I remember my first experience with antisemitism like it was yesterday.
With the naivete that only a college freshman could possess, I walked into the basement of Reynolds Hall at the University of Chicago, where the French club was conducting its first meeting. I did not speak a word of French, but that was beside the point. I sat with excitement as my upperclassmen peers exchanged words in French over a Trader Joe’s baguette and jam, feeling like my fantasy of romantic college academia was finally coming to life. It didn’t.
I was stopped in my tracks when I heard a familiar word cut through the French—“Nazi.” I must’ve misheard, I thought.
Interjecting in English, I asked quite directly, “Are you guys talking about Nazis?” Chuckles followed as I stumbled through an explanation: “I’m just asking, because… you know… I’m Jewish. I had great-grandparents who died in the Holocaust.”
My declaration caught the attention of a particular classmate—a student who happened to have been born and raised in Germany. He gave me a knowing look, like he was sharing a joke with a close friend, and then said, “You know, back in Germany, we don’t say that your great grandparents died in the Holocaust. We say they took an extended vacation to Germany and never came back.”
The room went silent.
All eyes were on me.
I was frozen as a hundred thoughts raced through my mind. I felt the pressure of the entire French club—nobody knew how to react, and they were waiting for me to make the first move. The German student continued the conversation with a chuckle that seemed to spread across the room. Without knowing what I was doing, without even deciding to do it, I chuckled along quietly. Anything to get all those eyes off me. I kept talking with my classmates like nothing had happened. But all the while I sat there, stuck in time. My friend shot me a glance that seemed to say, “Are you okay?” I didn’t know.
As soon as the meeting ended, I left as quickly as my legs could carry me, and I called my mother to tell her what had happened. I’ll never forget the moment I first asked her, “Mom, was that antisemitism?”
My mother was not frozen in time. She was not overtaken by silence. She was in a state of anger that I’d never seen from her before. “Julia, that certainly was antisemitism,” she assured me. “You need to do something. You need to report it to your school. You need to do something.”
Instead, I did nothing. I couldn’t—I didn’t know how to. I never reported the incident to my school. I never confronted him. But I also never attended another French club meeting again.
Because the feeling that struck me at that moment wasn’t anger. It was shame. I sat in that room, so oblivious to the reality around me. I allowed myself, my people, my history to be the butt of a bad joke. I was so full of fear that I laughed along just to get the eyes off me. How shameful of a nice Jewish girl to allow herself to be subjected to such ridicule without standing up for herself?
It would take me many months before I’d have the confidence to even report an incident of antisemitism, let alone speak out against it. In that time, I’d face far worse than I ever could have imagined . I would be harassed, and I would be bullied. I would be threatened, and I would be doxed.
But it is this first story that sticks with me so vividly.
Looking back now, two years later, I see the situation for what it was. I had no reason to feel such shame. I was just a kid who didn’t know how to grapple with her first experience with hatred. It was my classmates, the people who sat and stared, who deserved to feel shame.
But it is unlikely they even remember that day."
I, on the other hand, never wanted to feel that sort of helplessness again. And I resolved to do something about it.
Today, my life looks very different than it did when I was a college freshman. I’ve grown out of that fear. Now, I run a nonprofit organization called Jewish on Campus, designed to help other students fight their fear, too. With a team of Jewish students from around the world, we’ve come together to combat antisemitism through education, grassroots organizing, and social media campaigning. We empower our community more than any act of antisemitism could defeat us.
In the two years since that incident, I’ve heard the stories of students around the world who have had similar experiences to mine. At first, it all seemed quite harrowing. Antisemitism has grown on a global scale, and at first, the Jewish population seemed too small to contend with it. But has that not always been so? Have Jews not always been the everlasting underdog—surviving despite all odds pointing to certain destruction? That’s the legacy I draw my hope from: not a legacy of unrelenting persecution, but of unrelenting survival, despite that persecution.
To be sure, our modern era of antisemitism pales in comparison to the horrors of our past—but that doesn’t diminish the threat it poses to our future. We must not feel shame, but instead feel the pride that comes with millennia of survival despite all odds. We must continue that legacy.
I still remember the feeling deep in my chest that day in French club. It has not left me. I hope that it never will. It reminds me of how far I’ve come.
In October 2021, the World Jewish Congress (WJC) and Jewish on Campus (JOC) announced a joint partnership to amplify the voices and strengthen the actions of college students who identify antisemitic occurrences at their schools. The two organizations will provide support to Jewish student communities internationally, which expands the Jewish on Campus network as well as WJC’s relationships with Jewish student communities.