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What Causes Genocide? A Perspective on Anti-Semitism at UC Davis

02/11/2015 12:40 am ET | Updated Apr 12, 2015

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"What causes genocide?"

Decades after the atrocities of the Holocaust, researchers and anthropologists alike have searched tirelessly for the definitive answer to this harrowing question.

One looks to not find a simple answer, but to find a solution -- a pretext for genocide, so as to prevent it and fulfill the wishes of "never again."

Researchers such as Ben Kiernan, director of the genocide studies program at Yale, have argued that "racism, religious prejudices, revivalist cults of antiquity...and idealization of social classes" are the roots of genocide. James Waller, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Keene State College, argued that nationalism and severe xenophobia were among main causes while Ervin Staub, professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts, has said that genocidal behavior stems from cultural stereotyping and devaluation of respective races.

Despite what these renowned researchers of genocide argue, there is a common denominator among their reasons.

Simply put, while the genesis of the Holocaust is rooted in the troubled political history of Europe during that time period, it cannot be denied that the justification for the systematic mass genocide of the Jewish people during World War II lies in, not the sociopathic behavior of the oppressors, but the simple racist stereotyping of the oppressed: anti-Semitism.

It started with anti-Semitism; it ended in death.

Have we forgotten?

You might ask: Why am I asking these broad questions about genocide and the Holocaust when the title of this blog suggests that I'm going to discuss the specific incident of anti-Semitism that occurred that the Alpha Epsilon Pi house at the University of California, Davis?

I believe it's because we need perspective. Perspective requires looking beyond one's time and history, to better understand the present and future.

We have to acknowledge the fact that despite decades of political leaders reminding us that the atrocities of the Holocaust will "never again" be brought upon humanity, recent anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses have turned the fears from the past, into fears of the future.

It's an absurd reality that many Jewish college students have to question: is my college safe for me?

In light of these questions, we need to eradicate the misconception that anti-Semitism is dead. Any acceptance that normalizes this behavior is another step forward towards a future that perpetrates discrimination against minorities.

It is of utmost importance that we resist it.

To brief you on the situation at UC Davis: on Jan. 31, the Jewish fraternity, Alpha Epsilon Pi, woke up to two swastikas painted at their doorsteps. While the perpetrator to this incident is still currently unknown, it would be later reported that the Hillel House at UC Davis was also met with anti-Semitic graffiti stating "grout out the Jews."

It comes at no coincidence that this came days after the student senate passed a controversial divestment resolution calling for the school to divest from businesses with an investment in Israel.

While most would view this incident as a singular anti-Semitic episode, the incident at UC Davis is part of a larger anti-Semitic beast incited by the controversial anti-Israel movement, known as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

Recurring anti-Semitic attacks on Jewish fraternities across the country tell a terrifying narrative of pervasive anti-Jew attitudes on college campuses.

It was no earlier that last October, after the holy day of Yom Kippur, when Emory University's chapter of AEPi was also met with swastika graffiti. Last July, the AEPi house at University of Oregon discovered swastika graffiti of the same nature on their mailboxes.

StandWithUs North American campus director, Brett Cohen, who specializes in Israel activism on North American campuses, said there has been a significant increase in anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses.

According to Cohen, during the 2013 year there have been a number of 107 incidents of anti-Semitic and anti-Israel incidents on college campuses. In contrast, in just the first semester of the 2014-2015 school year, they have been 114 incidents.

"What is shocking is that we have already surpassed last year's numbers just within the first semester this year," said Cohen. "Pro-Israel students are facing massive intimidation and outright expressions of hatred, exemplified with the swastikas at UC Davis after their divestment hearing. You can't expect to put a nation through a biased show like divestment and not expect to foment hatred for it on campus."

The divestment campaign against university involvement with Israel has proven to divide college campuses and distance students away from valuable dialogue about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is this divisive nature that has pushed a narrative that refuses to acknowledge the complicated history and nature of the conflict to deliberately demonize Israel, and those who call it home.

In extreme cases, Jewish students and pro-Israel students alike have been met with intimidation and accusations of being "baby killers," "occupiers" and "apartheid supporters."

In a particularly disturbing case at the University of North Carolina, Jewish student Neili Eggert was spat at and told to "burn in an oven" when she wore a shirt signifying her support for Israel. To list another example of anti-Israel aggression: Temple University student, Daniel Vessal, was physically and verbally assaulted when he approached the table of Students for Justice in Palestine and retreated after allegations of being called a "Zionist pig."

The anti-Semitism fostered by the divestment campaign doesn't end at students, but extends to professors also. It was Temple University professor, Alessio Lerro, who was caught engaging in highly anti-Semitic dialogue, stating that Jewish scholars manipulate academia to their own liking. Lerro was also the center of controversy when he posted a Facebook comment questioning the death toll of Jews during the Holocaust. Lerro has stated his enthusiastic support for divestment.

While it's inaccurate to say that all divestment supporters on college campuses are anti-Semitic, it's socially irresponsible to deny that the divestment campaign fosters an environment where anti-Semitism and hate are easier to occur.

The divestment campaign, at its very core, whether supporters know it or not, calls for the destruction of the state of Israel. This mortifying sentiment was most controversially proven when UC Davis student senate member, Azka Fayaaz, posted on Facebook after the divestment resolution passed, "Israel will fall insha'Allah."

Nonetheless, this hate doesn't define the community it targets.

Julia Reifkind, president of Aggies for Israel, the pro-Israel group on the UC Davis campus, stands firm against divestment and refuses to let hateful acts define her and her community.

"The divestment resolution has instigated many acts of intolerance on campus against the Jewish community, however on a larger scale, it doesn't truly affect our narrative," said Reifkind. "We have a bright future. Our mission always has been, and will continue to be, promoting peace on campus and preserving the everlasting bond between the United States and Israel. The strength of our community will never wither in the face of discrimination, and we will continue to fight for our identities and our community while supporting the state of Israel."

The tale of Jewish life on college campuses isn't defined by hate, but it's defined by the perseverance and hope in the face of it. To live, be alive and promote peace is the reason why we exist.

Let's ask again: "What causes genocide?"

While it's true that the grotesque anti-Semitic stereotyping of Jews started the genocide of the Jewish people, Jewish college students today face a new type of anti-Semitism, however as we can see, it has evolved with time.

We neglect to mention another part of the equation. One of the larger, problematic reasons why genocide was allowed to happen.

We have to acknowledge that the world stood by, as Jews overflowed immigration offices in Germany, begging for immigration visas.

The world stood by, as the Nazis carried out an economic boycott targeting Jewish businesses and professionals.

The world stood by, as Jewish businesses were marked with Stars of David, and signs that stated, "the Jews are our misfortune."

The world stood by, as divisive divestment resolutions divided our college campuses and incited hate.

There is always a historical context.

We must not stand by.

I refuse to remain indifferent.

Anti-Semitism, as a culture, only thrives when there is apathy. It thrives on indifference; it fosters on bystanders. Elie Wiesel, famed survivor and writer of the Holocaust said, "Indifference, to me, is the epitome of evil."

We have to stand up against anti-Semitism with the same vigor and voracity in which we have fought, and are fighting, racism here in the states. It's our civic duty to oppose systems that perpetrate the marginalization and dehumanization that justified genocide 70 years ago.

It's our duty to fight this injustice everywhere.

Unless we do so, we can only envision a future that history itself can retell for us.