“It Comes From Both Sides”: Antisemitism in New Paltz

Cartoon by Lianna Maley.

People trying to describe New Paltz in just a few words often use words like “liberal,” “hippy” and “accepting.” While some recognize that the town is liberal leaning, too many people erroneously believe New Paltz is a utopia, almost immune to hate or discrimination — a belief that doesn’t actually help anyone. Of the communities this ideology fails, Jewish people are heavily impacted. 

At both a national and local level, the plight of the Jewish community is often considered unimportant activism, even as rates of anti-semitism across America increase. Antisemitic attacks have been increasing since 2020, but many across the nation refuse to refer to attacks against Jewish people as an increase in antisemitism that needs to be addressed. 

Just last year, a swastika was found in Hasbrouck Park and anti-Semitic manifestos were brought to a synagogue and business in the area, as previously reported by the Oracle.

Last week, two Jewish, Israeli, Zionist survivors who were members of New Paltz Accountability (NPA) were ousted from the club because of their Zionist beliefs. NPA is a group dedicated to fighting against sexual violence on campus. They rose to popularity after hosting a forum about sexual violence and demanding that the school be more transparent in publishing statistics about who is harmed on campus. They were successful and the school now publishes those numbers, a success many would agree came about because two of the captivating, courageously honest speakers who spoke as survivors.

When explaining the perception to NPA that certain anti-Zionist rhetoric could have potential antisemitic implications, the survivors were asked to resign from their organizing roles in the club. For a club that values the input of survivors, the ousting of these members solely based on their religious/ political ideology can be seen as antisemitic in and of itself.

When NPA announced they would be removing the two Zionists for their beliefs, one member asked that they be willing to have a conversation with the Jewish Student Union present so that everyone could be on the same page about Zionism and whether it was an oppressive belief, but NPA declined, saying planning the meeting would take up too much time.

“I made the decision to send my resignation when I heard that NPA refused to meet with the Jewish Student Union. I felt like that was an official stance on their inclusion of Jewish voices,” says Ofek Preis, a Zionist third-year political science major who resigned from NPA before NPA removed her from the club. “They refused to talk to us about a conversation they started.”

Preis said in their letter of resignation that they now worry, “NPA is no longer a safe space for all survivors, as Jewish and Israeli survivors like myself will no longer feel comfortable associating with the organization if it continues to be run by the people who signed off on the message [firing the Zionist member].” 

“Having an organization like New Paltz Accountability is so important. The organization is a great idea and an important idea,” says Rabbi Plotkin, who has served the New Paltz community for 18 years. “The students who are running it are very well intentioned but they need to have accountability for what they do and the way they treat people… part of it is helping people who were traumatized and wronged to voice their stories and you can’t do that if you’re locking out a portion of the people.”

As mentioned previously, anti-Semitism unfortunately hasn’t been a stranger to political movements in New Paltz. Last year, Black Hammer, a national organization (with ties to New Paltz) fighting to end oppression against all colonized people, was found to champion strongly hateful rhetoric against Jewish people, calling them oppressors and saying they enjoyed burning Anne Frank’s diary to keep warm, as previously reported in the Oracle. Leaders of the organization called Anne Frank a Becky, a colonizer and a Karen. 

On a national level, antisemitism and antisemetic violence have been on the rise since 2020.

 A few weeks ago on Jan 15, 2022 four people were held hostage in Texas’ Beth Israel Congregation for over 11 hours. The FBI first said the attack wasn’t related to anti-Semitism, before changing their statement later to recognize, “This was not some random occurrence. It was intentional, it was symbolic and we’re not going to tolerate antisemitism in this country.”

For a college with one of the highest rates of Jewish student attendance in the nation, you’d expect an outpouring of support, displays of unity and communication from the school regarding available resources. But for the most part, there was silence.

