As members of the Hillel Student Board, we keep an eye on campus relations and how they affect Jewish students at The University of Texas at Austin. In recent years, Student Government (SG) elections have become flashpoints for airing issues unrelated to student government, such as current national politics. In last year’s campaign, for example, Jewish students who were running for student body president and vice president were victims of anti-Semitic flyers and hate speech. Texas Hillel, the largest Jewish student organization on campus, often takes the brunt of conspiracy theories. The organization is sometimes accused of “running Student Government from the shadows,” or as happened in this year’s election, of “propping up” Zionist, non-Jewish candidates to run.
In this year’s election, which ran from February to March, the two front-running tickets had two weeks to campaign before an online election period of 48 hours. One ticket consisted of two women of color; the other consisted of a white male and a Muslim female. The all-female ticket aimed to help students who feel “ignored, tokenized, overlooked, exploited, or like this campus was not built for [them].” Employing inclusive rhetoric, these women made it clear that each student deserved to be represented, in theory.
As the election played out, a current SG representative and member of the women’s campaign team tweeted derogatory remarks. They included the phrases “F*** Israel and f*** the Zionists on this campus.” The campaign’s Twitter account favorited a tweet expressing being “tired of white Zionist men in power.” Additionally, one of the female candidates retweeted, in 2017, “imagine a world without Israel and the colonial ideology of Zionism.”
While many of the tweets surrounding this year’s election only mentioned Zionists, they contained anti-Semitic undertones of powerful Jews monopolizing power. When Jewish students voiced concerns over these campaign tactics, they were told by non-Jews that this was in no way anti-Semitism. Jewish organizations and students had our experiences as Jews invalidated; Judaism was equated to Zionism, and Zionism was equated to racism. Much of these mental gymnastics was done by members of the Palestine Solidarity Committee (PSC), which publicly campaigned for the all-woman ticket. During a protest, committee members who began handing out flyers that listed their definitions of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism side by side and claimed their activity only fit the former. They verbally harassed Jewish students who tried to engage them in conversation. Protesters actually claimed that the “Zionist Establishment” was trying to silence this Student Government campaign.
Just before campus emptied out for spring break, a runoff was announced, since neither ticket amassed 50 percent of the vote. Over the break, Jewish student leaders who felt they could no longer stay silent wrote an open letter to the greater UT community addressing anti-Semitism on campus and highlighting the incidents mentioned here. The letter was signed by 42 Jewish student leaders from Hillel, Chabad, SG, Greek Life and other organizations, and was published on the students’ Facebook pages. It focused on the notion of true intersectionality, explaining that for advocates or candidates to represent marginalized groups, they must stand up against all forms of hatred. When Jews were told what is and isn’t anti-Semitism, when they were seen as responsible for every action Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu takes, and when fears were stoked of the Jews secretly controlling politics, the Jewish community felt a need to speak up. We called out the women’s ticket and its campaign, which claimed to be inclusive, for its silence regarding the anti-Semitic acts.
Anti-Semitism takes different forms than any other prejudice, and even for white-passing Jews, privilege in one context does not invalidate marginalization in another.
The day before our letter was published, the women’s ticket released a statement; it generally condemned anti-Semitism but failed to mention anything that happened over the course of the election and the rhetoric that affected Jewish students. We were disappointed, and the division on campus continued to grow.
The election is now over, and after a record number of students turned out to vote — over 14,000, the largest in UT’s history — the women’s ticket was defeated by a 56-44 percent margin (8,250 votes to 6,413). All of campus is relieved that life can somewhat go back to normal. Yet this election spiraled out of control, beyond what’s expected even in today’s divisive political climate. What began as a student body election in which no Jews ran, turned into a referendum on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and provided cover for those who went past anti-Zionism into full-blown anti-Semitic conspiracy. It is shameful that a Student Government election could lead to such a flare-up of division and ignorance.
Yet the campaign revealed more than the fact that anti-Semitism is still around. It revealed to many Jewish students the peculiar intersection of what it means to be a Jew in college in America. Many of us are still white-passing, and don’t experience the everyday judgment on the basis of our appearance that other marginalized groups do. Jews are well-represented in the media and on the Supreme Court and have the privilege to be considered by some to simply be white.
But at the same time, neo-Nazis chant (as they did last summer in Charlottesville, Va.) “Jews will not replace us,” and closer to home, Texas Hillel has been vandalized in the past year. It’s counterproductive to divide marginalized groups, especially at a time when white supremacists are more emboldened than at any time in recent memory. Anti-Semitism takes different forms than any other prejudice, and even for white-passing Jews, privilege in one context does not invalidate marginalization in another. People should not have their oppression explained to them. Instead, all marginalized groups must truly work together against the most prevalent and dangerous form of hatred: white supremacy. Although the candidates supported by conspiracy theorists lost, there is more to be done together to fight prejudice and division.
Rachel Sasiene is a senior and Jason Taper is a junior at the University of Texas at Austin.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. To learn more about the column click here, and if you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.