“It’s the culture of fear” was how one anti-Zionist rabbi described the inner workings of Hebrew Union College to me on a weekday before Yom Kippur. We had hopped on a phone call to talk about next steps after my firing from the Jewish Language Project in the days before Rosh Hashana.
I hadn’t expected to be fired, as I was just last year from the Jewish non-profit Avodah, under similar circumstances.
But the reality of Jewish institutional life is a sad one—it is a world heavily monitored by Zionist stakeholders, in which decisions of importance are guided into place according to the vested interests of a broader colonial movement. These interests are usually financial, and they’re usually quiet, except when the occasional decision is made public. In such a case, Jewish institutional life answers to the people giving them money. As they did when I was fired.
I was hired at the Jewish Language Project by project founder and lead Professor Sarah Bunin Benor, Vice Provost of and professor at Hebrew Union College—the oldest and most respected Reform Jewish seminary in the Americas. I expressed my interest in Indian Jewish languages during an interview, and after a “glowing review” from a reference, Benor hired me as a member of the Tiktok team.
The Jewish Language Project (JLP), an initiative of Hebrew Union College (HUC), prides itself on “documenting and raising awareness of” Jewish languages throughout the Jewish diaspora.
My own interest in Jewish languages comes as a result of my South Asian Jewish identity and a desire to learn and preserve Indian Jewish languages nearing extinction as the Zionist project moves Indian Jews to Israel a lot—homogenizing their vast and varied languages under modern Israeli Hebrew and wiping them of their cultural and linguistic uniquenesses.
I attended several meetings as a Tiktok team member and even recorded and posted a video about Sephardic Rosh Hashanah practices, as instructed by the Jewish Language Project, despite hostility from a Zionist supervisor. Throughout meetings, in which I was amicable and deferring, I was routinely glared at and treated with tense shortness by my direct supervisor—who routinely engages with Zionist content online—whose interactions with me were characterized by an attitude of animosity and distaste for my presence.
Within the first 17 hours of the video going up on Instagram and Tiktok, hateful comments from Zionists accrued underneath it on both platforms, completely unregulated by the Jewish Language Project. I felt the familiar knot of dread forming in my chest, knowing what would likely come next—but the dread is softer the second time around.
The comments were virulently racist, and were accompanied by the Israeli flag and calls for Zionist violence. Instead of supporting me, the Jewish Language Project and Hebrew Union College turned against me. Here are just a few of the comments:
When I asked for the comments to be deleted or turned off, Sarah Benor, representing the Jewish Language Project and Hebrew Union College’s marketing and communications manager, pushed back and maintained that the institution(s) “wouldn’t know which to delete” and that “comments are an important part of the project’s engagement,” despite previous videos having minimal comments and all of the comments on my video being vitriolic. I was the Jewish Language Project’s most significant point of engagement, and they didn’t want to give up the traction their post was getting—because that would mean taking a stand against the hateful, Zionist rhetoric espoused by commenters.
Then, Benor informed me that they would be removing my bio and photo from their website, despite my objection, for fear of “donors pulling funds” and removing me from the JLP’s TikTok team because my mere presence was making “Israeli and Zionist team members uncomfortable.”
I couldn’t help but think of the disregard for my own ‘discomfort’ at being steadily harassed by hundreds of people for nearly 24 hours with no support from the institution that had hired me. Feelings of Zionist ‘discomfort’ at the existence of those who oppose their violence will always take precedence over the material reality of colonized and displaced people—something Palestinians are all too familiar with.
When I questioned Benor why my biography and photo needed to removed from the website, she said, “Off the top of my head, I can think of one significant donor now who might pull, if they clicked on our staff page, scrolled until they saw you, and then Googled you and found a past statement you’ve made on Zionism”. Though this sequence of events seemed unlikely to me, I was offered no explanation of what ‘statement’ she was referring to. I found this doubly confusing as Zionist staff members were free to express their support for Zionism online at will.
I asked Benor if a fellow anti-Zionist staff member’s bio would also be removed from the website, to which Benor tensely shot back, “have they made any [anti-Zionist] statements I should be made aware of?” Unwilling to contribute to the ousting and ostracization of my colleague in what was clearly an attempt to root out other anti-Zionists, I kicked myself for the concern I expressed that Benor turned into an opportunity.
A day later, JLP took down my video and posted a statement without my knowledge or consent, explaining that my “presence on [their] platform has become a distraction from [their] mission” and that I would be removed from the social media team. The statement also thanked commenters for their “feedback”. The “feedback” in question being comments like, “get this monster off my screen”, “why is a Hindu talking about Rosh Hashanah?” , and “she’s just an antisemite, plain and simple.”
Though the video of me has been taken down, JLP/HUC’s two-week-old apology to Zionists for my hiring and thank-you note to the harassers remains upnow with the comments disabled after JLP came under fire for their actions. As of one week ago, this post comes with a stealthily edited caption, vaguely describing their right to turn comments off when they please; I was offered this edited caption in lieu of a public apology or acknowledgment of any kind of JLP/HUC’s wrongdoing.
Needless to say, being a young person just out of college, publicly humiliated and subjected to vitriol—shamed and scapegoated—by multimillion-dollar Jewish institutions has reframed the way I approach and engage with mainstream Jewish organizations.
I’ve come to understand that the people who sit behind some of the most prominent Jewish initiatives in the world, no matter what they say their ‘missions’ are, act as puppets to Zionist donors out of fear and insecurity. They operate solely within this “culture of fear”—where the interests of Zionists with money fundamentally outweigh the survival of Jewish diaspora.
With this understanding comes the realization that my safety in Jewish institutional spaces has been boiled down to being contingent upon a very simple binary: Those who stand in solidarity with Palestine, and those who do not. From the latter, you can expect behaviors that align with oppression—in all its forms—for example, the transphobia, anti-convert sentiment, and racism in the comments section of the Jewish Language Project. This is because, as so many before me have said, Palestine is the ultimate litmus test of one’s willingness to oppose systems that disenfranchise and displace.
The culture of fear that controls the spaces meant to guide and support myself and the rest of global Jewry is not a tenable one. A project committed to the preservation of Indian Jewish languages cannot expect to live long if they fire an Indian Jew because she opposes the very force attempting to extinguish Indian Jewish identity. Such a framework is unsteady, having been built on ironies, false promises, and on a fundamental failure to confront the systems that lie just below the surface of the heart of the project’s mission.
But, if anything, the fact that these projects are disrupted at the slightest questioning, at the mere hint of a challenge to hegemonic, Zionist dominance of thought—has given me hope.
Because if a Jewish movement so desperately clinging to relevanceone entirely beholden to Zionist dollars, is a movement to which a 22-year-old anti-Zionist Jew is threat enough to fire—the future is bright. Because such a movement will not last long, and neither will the fear it feeds off of.