Next year in… ? Phoebe Maltz Bovy on the globalization of antisemitism reflected in pre-Passover protest scenes

Yale University student journalist Sahar Tartak has been covering the protests on her campus—and garnering global attention.

Would you believe it, we are in for yet another round of yes there’s a lot of antisemitism these days but how can you care about Jews’ ittle-wittle feelings when Israel is doing to Gaza something more horrific than mankind has ever known, so evil that frankly maybe Jews SHOULD apologize for existing wherever it is they exist and whatever their feelings on the war. (I paraphrase from a certain branch of the left.)

I’m not sure I have it in me to do yet another column explaining into the void that it is not actually helping Palestinians nor enticing Netanyahu to cool it militarily to break the windows of a Toronto synagogue or to yell at Jews in New York that they should return to Europe. (Why would antizionists have a position on whether Jews are in North America or in Europe? Oh wait, maybe it’s not Zionism they’re anti-.) Instead, I will try to set abstract questions aside and look at some facts on the ground. Because, contrary to some headlines, this isn’t really about feelings at all.

Things are not great locally, as North York’s mini-Kristallnacht and (gestures generally at our post-Oct. 7 news content) make clear.

But the big story this week is Columbia University, which has become enough of a show de merde that it’s already getting coverage in the British-Jewish press and Canadian mainstream variety. The school itself is moving to virtual learning, and not even because a new pangolin-originated virus is making the rounds. That’s how out-of-control things have gotten there.

Following the Columbia story as best as I can from the outside, what at first seemed like a bunch of students of different faith traditions praying for peace on a campus quad, to the point that people of many political ideologies were uniting to have a laugh at someone who’d found the whole thing menacing…

…soon enough started to look like something else.

Two facts are clear, from the New York Times reporting and elsewhere: there are Jewish students among the pro-Palestinian protesters, and there are anti-Jewish incidents happening left and right. You do not need to be a hypersensitive snowflake to take note.

Apparently a lot is meant to hinge on whether whoever is shouting go back to Poland is or is not a student at Columbia, or whether it is being shouted on the urban campus itself or across the street and merely in Morningside Heights. I’m not sure how much this matters for, for example, someone considering attending Columbia, or working there, or sending a kid there, or going for a bagel in the vicinity.

This might seem, at first glance, like yet another case of Ivy League American universities getting more attention than is their due. (Poor Yale, a higher-tier Ivy, barely causing a stir despite Jewish student journalist Sahar Tartak getting stabbed in the eye with—what else?—a Palestinian flag. It’s Columbia’s moment.)

But I suppose I see this story more in geographic terms. Columbia is located adjacent to the Upper West Side, aka one of the Jewiest bits of the Jewiest city outside of Israel. When I read that it’s no longer possible to be “openly Jewish” in Britain I think, yes, that’s bad, but it adds up. When I follow the news from Canada, along similar lines, I think, every country has its plusses and minuses, and maybe we have more antisemitism than our neighbours to the south, but fewer guns, so.

But if the area around Absolute Bagels is a no-go zone for Jews, I ask you, what’s left?

I want to take heart on the fact that both Justin Trudeau and Joe Biden have made statements to the effect of, let us not crap upon our local Jewish populations, particularly during Passover. Certainly better than the alternative, even if Jews have logged off for Passover and are missing it.

And a part of me even sees some of the protests themselves as heartening, the ones that come from people who see images of the destruction in Gaza and want that to stop. This is not in and of itself disconcerting in the least, however much one might wish protesters had a bigger context for the crisis, and more specifically, for the fact that a ceasefire to come from both sides in a war.

The time has come to stop thinking about antisemitism as a problem specific to individual locales, such that Jews can simply hop on over to the place that hasn’t embraced it. There isn’t Canadian antisemitism or American or British or any other subtype. It’s all the same thing, same as everyone around the world is wearing the same fast-fashion clothes. Current events in the Middle East doubtless sparked things but things will calm down and we’ll still know where we stand.

On an existential level, the whole is more distressing than its individually unsettling parts.

For more original Jewish culture commentary from Phoebe Maltz Bovy subscribe to the free Bonjour Chai newsletter on Substack.

The CJN’s senior editor Phoebe Maltz Bovy can be reached at [email protected], not to mention @phoebebovy on Bluesky, and @bovymaltz on X. She is also on The CJN’s weekly podcast Bonjour Chai.