Jewish, in Greek Life

Ashley Hermalin
January 19, 2022

I can remember the exact moment the bubble popped. Ignorance dripped away like raindrops on a windowpane. I remember my face falling from my excited smile into a timid yet irritated pressed line.

I was in my floor’s common room during my second semester of university. I was with Keegan and Rebecca; they were my floormates but they were also my soon to be sorority sisters. We were pledging together. We were sisters.

We were talking about summer plans. Keegan just told us she was planning on working at the local swimming pool near her house again, this year she would be a supervisor.

My best friend Sarah lives in Israel; I hadn’t seen her in two years and was planning on going on Birthright and then staying with her for a week or so before traveling more.

“I’m going to visit my friend in Israel-”

“You mean Palestine?” Rebecca interrupted me. Never before had she mentioned anything about the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Of course, this topic has always taken up a lot of space in my life. But it wasn’t until university that it became clear that my views on the region differed from my peers. I have friends and family there; people that I clench my mother’s hand about when I WhatsApp them to ask if they’re okay.

The next week, we had a pledge date with one of the frats where soon-to-be initiated members got to know each other. We watched Hereditary. Just as the sister’s head was disconnected from the body I heard one of the girls say, “Oh! You’re Muslim? Ashley is Jewish, do you hate her?”

I could feel my body tremble with anxiety. It wasn’t that I didn’t want people knowing I was Jewish; I’m so proud of my heritage. I wasn’t scared of some sort of argument or act of hate being directed at me.

The girl said it so bluntly. It was a fun experiment to see if someone replied they hated me for being Jewish. It was funny to her.

She didn’t know about the old man that donates thousands of dollars to the Toronto Holocaust memorial being attacked with a knife. She didn’t know about the bomb threats at my school, forcing us to take cover in the primary school down the street and fear to return to the building the next day. Or the bomb threat at the local Jewish community center that had my youth group, BBYO, cancelled that week. Or the brick that was thrown through the window of the local synagogue, or the swastika painted on it, or the other brick thrown through the same window immediately after repair.

The Muslim boy in question, Aasim, was a really nice guy, “is this really how we want to spend our night?” he asked me, “I’ve never even been to the Middle East, have you?” Instead of talking about the politics in a country neither of us had ever been to, we connected over the string wrapped around both of our souls, drawing us to visit our homeland.

For many people I met in university, I was the first Jew they’d ever met. One girl, Mary, had seen a joke about Jews on Family Guy, and told me she had never met a Jew before but would love to. I told her I was.

“Oh my god! I found one!” She exclaimed while throwing her arms around me.

I hugged back.

Nothing could have shaken me like the fraternity mixer in November 2019. The theme was yearbook, where everyone wore white and spent the night running around with markers signing outfits.

I wrote “i LiKE RocKS” on my no-longer-friend’s shirt, she was a geology major. Another one of my sisters had one of the older girls write “good catholic girl,” with a small penis drawn underneath it, a homage to her time in Catholic school, she told me.

But then there was Ben’s shirt.

He was the only Jewish member that they’d ever had. Ben was a pledge, meaning he wasn’t officially in yet, but was going through the grueling process to earn his right to represent the fraternity. Everyone had heard the whispers about the humiliating and dangerous shit the brothers made them do.

A girl pointed it out to me. She asked me why they did that. She saw clothes like that in the movies before and she knew something was wrong.

They drew a Star of David on his chest and stripes up and down his shirt.

I went over to the couch he was sitting on alone, footsteps light despite how heavy my body felt. I introduced myself, commented on his shirt and showed him the blue hamsa that hung on my neck. My cousin bought me the necklace on his Birthright trip and it was our own symbol of alliance. Then, I asked him about what just happened.

“Oh, they’re just fucking with me,” he told me, “Its just hazing you know? They’re my brothers. They love me.”

I know that if they loved him they wouldn’t have made him look like a Holocaust victim in 2019.

Everything was calm for a while. Of course, there was an event I was expected to attend that landed on the same date as a Jewish holiday. Even though I sent an email beforehand saying I couldn’t make the event, I was met with a message to “just leave my seder for twenty minutes.” But I could deal with that. I wouldn’t consider myself religious but I was the most religious girl in the sorority. It wasn’t that I was Jewish, it was that they were agnostic.

My sorority started a new initiative in 2021: a diversity, equity and inclusion board. I, along with three other girls, were the heads. I was the only Jew; two others were People of Color; the remaining was a girl named Annie. We had a mix of opinions and thoughts on how to make a safe and inclusive space.

On Holocaust education day, I was asked to write an educational piece for the sorority. I wrote from the Jewish perspective but mentioned other parties that had been attacked in the Holocaust; the Romas, the LGBTQ+ community, the disabled and more.

One of my sisters was upset because she is Slovakian and lost family in the Holocaust. She sent me to standards, an elected official in the sorority that deals with internal problems when someone feels a member has done wrong. I told her how sorry I was and offered to work together to create an educational source for the sorority on Slovakian persecution. She asked me to retract my original piece and issue a public apology.

During spring of 2021, tensions rose in Israel. Instagram activism skyrocketed. Infographics, true, false, biased, and even joking, circulated. It was all I posted, it was all anyone posted.

The diversity board voted to use our platform on Instagram to post unbiased awareness campaigns. The sister in charge of the account reposted anti-Zionist and antisemitic infographics she had gotten from current and alumnus sisters.

Much of the alumni from three years before me were Jewish. One had swiped up and criticized the account for posting anti-anything content. “This is an inclusive club,” she wrote, “You cannot be inclusive when you are asking people to change their beliefs to be in it. Take it down. This is so disrespectful to members and alum.”

The sister in charge of the account screenshotted the message and sent it into the diversity boards group chat.

“@Ashley, explain.”

I said so many people are so far removed from the situation; even I, bottle-fed information about the conflict, still didn’t feel knowledgeable enough to share a public opinion on the matter and teach people about it.

I offered to send them resources I found helpful. I told them that if we wanted to say anything, we should direct it to supporting victims on both ends and advocate for peace between the people.

Annie told the board to ignore the slew of oncoming messages coming from alum, keep the posts on Instagram and ignore my explanation. “That’s not antisemitic,” she replied.

I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to make sure my friend Sarah, in Israel, was okay. She hadn’t seen her family in days because she was at her friend’s house when the rockets began, she couldn’t go home. She had to stay in a bomb shelter.

I didn’t want to fight. I was worried about the threats coming from further down into Toronto. Someone threatened to come north to open fire in my predominantly Jewish neighborhood.

I didn’t want to fight. I wanted to go on a walk with my friend, who I hadn’t seen in months due to the pandemic. But my mother didn’t want me to go.

It was the final straw for me. I was so hurt. I hadn’t realized how everything I’d seen until now had affected me. I knew it wasn’t personal. These kinds of things aren’t about me as a person. But it is about my people. It is about how there are people in the world that think Jews have no place on our planet.

It wasn’t about me, but it was about us.

The girl in charge of the Instagram took the posts down and sent me a personal apology thanking me for educating her. I told her everything is a learning process and the only thing we can do is accept our faults with grace.

Annie privately messaged me. I had sent her links that I thought were not only helpful but shared an unbiased perspective. It was factual. Rockets were sent from here. Bombs were sent from there. No reasoning on why and no false information that could not be verified.

“I cannot talk about this with someone who is so blind to this human rights issue, who is too emotionally invested to even think that your people are so horrible they are colonizing stolen land. Do not contact me again on this any further.”

If being too emotional about this is a fault, I accept it with grace.

It is emotional.

It wasn’t about me, but it was about us.

Names have been changed to protect privacy.

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