Community helps UT Jewish students combat anti-Semitism
By Savanna Dunning
AUSTIN — Two weeks ago, the Jewish father of University of Texas sophomore Henry Wheatley-Rutner visited an Austin workshop to have his jukebox fixed. After multiple visits to the business, his father eventually looked up to find a large flag emblazoned with a swastika hanging on the office wall.
“Just hearing the story about something that happened to him a few days before, I immediately felt unsafe,” Wheatley-Rutner said.
Reports of anti-Semitic incidents in the United States increased almost 90 percent from 2016 to 2017, according to an April Anti-Defamation League audit. In Texas, the number of reported anti-Semitic incidents in 2017 had already surpassed the total amount reported from each of the previous two years by April, making it the state with the fifth highest number of reported incidents, behind New York, California, Florida, and Massachusetts.
“My mother has told me not to share my ethnicity with people just because she fears, in this political climate, especially in the South, generally speaking, that it could lead to problems or anti-Semitic behavior,” UT junior Hannah Clark said.
This pattern of anti-Semitism has marked UT’s campus throughout the year, from the quickly halted Nov. 4 protest on the Main Mall that sought to copy the anti-Semitic and racist Charlottesville protests, to the attack on Texas Hillel, the Jewish community center, in March.
UT was quick to respond to both of these incidents with increased support for its Jewish students and faculty. After the recent protest, President Greg Fenves sent a campus-wide email condemning hate groups. In response to the attack on Texas Hillel, the university passed a resolution in solidarity with its Jewish community.
Maiya Chard-Yaron, the executive director of Texas Hillel said the connection between the UT Jewish community and the university helps foster a more comfortable atmosphere for Jewish students and faculty.
“We have very strong relationships with the university administration and religious and cultural groups on campus and I think that that helps to create an environment where we’re showing that being a part of this university means having relationships with people who are different than you and that we’re all apart of this university community together,” Chard-Yaron said. “That’s something we seek to model on the organizational level and hopefully it trickles down to students.”
Despite the support of the Jewish community by university administration, the Jewish publication the Algemeiner listed UT as the 34th worst college for Jewish students to attend in the United States in 2016, pointing to Anti-Zionist protests and the student body’s “generally apathetic” attitude toward Israel.
“We’re very underrepresented here and I feel like no one really understands us but us,” Clark said. “I feel like that miscommunication and lack of education is somewhat detrimental and can misinform the goyim (non-Jewish people) about us.”
Due to the relatively small proportion of Jewish students at UT, some students suggest that a lack of experience with the culture makes it harder for non-Jewish students to understand and empathize with them.
“I think it really does come down to the numbers game,” UT graduate student Julia Simon said. “In your day-to-day experiences, the chances of you interacting with a Jewish colleague or Jewish friend are just slim.”
Around 3,000 Jewish students study at UT, according to the Texas Hillel website. Even though they only account for about 7 percent of the university population, they still make up the largest population of Jewish students in the region.
“When you do have a community, I think, in any sense, whether it be Jewish or another religious group or any other faith group or literally any other community, there’s power in numbers,” Simon said.
Simon, a New York native who studied in Washington D.C. prior to moving to Texas for graduate school, recalled researching the extent of the Jewish community in UT and Austin with her parents before relocating.
“To phrase it differently, if I was considering University XYZ in another state in the South that didn’t have such a vibrant Jewish community, I might hesitate,” Simon said. “I know I feel more comfortable in a Jewish community. It’s something I seek out and if the numbers don’t add up it might not be the right move for me.”
Savana Dunning is a journalism student at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow her on Twitter @savanaish.