A lot of my freshman year Welcome Week is now something of a blur in my memory because of my constant, utter confusion around where I was going and what I was doing. But there’s one thing I remember clearly.
I was pregaming in a room in my hall with several other freshman girls, whom I’d met and was friendly with but didn’t really know. Between shots of the vodka my hostess’s parents bought her before they left, I mentioned to her how nervous I was to ask my professor if it was all right for me to miss lecture so I could be at services for Rosh Hashanah. A look of surprise crossed her face — she hadn’t realized I was Jewish.
“Listen, we won’t have any problems as long as you’re not another jappy f–king b–ch. This school has too many of those already.”
I laughed weakly, trying to hide my internal panic behind a sip of sickly-sweet pink lemonade chaser. My hostess poured herself another shot as if nothing had happened. I made my excuses to leave as soon as I felt I could safely do so without her realizing I’d been insulted and called my mother, crying.
Welcome to the University of Michigan. Don’t be so outwardly Jewish. That’s b–chy.
I’d never actually met an antisemite before. Sure, I knew antisemitism was a thing, but only conceptually. I’d grown up in a suburb that had a large Jewish population. Until that moment, I had taken wholly for granted the strength of my Jewish community at home, both inside and outside of my family’s temple.
Honestly, I had expected the University to be more of the same. The University has long had a reputation for its strong and welcoming Jewish community, so much so that Hillel, the foundation for Jewish campus life, ranks the University as a top-five Jewish school in the country. Lots of kids from my area — from my temple, even — end up at the University. To my mind, I had no reason to believe my experience as a Jewish person on campus would be all that different from what it had been at home.
But maybe, starting college in the middle of the Trump era, I should have known better. Hate crimes, after all, including antisemitic hate crimes, have been on the rise since the now-former president won the Republican nomination. Though he himself rarely expressed hatred for Jewish people explicitly, in the wake of his success, his supporters no longer felt the need to self-censor their own bigotry, antisemitic or otherwise. I spoke about this phenomenon over Zoom with Jamie Moshin, a lecturer in the Department of Communication & Media who specializes in rhetoric and American Jewish identity.
“In so many ways, I think Trump calls in this audience that ends up being like the Proud Boys and the Charlottesville marchers who are looking for someone to speak their language, and he spoke their language,” Moshin said. “He didn’t speak about it as loudly as they did, but I think he gave them the courage to speak loudly.”
Looking back over the exhausting events of the last five years through that lens, it’s easy to pick out the hateful pattern Moshin’s talking about. It’s there in the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pa., in the plot to bomb a Colorado synagogue, in the desecration of a Jewish cemetery in Grand Rapids, Mich. In our own community in Ann Arbor, it’s also there during Saturday protests outside local synagogues during Shabbat morning services.
But I can also pick it out of my personal life with fairly little effort. Though thankfully they’re not nearly as explicit, the threads of discrimination are still there.
The threads were there during an instance in my sorority rush process. I remember walking happily out of what would become my sorority for the first time, and hearing the girl in line behind me mutter, “Ew, I hated them. They were so… Jewish.”
Yes, my sorority is historically Jewish, and yes, most of our members on campus are Jewish. But I’d never heard Jewishness sound like a slur, never heard it sound as derogatory as it did when it was coming out of her mouth on that sunny, nerve-wracking September afternoon. To me, the word had always been neutral: Either someone was Jewish or wasn’t. Out of her mouth, it wasn’t an adjective. It was an insult.
The threads were there when I proudly wore my new AEPhi shirt on campus the day after receiving my bid, which is the same day that my Welcome Week hostess stopped speaking to me. Before, we’d exchanged awkward hellos in the halls. Now all of a sudden, it was like I didn’t exist. One thing had changed: I was in AEPhi. I had branded myself, in her eyes, as a “jappy f–king b–ch.”
It was not a major loss — anyone who doesn’t respect my religion or my right to be at the institution I worked so hard to get into has no place in my life. Still, it was something: just that little thread of prejudice, running through my college experience.
I’m not the only one to feel like that. I spoke to LSA sophomore Yonit Robin, Michigan Hillel’s finance chair and Delta Phi Epsilon member, which is also a historically Jewish sorority, about her experience in Jewish campus life. She, too, had been branded as a “JAP” before.
Though the term was originally a derogatory slur against Japanese people during World War II, it eventually came to have an additional meaning, which is unrelated but common: the Jewish American Princess. The JAP is essentially a rude caricature of a normal young Jewish woman, who, because of her religion and hobbies, is automatically deemed spoiled and bratty. Generalizations around shopping, bat mitzvahs, sororities and summer camp abound; so does snark around alleged sexual promiscuity. An Urban Dictionary definition of a JAP reads, “this girl dresses only in clothing that costs more than it’s worth (ex. Abercrombie, uggs, etc.) and is always getting what they want. The Jap is constantly shopping and buying this overpriced clothing, along with a ridiculous amount of jewelry and expensive, needless crap. The Jap is known for her very annoying, nagging voice.”
