Shining a Light on Antisemitism at Packer
A common thread that weaves through the Jewish religion is light. We celebrate most holidays by lighting candles, there is a lamp in many temples called the “eternal light” that represents God’s omnipresence, and it is said that the first words God uttered when creating the world were simply: “ויהי אור”, or “Let there be light.”
If you are not familiar with the Jewish religion, you may ask: Why light? Why is that the guiding theme of Judaism? It is because our light shines through all of the darkness that we have experienced. This darkness often manifests itself as antisemitism, which exists in the world, in New York, and even at Packer. You may have experienced antisemitism, been complicit in it, or even perpetrated it. You may also be unaware of your participation in it because of how antisemitism is dealt with in our community.
Two factors of many Jews’ identities often get conflated: our Jewishness and our whiteness. While not all Jews are white, most of the Jews at Packer, in the media, and in the world, are. This is because Ashkenazi Jews (an ethnicity that comes from a region of Eastern Europe) make up 75% of the world’s Jewish population. Something I want to make clear is that Jewish people who are white do not face discrimination based on the color of our skin; white Jews benefit from white privilege in the same way that other white people do.
Judi Williams, the new 11th grade dean and ninth grade history teacher, who is both Black and Jewish, weighed in, saying: “On the one hand, you can’t conflate Judaism with whiteness. On the other hand, we can’t ignore the fact that when someone is white-appearing in the United States, the oppression is going to be different.”
The disproportionate and brutal treatment of people who are not white was a concept that was carefully examined this summer, in light of the horrific instances of police brutality that sparked outrage around the world. In early June, when activism was at an all-time-high, former Black Packer students started an Instagram account called @BlackatPCI, which aimed to “highlight the stories and truths of racial insensitivity at [Packer].” The painful and candid experiences that were shared by black community members generated necessary and long-overdue conversations regarding racial injustices that BIPOC, specifically Black, members of the Packer community are forced to contend with on a daily basis. However, one of the posts that surfaced in June did not sit right with certain viewers, myself included.
The since-deleted post reads, “she is a prime example of white students at Packer who love to cling on any measure of ‘white oppression’ that they can: 9/11, the Holocaust, and her personal favorite The Irish Potato Famine.”
I fully support @BlackatPCI and all of the anti-racist work that it promotes. However, I have never understood the need to downplay any type of suffering to prove a point. My maternal grandmother’s cousins were murdered in Auschwitz during the Holocaust, and my family has felt the generational impacts of antisemitism for centuries. My family members were not persecuted/killed because they were white, but because of their Jewish identities and beliefs.
Also, like I previously said, not all Jews are white, and not all of the Jews who died in the Holocaust were white. While I strongly believe that the Packer alumni who submitted the post did not have malintent, I cannot help but feel as though the very real suffering that Jewish people have endured throughout our history is being (inadvertently) delegitimized and called into question by these words.
In the same vein, I think that all instances of murder, mistreatment, and marginalization are uniquely atrocious, and thus incomparable. Comparing trauma, something that is so personal and upsetting, usually winds up hurting and further traumatizing everyone involved. That being said, something that has swept social media recently is comparing death tolls (i.e. fatalities in Yemen and the genocide of the Uyghur Muslims in China) to the Holocaust in an attempt to determine which event is “worse”.
“People would rather ignore the oppression of Jewish people in order to promote the oppression of another group,” said Ari Horwitz (‘21), commenting on this new “trend”. “I’m not here to play oppression olympics. I think we should all be together in the fight against inequality, and racism, and all forms of prejudice.”
So why is antisemitism usually left out of Packer’s collective definition of prejudice? “Nobody talks about it, so nobody knows how bad it is,” said an anonymous seventh grader. Personally, I have rarely felt comfortable talking about my own experiences of antisemitism at Packer, and have been gaslighted and/or ignored when I have tried.
When I reached out to people to have their voices in this article, most did not want to get involved because antisemitism is often seen as controversial at our school. The suffering of any group or person should not be “controversial” and should never be questioned. The aforementioned post on @BlackatPCI created virtually no public conversation among students, and countless community members “liked” the post. Until conversation about antisemitism is normalized, this prejudice will continue to occur, harm, and silence Jewish people at Packer.
When asked what Jewish community members can do going forward, Matthew Kodsi (‘22) said, “I think we have a long way to go, but taking our knowledge and giving it to the community, and also standing up for ourselves is so important.”
There are many ways for Jewish people at Packer to shine light on not only antisemitism, but all forms of oppression. As Ari said earlier, we must come together to help put an end to all forms of discrimination and darkness in our community.