Not long afterward, a swastika was painted at a bus stop near the college. The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life, the center of college multicultural sensitivities, sponsored a three-faiths panel discussion about Jerusalem – which it scheduled on Yom Kippur. Blatantly anti-Semitic e-mail postings by Muslim students infuriated their Jewish classmates: an anti-Israel poem repeated centuries-old anti-Semitic canards about Jews as “Judas,” while a photograph of three Israeli soldiers bore the caption “Three Jewish Animals.”
The president cautioned against “hateful or harmful speech” at a time of anti-Semitism “and other ancient hatreds.” No other “ancient hatreds” were identified.
For Jewish students, Wellesley often provided their first bitter encounter with anti-Semitism. After Angela Davis roused a campus audience with an impassioned endorsement of the vicious hostility directed at Israel and Jews at the Durban Conference against Racism (2001), a Jewish student wrote pointedly in the College newspaper: “I did not come to Wellesley expecting to learn what it felt like to be hated or demonized because I was Jewish,” while college administrators “stand idly by.”
One year after 9/11, Amiri Baraka – formerly the militant black activist Leroi Jones – was invited by the Africana and Art departments, and by African-American student groups, to speak at the college. Baraka had achieved national notoriety for his poem “Somebody Blew Up America,” suggesting that Israel had advance knowledge of the terrorist attacks. He wrote: “Who told 4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers/To stay home that day.” (The correct answer, of course, was no one.)
Jewish students were outraged that college funds were spent to import anti-Semitism to the campus – on the Jewish Sabbath, no less. Picketing his speech, they were less concerned with displaying good manners than confronting the anti-Semitism in their midst.
The college assertively proclaimed its commitment to multicultural sensitivity but racial, religious and ethnic animosity continued to fester. Jews, perceived as privileged white Americans, were excluded from its concerns. Jewish students, encountering anti-Semitism and the indifference of college authorities to it, felt vulnerable and often battered.
In 2007, at the invitation of a pro-Israel Jewish student group, Nonie Darwish, the controversial founder of Arabs for Israel, spoke on campus. After Muslims in the audience raucously interrupted her defense of Israel, Darwish was forced to leave the auditorium under police protection. Yet even strongly identified Jewish students, who were deeply attached to Israel, felt the need to apologize abjectly and publicly for extending an invitation that had offended their Muslim classmates.
* * * * *
By the turn of the century, traditional anti-Semitism – at Wellesley as worldwide – had begun to morph into the delegitimization of Israel. Students whose Jewish identity had been battered by their encounters with anti-Semitism at the college, and by the indifference of college authorities to their plight, now confronted the newest expression of an ancient hatred.
With American Jewish history and the history of Israel already embedded in my teaching program, I could provide safe space for the expression of student ideas – and anxieties – about Jewish history and identity. In extracurricular meetings I tried to provide a secure forum where Jewish students, who had dutifully internalized Wellesley’s Jewish problem as their own, could express their pain and apprehension without censure.
They lived, one student revealed, in “a culture of fear in which the Jewish students were afraid to stand up for themselves for fear of being blacklisted or disliked by their friends and classmates.” A student leader explained, “We wanted to be accepted by our peers. We didn’t want to rock the boat or have our classmates dislike us.” In the face of persistent hostility, another student confided: “I’m scared and confused and wonder if maybe…I’m doing something wrong by being Jewish.”