“There’s never been a Jewish community that I’ve been a part of that hasn’t been vandalized with swastikas at some point … This is what happens to Jews in America,” Vassar Chabad Jewish Community (CJC) Board President Sylvan Perlmutter ’20 [full disclosure: Perlmutter is a columnist for the Miscellany News] shared in response to the question of why the organization planned an exhibition on contemporary anti-Semitism— broadly, prejudice directed toward Jews in recent times.
From Feb. 2 to 11, the CJC explored anti-Semitism across the political spectrum via an exhibition in the Old Bookstore. The exhibit offered students an opportunity to educate themselves about hate speech and marginalized communities through pictures. According to an emailed statement from CJC Vice President Yoni Auerbach ’20, “[The exhibit’s purpose] was to spark a much-needed conversation on our campus about the wide range of anti-Semitic tropes and recent incidents,” alluding to when a Dutchess County resident posted incendiary anti-Semitic posters on campus just last year, and other recent occurrences (“Dutchess local who posted anti-Semitic flyers at colleges banned,” The Poughkeepsie Journal, 09.10.2018).
The images displayed anti-Semitic comments and acts in the United States, the Middle East and Europe through tweets, articles and photographs. A highly visible space, The Old Bookstore provided exposure for the topic. Such a conspicuous display proved a key goal of CJC’s project in curating this exhibit. Perlmutter spoke to this point: “Appealing to people visually is important … [H] aving these images there, making everything accessible, vivid and in a place where people pass through [is] a way to integrate education pretty seamlessly into people’s routines.” Auerbach added that, with such visibility, “We can make [Vassar] a more welcoming environment for Jewish students who feel their difficulties are not addressed.”
Along with the space’s visual appeal, holding the exhibit in the Old Bookstore placed it among past notable political displays. CJC Board Member Alice Marbach ’21 commented via email, “We thought the Old Bookstore was a really important place, because we’d seen exhibits on political topics in the past there.” By existing in this location, the exhibit aligned anti-Semitism’s severitywith that of other forms of pernicious oppression.
CJC focused not only on the placement of the exhibit but also its content. Marbach highlighted the importance of depicting the discrimination that Jews face, which may be misunderstood by non-Jews. In reference to the stereotype of Jews as benefactors of white hegemony, Marbach stated: “Ironically, I think the conception of Jews as privileged can be a discrimination in itself—think about Soros being seen as ‘running the world’ with his money. It also seriously erases the experience of Jews of Color.” To avoid this misstep, CJC chose images to reflect the spectrum of discrimination that Jewish people face, regardless of the socioeconomic group to which they may belong.
The theme of countering misconceptions formed the core of this project. By subverting the perception of anti-Semitism as an isolated incident of the WWII era, the exhibit depicted how anti-Semitic thought has transformed—not disappeared “Talking about contemporary anti-Semitism is a way to get people out of a mid-20th-century view of anti-Semitism; to understand that it’s still relevant…because all forms of oppression and prejudice transform with the times,” said Perlmutter. While the manifestations have changed, anti-Semitism’s presence remains, and not just superficially. Perlmutter commented, “It’s not just a joke about a nose here, a joke about banks [t]here, but something that is actually embedded in our culture.”
Perlmutter acknowledged the importance of healing and reconciliation in overcoming acts of prejudice within a community, but emphasized that healing is only possible once individuals have confronted the prejudice and questioned their own role in enabling it. “In places like Vassar, people just skip to the healing and reconciliation element far too quickly … Individuals might not want to interrogate themselves on how they are complicit in certain systems of oppression, or how they are ignorant about certain issues.” Perlmutter concluded, “It’s important to get to a place where you can heal, but you need to do work first.”