The Disappearing Jew

While not as crude as those on display in Charlottesville, various forms of anti-Jewish sentiment are steadily becoming part of our culture, even and especially in higher education, argues Helene Meyers.

August 24, 2017

This article contains explicit and potentially offensive terms that are essential to reporting and commenting on the topic.

The white supremacist participating in the “Unite the Right” march who claimed that Charlottesville, Va., is “run by Jewish communists and criminal niggers” clarified that anti-Semitism and racism are the hateful intersectional bedfellows of the so-called alt-right. The events in Charlottesville should make it harder to deny that white Jews as well as people of color, immigrants, Muslims and LGBTQ people are the targets of those who clamor for a white ethno-state. The omnipresence of Nazi symbols, the chants of “blood and soil” and “Jews will not replace us,” along with the intimidation and threats leveled against a synagogue in Charlottesville, make it clear that anti-Semitism is a real and contemporary danger.

But not all forms of anti-Semitism are as crude and explicit as those on display in Charlottesville earlier this month. Soft forms of anti-Jewish sentiment are steadily becoming part of our culture, even and especially in higher education. And sometimes the most seemingly ordinary academic rituals unwittingly reveal the slow creep of anti-Semitism or, at the very least, an imperviousness to that particular form of hate and ignorance.

For instance, although I’m a literary critic by trade, I don’t generally read catalog changes all that closely. Nor do I usually consider them a canary in the coal mine. But a curriculum discussion that started last year about an Introduction to Judaism course at my Texas liberal arts college, Southwestern University, is beginning to look like a harbinger of a disturbing academic and national trend: the disappearing Jew.

Catalog changes are usually pro forma. By the time they reach the faculty at large, all invested parties have been consulted, and we simply approve the list of changes at a spring faculty meeting. Although I regularly teach Jewish literature and film courses, I had no idea that Introduction to Judaism was on the chopping block until an email that listed catalog changes showed up in my inbox.

University rules about the catalog, budget cuts and personnel changes were all offered as reasons for this curricular change once I started a public discussion about it. Ultimately, the elimination of this course ended up being deferred.

Except, apparently, it wasn’t. Through what has been framed as a bureaucratic mishap, the faculty decision not to delete the course was not officially communicated to the records office, and the course was deleted from the catalog. When the issue came up for discussion again this year with the curriculum committee, the religion department affirmed its unanimous decision to get rid of the course. Since the course had already been mistakenly deleted from the catalog, it wasn’t considered a catalog change, so it wasn’t reported to the faculty at large.

So now the following introductory religion courses are regularly offered at my national liberal arts university: Introduction to Christianity, Introduction to Islam, Introduction to Hinduism, Introduction to Buddhism and Introduction to Native American Traditions. I celebrate the religious diversity of such course offerings, but it eludes me that Introduction to Judaism no longer has a place at this multifaith table. Academically, it simply doesn’t make sense. As one alumna put it, “How do you study Abrahamic traditions without Judaism?” Another affirmed that her study of Judaism was essential to her understanding of Christianity and Islam. Teaching Christianity and Islam without Judaism in the mix is curricular supersessionism. Although I’m not surprised that replacement theology is advocated by hate groups such as Vanguard America, it’s chilling to discover that progressive academics are, perhaps unintentionally, developing their own brand of replacing Jews.

When this curricular saga first started, it seemed like a local story. My inquiries to the American Academy of Religion and the Association of Jewish Studies confirmed that the disappearance of Intro to Judaism courses was not a thing. However, I now think that the disappearance of Introduction to Judaism on my campus is mirrored by extracurricular activities on college campuses across the country as well as by events in the public square. And it is precisely that mirroring that makes this curricular change so troubling.

To be sure, this story is indicative of many pernicious trends in higher education: the whittling away of the humanities, the weakening of substantive faculty governance, hyperspecialized faculty members with diminished commitments to general education. Yet, to focus solely on those trends would be to erase Jewish specificity. And such erasures -- or attempted erasures -- are becoming increasingly common.

Take, for example, the debacle at Brown University last spring around Janet Mock, a transgender activist and writer of color. Her talk, sponsored by many social justice organizations on campus, including Moral Voices, a Hillel-affiliated program, became a flash point for student activism against Israel, even though the program had nothing to do with Israel. Nonetheless, a student petition issued an ultimatum: either the Jewish organization’s sponsorship of the event had to go or the event had to be canceled.

Another recent example: at the University of Madison, a legislative discussion and vote on investment ethics took place on Passover despite Jewish students explicitly notifying the student council that such scheduling would erase their voice and despite the fact that the vote would normally have happened at a subsequent meeting. That vote has now been voided, and members of the council who sought to change rules with the effect, if not the intention, of excluding Jewish participation are required to issue a letter of apology. That letter must include knowledge about Passover, which is basic Jewish literacy.

And, of course, before Charlottesville, this hot anti-Semitic summer featured the Chicago Dyke March, whose perverse version of intersectionality resulted in the expulsion of women who had the chutzpah to carry Jewish pride flags and refused to declare that they were not now nor had ever been Zionists.

Jewish erasure is, at times, being modeled at the very highest levels of government. Using inclusiveness of suffering as its rationale, the White House’s statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day did not contain the J word. A commemoration of a historical event fundamentally committed to a Judenrein world managed to free itself of reference to Jews or anti-Semitism.

The disappearing Jew is a significant but not the only component of a well-documented rise in anti-Semitism. During the presidential campaign, Jewish reporters were harassed and some even received death threats. Jewish cemeteries and religious institutions have been desecrated, and public figures such as Thomas Lopez-Pierre, a candidate for New York City Council, feel empowered to politically mobilize the stereotype of “greedy Jewish landlords,” most recently through the multiple parentheses -- called echo marks -- that neo-Nazis use to denote Jews online. FBI hate crime statistics indicate that Jews are the most frequent targets of religious bias crimes, while hate crimes against Muslims have increased exponentially. Diverse and inspiring alliances between Jewish and Muslim communities are being forged against such a backdrop of hate.

This is the larger cultural context in which my university, which prides itself on its commitments to social justice, is deleting Introduction to Judaism from the course catalog and our curriculum. One of the latest rationales for this curriculum change is a dearth of qualified people to teach the course. I do wonder what the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Texas, a mere 30 miles from my campus, might have to say about that. Ironically, some of the same faculty members and administrators who are making this “no qualified people” argument would rightly suspect institutionalized racism and sexism if a curriculum focused only on straight white male subjects was deemed lamentable but necessary because of a lack of qualified faculty members to diversify offerings.

Like most colleges and universities these days, my liberal arts institution touts innovation and efficient use of resources. Yet I would argue that no religious studies program should be eliminating the study of Judaism, in part because of its status as a historic and living tradition in its own right, in part because it is foundational to other, equally important internally diverse religious traditions, and in part because of the current climate of rising anti-Semitism. When Jews are invisible in some contexts and hypervisible in others, socially responsible institutions of higher education should be promoting Judaic and Jewish literacy rather than practicing curricular triumphalism.


Helene Meyers is professor of English and McManis University Chair at Southwestern University in Texas. The author of three books, most recently Identity Papers: Contemporary Narratives of American Jewishness, she is currently at work on a project about Jewish American movies. (Southwestern University did not comment in response to efforts to contact them about information in this opinion piece.)


Be the first to know.
Get our free daily newsletter.


Back to Top