Standing strong in the face of antisemitism

Learning from discriminatory experiences at Queen’s and in Kingston

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I can’t remember a time where I was unaware people in the world would harm me solely because I was Jewish.

That statement may sound extreme. But in the aftermath of the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh a few weeks ago, where the shooter yelled, “All Jews must die” before taking 11 lives, this notion is tragically plausible.

Sometimes, anti-Semitism in my life is subliminal. It’s an underlying truth I shelve so I can get groceries without fearing for my safety. 

Other times, it’ll reveal itself in my surroundings, making my awareness more acute. Several months ago, it appeared as a letter sent to the synagogue I attended growing up, the only words written being, “Jewry must perish.” Last month, it revealed itself as anti-Semitic graffiti sprayed outside my sister’s elementary school. 

And a few days ago, it turned up on my doorstep. 

There was a jack-o’-lantern in front of the apartment I share with my Jewish housemate, located just a 10-minute walk away from campus. Instead of the typical festive designs these pumpkins normally have, this one had a giant swastika carved into it.

There was a jack-o’-lantern in front of the apartment I share with my Jewish housemate ... Instead of the typical festive designs these pumpkins normally have, this one had a giant swastika carved into it.

Swastikas are the symbol of the German Nazi Party, who systemically murdered six million European Jews—as well as members of various other groups—in an attempted ethnic cleansing during the 1930s and ‘40s.

I’ve been at Queen’s for three years, and I’ve become extremely attached to the relationships I’ve created here. But looking at imagery that stands for the extermination of Jews at my front door made me realize just how far I was from home.

I was lucky to grow up in a vibrant Jewish community, and receive a Jewish education from first grade to 12th. I was given every opportunity to engage in Jewish culture, and my parents worked constantly to help me connect with and discover my Jewish identity.

This upbringing allowed me to feel comfortable and confident in my Jewry. It also provided me with a false sense that everyone was as comfortable with my identity as I was.

I came to Queen’s two years ago with a near endless list of concerns, and anti-semitism was nowhere near the top. I knew I’d be departing the comfortable Jewish community I called home, but I was much too concerned about where I’d sit during my first lecture to think about that.

In my first few weeks, when my Judaism inevitably popped up in conversation with new friends, I got varied reactions. Some people were shocked, and told me I was the first Jewish person they’d ever met. Others concealed their reaction in attempts to prove they were tolerant. 

One T.A. took the opposite route, and after I informed her I’d be missing a lab to observe a Jewish holiday, she proceeded to quiz me every next class on the dates of other upcoming Jewish holidays.

While these reactions were new, none of them bothered me or seemed anything but well-intentioned. I was grateful to be in a position where I could teach people about my culture, and learn about others in turn. With this in mind, I strived to put myself out there and take in as much as I could from my new space at Queen’s.

On my first Homecoming, I went out to the streets of campus in celebration of surviving the first month and a half of my university experience. I returned to my dorm after a few hours of walking and took a nap before I planned to go out again.

As I opened my door to leave my room, I saw a poster in front of my room that had a swastika drawn onto it, as well as the phrases “f—k n—s” and “white power.” It was placed so that it was the first thing me and my roommate—also Jewish—would see when we exited our dorm.

I took a backseat as my roommate took down the poster and reported it to our Residence Dons. The poster disturbed me, and I couldn’t help but feel that my new home had been invaded. Still, despite the presence of a symbol that stood for the extermination of all Jews, I didn’t necessarily feel that my safety had been threatened. 

The discriminatory vandalism was appalling, but I justified it as an embarrassing attempt to spark controversy. I pushed the image out of my mind as I tried to salvage what was left of my Homecoming experience.

Time helped me forget the whole ordeal, and I gave the incident little thought over the next two years. As my social circle continued to expand and my Queen’s family grew, I settled into the warmth of my new community until last Wednesday. 

I returned home from class mid-day and spotted the jack-o’-lantern in front of my apartment. 

My roommate and I hadn’t bought any pumpkins, but it didn’t strike me as an unusual sight considering many Queen’s students were celebrating Halloween the weekend before. 

As I approached the pumpkin, I saw the massive swastika carved into it. 

I stared at the swastika for a minute, hoping that if I focused hard enough the symbol might erase itself. When that failed, I resolved to take a picture of the pumpkin and send it to my housemate, some friends and my landlord. I rushed inside, locked the door behind me, and started to work on an essay.

I didn’t know who was responsible for the pumpkin, or if they intentionally placed it in front of the home of two Jews. For a few minutes, I thought that—like the poster in my first-year residence—I’d be better off pretending that nothing had happened.

For a few minutes, I thought that ... I’d be better off pretending as if nothing had happened.

It wasn’t until I saw the reactions of my friends and family that I realized the potential seriousness and significance of the situation.

My roommate and I spent the rest of our day, and most of our night, relaying what had happened to concerned friends. We spent hours corresponding with the Kingston Police, and the case now rests in their hands. 

In the week since this transpired, I’ve done a lot of introspection about my position as a Jew on campus. And I’ve learned many lessons.

I learned the following statement still needs to be said in 2018: there’s never an appropriate time to graffiti a swastika. 

Whether used to assert dominance of the Aryan race or call for the extermination of Jews, what the symbol really signifies today is cowardice of people unwilling to accept they’re on the wrong side of history—and will continue to be, time and time again.

I learned the support of my Queen’s community is stronger than I could’ve dreamed. I’m endlessly thankful for the comfort, compassion, and friendship I’ve been graced with in the past week. I feel more secure than ever knowing so many of my friends and family are willing and even eager to fight in my corner.

Lastly, I learned how unbreakable the Jewish spirit is. 

In the countless words of support sent to me and my housemate from Jews on campus, family members, and Jewish organizations across the province, I see so much more than condolence. I see confirmation of the Jewish people’s resilience that history has required us to repeatedly prove. 

I see that beyond a deep-set knowledge of antisemitism within us lies the strength to stand in the face of hate and declare our presence. I see a fire raging to keep my culture alive—one that I may have kept hidden in my first year at this school, though its flame is now unmistakable each time I look in the mirror.

[B]eyond a deep-set knowledge of antisemitism within us lies the strength to stand in the face of hate and declare our presence.

I can’t remember a time where I was unaware of the people in the world who would harm me. After my experiences at Queen’s, I’ll never forget how—so long as the fire of the Jewish people and our allies burns bright—we will always remain.

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