I fell in love with UCLA’s Jewish community the very first time I stepped into Hillel. It was warm, welcoming and familiar — just like the tight-knit community I had recently left behind at my Jewish high school.
But after listening to a number of offensive jokes about Persian Jews at Sunday night’s Mr. Hillel talent show, I was reminded once again of a painful truth I have come to understand in my two years at UCLA: As a Persian student, a significant part of this Jewish community does not truly love and respect me back.
To be clear, Mr. Hillel is an incredible philanthropic effort, and every student who put in countless hours preparing for the event deserves genuine praise. I understand that the offense was likely unintentional. Yet, I am disappointed and disheartened that my Jewish friends who planned the event, Ashkenazi and Persian alike, allowed anti-Persian sentiment to make it on to Ackerman Grand Ballroom’s stage. For an event centered on tikkun olam (repairing the world), this stings with irony.
The first offense came in a sketch that parodied The Real Housewives franchise, in which a character complained to his friends: “Ugh, shul [synagogue] was so crowded today. So many Persians.”
This joke too closely mirrors actual prejudices held historically (and to an extent contemporarily) by Ashkenazi synagogue congregations that resisted the arrival of Persians after the Iranian revolution — something my parents and grandparents have told me much about. The offense was even greater because the line was delivered by a non-Persian student.
When a Persian contestant proceeded to raise the stereotype of ostentatious Persian culture by stating he bought his 12-year-old daughter a car for her Bat-Mitzvah, again I cringed.
Finally, in a parody of MTV Cribs that gave viewers a tour of the Hillel building, the video introduced several Ashkenazi contestants with funny descriptors, such as “Wears socks with Sperry’s.” Two of the Persian students, on the other hand, were introduced merely as “Persian.”
When a third, Israeli student was mislabeled as Persian, he looked down at the name of my ethnicity with sheer disgust.
There was a time when I internalized the racism of my Ashkenazi peers and thought these jokes were funny. In fact, I still appreciate a good Persian joke when it is made by a Persian and delivered to a group of Persians. But elevating these distasteful remarks to a platform in front of hundreds of non-Persian Jews reinforces the idea that it’s okay for them to say it, too.
And say it, they do. Jewish students have asked me why, if I am truly a Persian woman, I do not have a beard. Jewish students have dismissed me as a potential donor for a charity event because “Persians don’t donate.” Jewish students have assumed I am a transfer student from SMC, an assumption (wrongfully) laden with stereotypes of laziness and academic dishonesty. This kind of racism is by no means exclusive to the Jewish community at UCLA — I experienced similar interactions at my elementary school, my high school and in the greater Los Angeles community.
I am tired of Ashkenazi Jewish friends making derogatory comments about Persians, only to turn to me and tell me I am an exception. I am not an exception. In countless ways, my fellow Persian students and I have been ostracized, exoticized and fetishized. We have been excluded, minimized and actively “othered.”
The Persian Jewish community at UCLA should never be reduced to an ethnic label. We are made up of honors students, writers, dancers, student government officers, researchers and activists. The fact that we are Jewish, though, should be enough.
The Persian jokes were never funny. It’s time our community stopped laughing.