“I think that there’s an assumption that, because you’re in a Jewish sorority, you automatically fall under that category,” Robin said. “There’s kind of a stereotype that kind of comes along with that, which I wasn’t really aware of before I joined, but there’s definitely a stereotype that comes up a lot of the time.”
It’s sort of a Catch-22: Jews historically weren’t welcome in traditional Fraternity & Sorority Life (FSL), so they formed their own organizations. Even now that they’re at least nominally welcomed into the houses that once shunned them, many Jewish students feel more comfortable in historically Jewish organizations like sororities AEPhi, DPhiE and Sigma Delta Tau and fraternities such as Alpha Epsilon Pi or Zeta Beta Tau, which remain mostly Jewish. These houses also often provide Jewish programming such as Shabbat dinners, though they do now accept non-Jews. And so students in these houses, for choosing organizations where they feel most at home, are often judged for their perceived lack of effort at fitting in as well as criticized for their reluctance to assimilate and explore outside the bubble of sororities and summer camps — even though they’ve been historically unwelcome outside of it.
The double standards surrounding Jewish FSL don’t stop there though, as Deborah Dash Moore, University professor of History and Judaic Studies, explained to me over Zoom. When largely Christian or non-religious fraternities have lavish formals in Chicago or Canada, they’re college kids having fun. When predominantly Jewish houses have similar events, they’re flaunting their money, an accusation that plays on other harmful stereotypes of Jewish people as greedy and self-serving. When largely Christian or non-religious sorority girls wear expensive, fashionable clothing, they’re cool and trendy, but when Jewish sorority girls do the same, they’re JAPs “spending daddy’s money.”
These stereotypes extend beyond Jewish students in FSL, but it’s in this social sphere that we often see them more clearly, Moore explained.
“It’s not just Jewish behavior, it’s the intersection of Jewish ethnicity with class standing with age of the students and what is considered to be appropriate or okay for 18, 19, 20-year-old men to do, and conversely for the same age women to do,” Moore said. “There’s a double standard, especially if they’re (Christian FSL students) white. It’s not just their class standing and their behavior, but that they’re white: They’re part of the dominant group.
Moore further commented on the role of these stereotypes, saying they’re a way to still label Jewish students as outsiders.“What these Jewish stereotypes tend to do is to signal that Jews are not part of the dominant group,” Moore said. “They’re ways to put down Jews in their aspirations to join this upper class standing with which comes the license to misbehave. Jews don’t have a license to misbehave.”
The JAP stereotype is also interesting because it actually originates from Jewish men in the mid-20th century complaining about how much more demanding it was to date Jewish girls. The reason these women were allegedly higher-maintenance was because of American consumer culture. For women especially, visible consumption such as fancy clothes and nice cars were (and indeed, still are) status symbols. Jews at the time, still not quite assimilated into the mainstream in the U.S., wanted to be seen in that ideal American light. So they turned to visible consumerism as their avenue, thus gaining themselves a reputation as spoiled.
It’s no accident that this insult was directed specifically towards Jewish women: The JAP stereotype is also rooted in misogyny. Initially, this was borne out of resentment from Jewish men. But soon, the JAP stereotype was co-opted into the common vernacular, and there it grew from semi-joking insult into a full-on derogatory term. While the term was hurtful coming from Jewish people, it is unequivocally offensive coming from non-Jews.
Even more concerningly, in the common vernacular, the JAP stereotype plays into the centuries-old antisemitic myth that Jews are controlling all of the world’s banks and money for their own profit. These stereotypes have been used to violently harm and discriminate against Jewish people for centuries.
“(The JAP) is an antisemitic stereotype, there is no question,” Moore said. “That then gets spread to the larger society and picked up by non-Jews as well … That’s a real problem. It’s a stereotype. Wealthy, young Jewish women who spend money, that doesn’t mean that they’re JAPs. It means that they’re wealthy, young Jewish women who spend conspicuously.”
Still, though, these harmful stereotypes persist in everyday language. Sometimes it’s out of ignorance. Sometimes it’s out of genuine hatred. Sometimes it’s somewhere in between. But the threads of antisemitism persist.
