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Columbia University

On U.S. Capitol Hill this past week, the President of Columbia University was asked about the ongoing antisemitism on campus and the college’s attempts to curb it. Among the line of questioning was Congressman Jim Banks asking President Shafik about orientation materials distributed to students at Columbia’s School of Social Work. The materials included a glossary of terms. “Ashkenormativity” was defined as “a system of oppression that favors white Jewish folx (sp).”

Ashkenormativity does not appear in the Webster’s dictionary. Beyond the irrationality of labeling Jewishness as privilege, the use of the term Ashkenormativity is calculated and dangerous. By pointing to the European heritage of Ashkenazi Jews, students are able to label Jews as “white.” The appropriation of Jews as “white” enables students like those at Columbia University this past weekend shout for “Jews to go back to Poland” and “Go Back to Belarus.”


In our current social paradigm, if Jews are “white” than they are naturally the enemy of other disadvantaged people of color and hostile to the goals of any “progressive” coalition. After October 7, 2023, students at Columbia were denied entrance to an on campus event as the LGBT student group leader explained that, “Jewish people are today and always have been the oppressor of all brown people” and “when I say the Holocaust wasn’t special, I mean that.”

The term Ashkenormativity clearly gets its root derivation from Ashkenazi. But Jews define themselves as Sephardi (Iberrean Peninsula), Mizrahi (Middle Eastern), Ethiopian, and as none of the above. There is patent absurdity in calling a people who have still not repopulated from the 6 million lives lost in the Holocaust as “privileged.” As the JewBelong posters in Times Square notes, “We are just 75 years since the gas chambers. So no, a billboard calling out anti-Semitism isn’t an overreaction.” Jews make up less than 0.2% of the world’s population and 2.4% of the American population

The protest erupting on campuses–which can truly only be defined as riots–forced Columbia University to move all of its classes online in hopes of stabilizing the campus. Students at Columbia University held posters stating the Jews on campus would be the next victims of Hamas. Yale and NYU arrested scores of “Pro-Palestinian” agitators after they refused to clear encampments. A Jewish student at Yale was stabbed in the eye. As of Tuesday morning, Harvard had closed its famous yard to the public and encampments were sprouting up in the other colleges in Berkeley, Michigan, and elsewhere.

Clearly context and understanding is missing for these students. This week is Passover. For someone who has only seen Jews portrayed in the movies, one might expect that we Jews will all be eating matzah ball soup and gefilte fish. But, when my family gathered Monday evening for Seder, we ate lamb chops, grape leaves, and Jerusalem artichokes. Why? Because, despite what we hear coming out of American universities and the halls of Congress, Jews are not all white. Jews are not all from Europe. In fact, just like my family, many are from the Arab world.

My mother-in-law escaped Egypt in the late 1960’s when all Jews were forced to leave the country. Before the State of Israel was founded in 1948 there were 850,000 Jews living in the Arab world. After the State of Israel was formed Jews were once again exiled from Iran, Iraq, Egypt, and Yemen. The vast majority settled in Israel. Some, like my mother-in-law, were lucky enough to come to America.

My mother-in-law was forced out of her country with no right to her property or money. She was even denied a passport. She left Egypt with $20 and a stamp in her black market passport that said “leave and never return.” My husband’s family speaks Arabic. His family lived in Egypt for so many years that DNA testing cannot trace his roots out of Egypt. My husband’s skin color is the same as most “Arabs.” Is he white? His family arrived in America like most immigrants do, both poor and determined. Are they privileged?

Why have we allowed our systems of higher education in America to perpetuate a warped classification of the Jewish people? At the time of Hitler, Jews were considered an inferior non-Aryan race. We were not “white” enough. Now suddenly Jews are too white and therefore inherently opposed to universal human rights?

A core tenant of critical race theory is that race is a culturally invented category used to impose societal bias and create structures of disempowerment. As such, it should be antithetical for anyone subscribing to this theory to allow non-Jews to define the “whiteness” of Jews.

There is an insidious lie being perpetuated in our institutions of higher learning. The lie that Jews are privileged, white, and oppressors is anything but “progressive.” It is a lie of “othering” and scapegoating as old as time. Indeed, it is as old as the story of Passover itself.

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Julie Marzouk is an author, lawyer, and former law professor.