Jewish history, tradition, culture and modern news are often left out of the classroom, leading many Americans to believe that the modern experience of Jewish people is not something to care much about. But silence has a booming impact. 

The school failed to notify students of this potential impending danger, nor make an announcement about available resources. The Jewish Federation of Ulster County launched a hotline to report antisemitic incidents after the swastika was found at Hasbrouck Park last year.

“Receiving three incident reports in the space of four weeks hastened our decision to launch the Hotline now,” Ron David Gold, the Federation’s president, explained as previously reported in the Oracle

Despite the resources and support that are available, the School failed to send an email to the student body on the matter, further allowing non-Jews to uphold their fantasy of living in a post-antisemitic town while simultaneously failing to unite in the ways they might’ve, had they known what was going on.

After the Oracle reached out to the School for a comment, Tanhena Pacheco Dunn, Chief Diversity Officer, said, “I think it is important as a community to be aware of anti-Semitism and to learn more about the historical and cultural impacts so that we can support those who experience anti-Semitism and so we can speak against it.  Resources and support for our Jewish community can be found through members of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Council, my office as Chief Diversity Officer and the Office of Intercultural Affairs.  The Bias Response process is also available.”

When asked what resources he recommends for Jewish students, the Rabbi said it was their own community. “I think this building [Chabad House] and the family we’ve built here is really the resource, the biggest resource… we do Shabbat dinners, we had a birthday party for Moses [this week], but none of those events are as important as the fact that there is the support and we have the safe space. The more that students are comfortable coming to these events, the more they’re comfortable coming for the support when they need the support.”

Many stereotypes associated with the Jewish community are considered benevolent ones — that Jews are wealthy and superbly privileged. But it’s clear that it isn’t only hostile stereotypes that can lead to major harm. Both benevolent and hostile stereotypes are predisposed to cause harm. The fact that Jewish people are considered too privileged to need support from others is a form of discrimination in and of itself.

In 2020, the Anti-Defamation League found that almost one in five Americans (19%) believe that Jewish people talk too much about the Holocaust. That rate is especially staggering because if it were to be true that Jewish people are talking an astronomical amount about the Holocaust, people aren’t listening. A survey by Claims Conference found that 22% of millenials (that’s one in five people who are currently between 22 and 40 years old) and 11% of adults either have not heard of or are not sure if they have ever heard of the Holocaust. 

According to the ADL, 2020 was the third highest year for hateful incidents against American Jews since they began tracking data in 1979.

David Goldenberg and Trent Spooltra, midwest regional directors for the ADL, say if the U.S. government wants to reduce the chances of threats like the hostage taking in Texas, Congress must increase funding for the federal nonprofit security grant program. The program invests in security measures for houses of worship. Its funding was cut in half recently in legislation, so in 2021 they only were able to respond to less than half of their applications for assistance. 

The U.S. government must deeply invest in the safety of all of its communities, especially those who are experiencing increased danger. Just because an act of terror happens in a house of worship doesn’t mean the only thing to do in response is pray. There must be tangible responses and major investments the government pours into preventing more acts of violence like these.

Issues pertaining to anti-Semitism are not discussed widely enough on campus or in America at large. If you’re reading this, we encourage you to step out of your comfort zone this week. Lean into some intersectional conversations in your classrooms or at your dinner table where you explore how glaring religious persecution still is in America.

Oftentimes, students are overwhelmed when starting social justice related work (often asking, “where do I start?”). We at the Oracle believe that the answer is threefold: First we must check our own implicit biases. You may ask yourself, “What beliefs do I currently hold about Jewish People? Are any of them hostile or benevolent stereotypes?” Second, we must educate ourselves. Read books by Jewish authors about their people’s experience, from the richness of culture, to the beauty of beliefs, to the very real generational trauma that is only exacerbated by current anti-Semitic acts. Third, we must put our votes and our money where our beliefs are and advocate for more funding for initiatives like the federal Nonprofit Security Grant Program discussed earlier.