Perhaps it should be less surprising that these stereotypes have taken on so strongly in the state of Michigan, which has a storied history of racism and antisemitism from Henry Ford to Father Charles Coughlin to the KKK. And on top of that come the issues around out-of-state admissions, which play into long-standing contempt for wealthy Jewish people from urban areas. This contempt is not unique to Michigan by any means; the Anti-Defamation League reports that similar prejudices are widespread across the country, and not limited to the non-wealthy.
The state of Michigan has been decreasing public education funding for decades, so the University has turned to out-of-state students, who pay nearly double the in-state tuition, to keep its finances stable. This has been criticized by those who argue that the out-of-staters can pay their way into the spots that should be going to in-state students.
And since a significant proportion of Jewish students are from out-of-state and are often fairly wealthy, these pre-existing tensions then intersect in ugly ways with the perception of Jews as rich, greedy and self-serving to breed contempt in many against the University’s Jewish population. None of this is to say that in-state students are less wealthy and/or less tolerant; but instead to point out how this important debate plays into long-standing antisemitic tropes.
“That type of resentment is partly a class resentment,” Moore said. “Working-class and middle-class Michigan natives do lose seats to students who come from, say, the coasts, and many of these students are Jewish, they pay a lot more money … I’ve had in-state students who say to me, ‘This was the first time I ever met a Jew.’ And they only know what they’ve read, what they’ve heard, what’s in the air.”
The stereotype just becomes the most logical answer to these questions in a larger society with baked-in antisemitism, Moshin said.
“If you’re someone who has not had a lot of experience with Jewish people, there are so many narratives about Jews and money,” Moshin said. “That is such a common narrative that gets told over and over and over again, and so it’s part of our cultural knowledge of what it means to be Jewish. So when people go on very limited knowledge and very limited experience with actual Jewish people, and what they have is this story, then I think you read into that elitism, you read into that Jewishness, and it just becomes part of the cognitive schema. We’ve built up these cultural narratives that we immediately tap into, especially if we don’t have a particularly deep knowledge of it. So it just becomes the easy explanation for everything.”
The results of this prejudice can be easy to miss if you’re not looking out for it. The insults and stereotypes are hidden deeper in the subtext of many conversations.
Both Rabbi Fully Eisenberger, director of the Jewish Resource Center on campus, and Tilly Shemer, the executive director of University Hillel, discussed with me their efforts to counter this prejudice and make their organizations havens for Jewish students on campus. They’ve expressed how they’ve had to try to help students who have felt attacked for their faith on campus.
“That line of when something crosses over into antisemitism can differ for different students,” Shemer said. “Whether people realize it or not, there’s hateful and offensive language that can be used towards Jewish students that can feel more painful to them as a minority group, and it’s important for Jewish students to be able to have the space to share with their campus community when they feel targeted and when they feel offended.
“Hillel is a good resource to go to when students feel targeted or feel like they have experienced antisemitism, because we will support students in listening to their story, helping them understand what felt antisemitic about the situation, and helping them articulate … how that situation made them feel as a Jewish student,” Shemer continued.
Jewish students at Michigan, who make up about a quarter of the undergraduate population, are incredibly lucky compared to students of some other institutions. The University has multiple resources and centers for Jewish life on campus, thriving Jewish FSL and a plethora of courses on the Jewish experience not only through the Judaic Studies department but through departments like History, Political Science and Communications as well. We, as Jewish Michigan students, have more choices than we could hope for in carving out our Jewish identity on campus.
But that can also be incredibly overwhelming on such a huge campus, especially for Jewish students who aren’t sure to what degree they want to involve themselves in the University’s wide-ranging Jewish community. There’s a long-running joke in the American Jewish community that all Jews know people in common. “Jewish geography” is the sorta-joking, sorta-not-joking game we play when we meet each other to find out who those mutual friends are. But when many Jewish students come to Michigan already knowing people, be it from youth groups, schools, summer camps or any number of other programs, Jewish geography can start to feel like an Olympic sport.
I spoke with Engineering freshman Josh Goldberg on the phone about how overwhelming that climate can be. Goldberg is from Grand Rapids, Mich., and grew up in a much smaller Jewish community. It was so small that he was the only Jewish student at his large public high school.
“It was kind of crazy for me coming to Michigan and suddenly meeting all these other Jews,” Goldberg said, laughing. “It’s like nothing I was ever used to before.”
Campus has been especially tense, Eisenberger says, as criticisms of Israel and the United States’ relationship with Israel have heightened in recent years. This is not to say that criticizing Israel is necessarily antisemitic — it’s not — but for Jewish Americans, the Israeli question is incredibly complex, and the stereotypes around American Jews and Israel can be intensely hurtful.
