It’s Time to Be Unapologetically Jewish
2020 has seen even more antisemitism, following the FBI’s 2019 report stating that Jews experienced over 60% of religious-based hate crimes despite making up less than 2% of the population. The Anti-Defamation League marked Massachusetts as the state with the fourth-highest number of antisemitic incidents in 2019, with 114 incidents recorded.
Worcester, Massachusetts is the second largest town in New England, located about an hour west of Boston, with a population of about 182,000. It is a vibrant college town, home to nine institutions of higher education and 36,000 students in a regular year. One of those schools is my school: Worcester State University
Following two separate incidents of swastikas on my campus in December 2019, my university held an antisemitism program in early 2020. Soon after, we received notice of another swastika drawn on a whiteboard in a classroom in the same building and floor where the previous swastikas had been found. Although it was later reported that the swastika was mistakenly left on the board after a class lecture about visual literacy, leaving the swastika on the board speaks to a tone deafness that particularly affects Jewish students.
In the local community, Temple Beth Israel was broken into. A man was arrested after breaking into Temple Emanuel Sinai, harassing parents and children outside our Jewish Community Center, and kicking a star of David. Right before Hanukkah, Rabbi Mendel Fogelman and his son Rabbi Leivik Fogelman of Central Mass. Chabad erected a six-foot Menorah at the newly built “peanut” at Kelley Square. It was a symbol of light and peace unto all the residents and visitors entering Worcester. It went missing. When found, it appeared to have been vandalized.
I also experienced Holocaust denial in an online class, which is bad enough, but especially difficult for me because my grandparents are Holocaust survivors. A professor gave a quiz asking what motivated Hitler to order the killing of thousands, instead of millions, of Jews.
I sent him an email explaining the erroneous numbers. He did not respond. I followed up letting him know that this phrasing leads directly to Holocaust denial and that as a granddaughter of Holocaust survivors, I was significantly affected by the inappropriate phrasing of this question. The professor responded that the textbook states the correct number of victims and that the point of the question was not how many people died, but the reason behind it. He made a concession, stating that he went back and edited the question to make it clearer, but this was after the test had already been locked; no student could access it.
I have had professors try to diminish Judaism as just a religion. Other professors have given one-sided lectures about antisemitism and how it manifests, choosing to focus only on easily identifiable right-wing antisemitism while downplaying or leaving out entirely left-wing antisemitism and its manifestations. I also see a trend of professors erasing the existence of any Jew except Ashkenazi Jews.
Looking ahead to 2021, I have only one resolution — to be unapologetically Jewish.
Every antisemitic incident I read about or personally experience reinforces the need for me to be unapologetically Jewish. I need to stop excusing or downplaying the antisemitism that I experience out of fear of reprisal.
Our history of persecution is long, and the more I learn about it, the more I realize that it does not matter whether we hide our mezuzahs or wear our Star of David necklaces proudly; we will still experience antisemitism. If that is the case, then why shouldn’t we stand up and fight back against the hate that we experience?
Being unapologetically Jewish means posting photos to my social media celebrating the Jewish holidays. It means not apologizing to professors that I will be absent for Yom Kippur or Passover, or need extensions for assignments due on Shabbat. It means standing up and reporting antisemitism that I experience and advocating for the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism on my campus to protect other Jewish students who may not be comfortable standing up yet.
Our Judaism manifests differently, but no matter how it manifests for you, be Jewish. Unapologetically.
Karen Shalev is the StandWithUs Emerson Fellow at Worcester State University. She is majoring in Visual and Performing Arts | Communication.