OPINION | Tulane’s hegemonic Jewish identity is exclusionary

Ori Tsameret, Intersections Editor

Tulane Chabad
Josh Jessiman

Tulane University is notable for many things: its high-intensity social life, prestigious academics and, as anyone familiar with Tulane will be able to point out, a large Jewish population

The large percentage of Jewish-identifying students has earned Tulane the graceless moniker “Jewlane” and goes a while back. As the first Southern university to admit Jewish students into its fold, it makes sense that Tulane’s student body is now about 40% Jewish. Even Newcomb College, during its existence, was coined “Jewcomb” and held a student body that was up to one-third Jewish. 

Like many other universities, Tulane’s religious life is largely organized by on-campus institutions and organizations that facilitate ritualistic activities, put on social events and play a large role in students’ integration endeavors within the religious community. 

Jewish life at Tulane is no different, with Tulane Hillel and Chabad at Tulane on campus, as well as other predominantly Jewish spaces, like Tulane Israel Public Affairs Committee and Jewish-affiliated Greek organizations monopolizing organized Jewish identity on campus.

These institutions, whether intentionally or not, often gatekeep Jewish identity for students by promoting a narrow scope of what Jewish identity on campus should look like. 

Students wishing to gain a foothold within Tulane’s Jewish community may find themselves subjected to a litmus test in order to gain acceptance in these spaces and consequently in Tulane Jewish life. Specifically speaking, Jews of color, queer-identifiying Jewish students and political outliers in the Jewish community are often excluded from the hegemonic portrait of Jewish identity at Tulane.

As a predominantly white institution, it comes at no surprise that over 70% of Tulane students are white. Naturally, this statistic includes Jewish students. Ashkenormativity, or the disproportionate normalization of those Jews who trace their cultural roots to European countries at the expense of other communities, has long been a problem in Jewish American spaces

It follows, then, that this Semitic variant of eurocentrism finds its way to Tulane’s campus. The exclusion of JOC on campus is prominent and harmful. Chabad and Hillel, the two primary Jewish student centers on campus, are largely run by white employees and white students, who are more often than not, Ashkenazi. Similar issues can be seen within Jewish Greek life which is often stereotyped as a breeding ground for white, wealthy Jewish students. 

This hyperfixation on Ashkenazi culture inevitably leaves JOC on campus on the outskirts of these spaces.

Another demographic that is often neglected in Jewish spaces on campus is queer Jewish students. Dominant Jewish institutions on campus create largely cis and heteronormative atmospheres that erase the identity of queer students.

Chabad’s student board, for example, operates off of a largely binary view of gender and splits responsibilities accordingly, assigning different roles to male and female members. They also often collaborate with Jewish Greek life, organizations which are exclusionary to LGBTQ individuals. Even at Hillel, often viewed as a more politically liberal counterpart to Chabad, programming for Jewish queer students is largely lacking and visibility for queer Jews is not a priority.

The third sector of Jewish students on campus that may find themselves on the outs with mainstream Jewish life on campus is political outliers. Tulane has been repeatedly criticized for a lack of political engagement, and its Jewish spaces are no different. Establishment Jewish political ideologies rule Jewish spaces on campus.

One need look no further than instances in which Jewish students vocalize their distaste for dominant ideologies on campus to see the kind of reactions and the kind of backlash students may receive. Liberal, zionist sentiments have dominated Jewish life on campus in totalitarity. 

Zionism, an ideological movement espousing the creation and maintenance of a Jewish state in the historic land of Israel may mean different things to different Jewish students. However, resistance to it and even left-leaning varieties of it, such as labor zionism, are silenced. Students struggling to grapple with the movement’s racial and ethnic political implications are quickly shut down despite the robust history of anti-zionist Jewish sentiment.

As a beacon of a vibrant Jewish life for other campuses, Tulane must do better in allowing marginalized and excluded Jewish voices to be centered in its spaces.