Many American Jews feel a connection to Israel and believe in the Jewish people’s right to an autonomous, self-determined state. But there’s a common misconception that this support is all-encompassing, that American Jews will not see Israel at fault, even when that may be the case, because their loyalty to Israel outweighs their loyalty to the United States.
An example that comes to mind here is a discussion in my political science class on the Arab-Israeli conflict during syllabus week this semester. To open the discussion, the professor asked us why, from what we had seen and read, the U.S. supported Israel.
The first person to be called on immediately spoke of some massive “Jewish lobby” that exerted powerful sway on Capitol Hill. He also said that many American Jews are single-issue Israel voters — in other words, that their vote is decided entirely by the candidates’ stances on relations with Israel.
Both of those statements are categorically untrue. The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is a pro-Israel lobby that is very influential on the Hill. But it’s not an exclusively Jewish organization — it consistently gets support from Christian lawmakers like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and Senator Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., — and it is far from the powerful lobby conspiracy that my classmate alluded to. I inhaled so sharply that Zoom felt the need to remind me that I was on mute — was I trying to say something? I was, and quickly unmuted myself; several of the other Jewish students in the class did the same. Fortunately for the productivity of that day, the professor got there first and quickly shut down that line of discussion.
Accusations of dual loyalty have plagued American Jews for generations. There’s long been a sneaking suspicion that we are Jews first and Americans second, not the other way around — that we care more about Israel’s path forward than the progress of the United States. It is rooted in the time when Jews weren’t fully integrated into American society, the time when Jews weren’t fully considered American citizens because many came here as immigrants fleeing pogroms in Eastern Europe and later, Nazi persecution.
“Dual loyalty is just another sort of antisemitic canard,” Moshin said. “But I think the other reason why Jews are seen as not particularly American is because we’re Jews and not Christians. Because [the United States] a very Christian place, so if you don’t participate in these narratives, that is also part of what separates us to this national ethos of being American, because I think there is this idea that if you’re a Jew, you don’t fully belong in that way.”
Navigating all of this can sometimes feel like a minefield. It does for me, certainly. How do I balance the loving, supportive friends I’ve made in my sorority with the accusations that we’re all spoiled brats? How do I defend them without coming off as the “jappy f–king b–ch” myself? How do I balance my belief in my people’s right to a Jewish state with my reservations about some of the things that have been done in its name?
It’s a tough line to walk. I constantly feel like I’m teetering on the edge.
Honestly, that’s really scary for me. In a lot of ways, I’ve become more myself at college. Still, figuring out my Jewish identity has become difficult and complicated in ways it has never been before. There’s a new, trickier kind of Jewish geography to navigate here. And I have no idea how to play the game.
None of this is to say that Jews are the only ones facing discrimination, or that we see the worst of it. The hatred towards Black people and Muslims has also skyrocketed in recent years, and anti-Asian bigotry and violence has become increasingly prevalent as well, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. All of that is horrible; I don’t want to diminish that.
But I don’t want to diminish other students’ and my experiences with antisemitism, either. Moshin told me that antisemitism, as a form of hatred, can often be seen as less repulsive, that it is more easily swept under the rug because American Jews have come to be perceived as white and/or as a model minority of sorts.
“There’s something about the presence of Jews in America that makes these stereotypes seem like they can be joked about and like they can be accessible, but the truth is that they’ve been around forever, and people have used them forever,”Moshin said. “I don’t think that it gets the same kind of attention as other ‘isms’ do. I think the primary reason it gets kind of swept under the rug is that in the American imaginary, Jews have become white, so therefore, the stuff about them really isn’t as problematic, because they are not a marginalized group. So this idea is that Jews have made it, that it’s all fine, that they’re part of the American dream.”
I’ve felt that way — that the hate I’d experienced wasn’t as bad as the hate experienced by other people and other groups. So I ignored what I felt, because I’m fortunate: I’m perceived as white, and I grew up with so much privilege. I’m beyond lucky for all of that.
There’s a song in the Passover liturgy called “Dayenu.” It’s a song of thanksgiving, of gratitude for all of the miracles God has performed for the Jewish people. “Dayenu” translates literally to mean “it would have been enough for us” — in other words, the Jewish people would have been thankful for whatever God gave them.
But in my family, the word “dayenu” has taken on its own, colloquial meaning: simply “enough.” Dayenu: stop talking. That’s enough. Let’s move on.
Here is what I want to move on from: the hate on my college campus I experience because of the God I choose to worship and the values I choose to uphold. Maybe this kind of hate is a little sneakier, more carefully hidden in the subtext. But the stereotype of the Jewish American Princess is hate. The stereotype that Jews control the world’s banks and money is hate. The stereotype that American Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the U.S. is hate. Hate is hate is hate is hate.