Is a new antisemitism study center in London really necessary? - opinion

Is a non-affiliated, independent center necessary at a time when the public and academic arena is imbued with a hostile atmosphere targeting Jews?

Demonstrator holds up sign reading "Solidarity with British Jews" at "Together Against Antisemitism" rally in London (photo credit: SARKIS ZERONIAN)
Demonstrator holds up sign reading "Solidarity with British Jews" at "Together Against Antisemitism" rally in London
(photo credit: SARKIS ZERONIAN)

On September 11, a new center was launched in London: the London Centre for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (LCSCA). The public launch event marked the opening of a three-day conference with an impressive gathering of scholars in the field. They discussed contemporary antisemitism, its scope, its recent rise and the problems confronted by researchers in the field.

Information published so far about the new center reflects quite a number of goals its directors, David Hirsh and David Seymour, assisted by a first-class board of trustees, have set forward: Encouraging and funding studies conducted by scholars, both accomplished and early career academics, who will hopefully carry the work on; convening more conferences and seminars; publishing its own academic book series; continuing the publication of a young but thriving academic journal, the Journal of Contemporary Antisemitism – all are tools to be developed by the center and those affiliated with it.

Yet, let us ask: Is such a center, albeit driven by the best of intentions, a necessity? It is true that a host of activities of various kinds, all aiming at confronting antisemitism, have sprung up recently, led either by Jewish organizations and scholars or by NGOs and state institutions; but here is a non-affiliated independent center, led by academic scholars, established at a time when the public and academic arena is imbued with hostile atmosphere targeting Jews, Israel as a Jewish state and Jewish students, so that fair and unbiased academic research and publications are still sorely needed.

If the aforementioned tools developed by the center can help to change this atmosphere in which anti-Zionism is often a standard position and the antisemitism associated with it is angrily denied, and if young generations of students can be swayed away from the belief that Jews today, a priori, belong in the dark, unjust and oppressive side of humanity, as has been the accusation so often in the past, then the center will have proven a necessity.

Pro-Palestine protesters hold a banner, as they demonstrate outside Downing Street in London, Britain, June 12, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS)Pro-Palestine protesters hold a banner, as they demonstrate outside Downing Street in London, Britain, June 12, 2021. (credit: REUTERS/HENRY NICHOLLS)

One cannot help but notice that both public opinion in the Western world and the field of academic research have, in recent years, undergone polarization and politicization that have torn communities apart, including communities of scholarship. Balanced research does not have to be closed and it does not have to protect itself by means of safe scholarly detachment.

Part of what academic tools can do is to bring change into the public sphere and challenge the alternative to the increasing ideological polarization that we see around us. If the center can help to achieve this, then it will have proven a necessity.

The leaders of this new initiative and the scholars affiliated with them have just started their long way, not an easy one, to achieve their goals. Their success will certainly be for the benefit of us all.

Since these words were first written, Queen Elizabeth II passed away, and the festive launching event planned for the evening of September 11 was duly postponed, as were all such events across the UK, in its state of mourning. All the rest – the establishment of the center and the conference – are taking place as announced and mentioned above.

The writer is the founder and former head of the Center for the Study of Contemporary European Jewry at Tel Aviv University and chief historian of Yad Vashem.