed to supporting a diverse environment.

Director Barry Kosmin and Associate Director Ariela Keysar of the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture conducted the study.

Kosmin said, because it was a general Jewish demographic survey, they didn’t gather as much data about anti-Semitism for the study and they were “very surprised” at how high the rate of anti-Semitism was.

The survey’s other major and also surprising results, the researchers said, was that anti-Semitism seemed to fall disproportionally on females rather than males, with 59 percent of females experiencing anti-Semitism to 51 percent of males.

“It wasn’t the usual suspects, which is usually Orthodox Jewish men because they wear a certain dress and are easy to pick up on the street,” Kosmin said.

Although Keysar said the exact reason for this discrepancy is unknown, she said it’s something that needs further study.

However, while 54 percent is a high rate, Keysar said that because survey was finished in April and March 2014, before the summer conflict in Gaza, might be even more significant.

“After [the conflict] there’s more and more flares and anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments, so I think that the timing makes it very alarming,” she said.

Sorokin, however, said he believes, while the war increased anti-Jewish views in some places, the timing prevented it from affecting university campuses as much as it could have.

“The fact we were off campus when the war happened strongly dampened the effect the war had,” Sorokin said. “I was expecting to come back to campus, start the academic year, and have to face significant challenges from anti-Israel demonstrators, and it didn’t happen. There was next to nothing once the fall semester got away.”

Sorokin estimates around 600 students, or around 2 to 3 percent of the population at the UI, is Jewish, which is about average for the state as well as the nation.

In the survey, 29 percent of all respondents said anti-Semitism came from other students versus 10 percent from clubs or societies and 4 percent from campus administration.

Sorokin said he believes most campus anti-Semitism comes from a place of ignorance rather than hatred.

Often, he said, students will tell him about conversations they had in which other students began to make offensive questions or comments, or “microaggressions.”

Sorokin related to a conversation he had a few days ago with a student, in which he said the student told him, “Your people control the banks and the media.”

“That is straight anti-Semitism,” Sorokin said. “But I don’t think the student considered himself an anti-Semitic or blamed Jews for all the evils in the world.”

Quentin Hill, senior at the UI who is Jewish, and former member of the Hillel Student Executive Board, said he was in New York during the 2014 Gaza-Israel conflict, and said while passing a protest he had insults thrown at him including “Jewish dogs.”

On campus, he said, he feels both evangelical Christian and pro-Gaza demonstrations have displayed anti-Semitic sentiments.

Beyond anti-Semitic protests and accusations of being a “Christ-killer,” Hill said, like Sorokin, the quick, almost unnoticeable comments are what he sees the most from students.

“You have to look closely to find them; it’s easy for those things to pass by and you to not realize what just happened, and I think that happens most often with people just being ignorant of Judaism,” Hill said.

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