Core curriculum: Fighting antisemitism

Some 300 US college students from 90 campuses convene in Pittsburgh to learn to counter hate.

Students gather at Sunday's conference in Pittsburgh (photo credit: JEFF BISKOWITZ)
Students gather at Sunday's conference in Pittsburgh
(photo credit: JEFF BISKOWITZ)
PITTSBURGH - Itzchak Maghen, dressed in jeans and a hoodie, hunkered down on the short flight from Washington, DC, to Pittsburgh. Instead of spending last weekend like many of his UCLA classmates in Los Angeles tailgating and cheering on his school’s football team against crosstown rivals USC, the bearded sophomore was on the last leg of a cross-country trip to join some 300 other mostly Jewish students from 90 different universities at a Sunday conference dedicated to countering antisemitism on campus.
“I was a student last year at Santa Monica College and went to a coexistence cultural event at UCLA with an Armenian, Kurdish and Israeli speaker. Out of nowhere, around 30 members of Students for Justice in Palestine ran in and started shouting how we were colonizers and racists and ‘From the river to the sea’ chants. That’s when it hit me,” said Magen, who sported a kippah under his hoodie and calls himself a proud Jew. “When I was told by my adviser about this conference, I said I have to go, it’s imperative.”
The headlines seem to bear that out. A random Google search for “antisemitism campuses” this week produced banners like “Antisemitic video stirs concern on George Washington University campus,” “University of Florida dealing with accusations of racism and antisemitism” and “Syracuse students call for chancellor to quit over antisemitic incidents on campus.”
The UCLA Bruins fell to USC’s Trojans 52-35, but Magen and all of the attendees at the Student Leadership Assembly were able to chalk up a victory of sorts in Pittsburgh, as they spent a full day brainstorming, sharing the challenges they’re facing on campus, gathering tools and support to combat efforts to delegitimize them, and hearing inspirational and cautionary tales from a host of luminaries, including historian and author Deborah Lipstadt, Dr. Rachel Fish, the newly appointed maiden executive director of the Foundation to Combat Antisemitism, former skinhead Frank Meeink, and survivor of both the Holocaust and last year’s Tree of Life massacre in Pittsburgh, Judah Samet.
Pittsburgh wasn’t a random choice for the conference. The worst attack on Jews in American history, which took place on October 27, 2018, is seen as just the most epic manifestation of a scourge of antisemitism that has spiraled upward in recent years, much of it focused on college campuses.
“We’re sitting four miles from the Tree of Life synagogue in Squirrel Hill, where 1,000 acts of kindness unfolded as an antidote to the shooting, and hate was drowned out by resilience and light,” said Meryl Ainsman, chairwoman of the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh, which hosted the conference organized by IACT Campus Initiative of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Boston, Jewish Federation of Greater Pittsburgh and Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh Hillel and the Combat Antisemitism Movement organization.
The attendees – with 75% of the students coming from CJP’s IACT national and local Boston campuses – had most of their expenses covered to get to Pittsburgh as well as meals during the conference.
Cheryl Aronson, the vice president of the IACT Campus Initiative, opened the conference by defiantly proclaiming, “We are going to use the word ‘Zionism,’ we will not give up Jewish experiences and celebrations in the public space, and we will not be defined by people who hate us.”
According to IACT’s Michael Eglash, who acted as the conference MC, the goal of the day was to “stand up to antisemitism and learn how to combat it – including antisemitism masqueraded as anti-Israel stances.”
THE DAY’S most hands-on and practical speaker was Fish, who took up her position at the Robert Kraft-funded Foundation to Combat Antisemitism last month.
Speaking to The Jerusalem Post on the sidelines, Fish said that antisemitism on campuses is not something new.
“I would say that many in the Jewish communal leadership missed what was happening then. Many of the organizations who we thought should be responsible for thinking about these issues didn’t understand what was happening in the ivory towers and on the hard Left,” she said.
Following filmed greetings from Kraft, Fish mesmerized the audience with her personal experience as a student at the Harvard School of Divinity nearly 20 years ago, which imparted the message that every student can make a difference in standing up to antisemitism.
“The zeitgeist out there is that in order to be progressive, you must be anti-Israel. We’re not talking about being pro-Palestinians, because I’m pro-Palestinian, too,” said Fish.
After learning that the school’s Islamic Studies chair was funded by the notoriously antisemitic Zayed Foundation of the United Arab Emirates leader Sheikh Zayed, Fish launched a multiyear grassroots campaign to pressure the university to rescind the funding.
She created a website exposing what was going on and recruited volunteers to hand out pamphlets at the school’s graduation. The activity led to national TV coverage and eventually a victory for Fish.
“I didn’t know if I could get my fellow Jewish students or faculty to help, but I received some valuable advice from [Harvard professor and noted Jewish scholar] Ruth Wisse, who said ‘Go find a gang. Get one or two people to help, and more will come.’”
Brandeis University junior Elan Kawesch was one of the students who inaugurated a new IACT-sponsored #tellyourstorynow campaign that aims to raise the awareness of antisemitism on campuses.
“Brandeis is known to be a safe space for students, and many of the students are Jewish, but last year I was walking home from class and there was an Artists from Israel display. Some students blocked access to it and placed a ‘Free Palestine’ sign on top of a Star of David,” he said.
Also telling her story was Justine Murray from Syracuse University, which has been rocked this month with a space of racist graffiti and vandalism targeting Jews, blacks, Asians and Native Americans.
“In my sophomore year, there was a Syracuse Peace Council, which turned out to be not very peaceful. They justified violence against Zionists and declared that there should not be a Jewish state. This year, a professor in my class said that Israel created Hamas, so Israel deserves what it gets,” she said, adding that she’s documenting these incidents and putting pressure on the university administration to act.
“Antisemitism will never end, as long as we keep silent,” she added. “After a swastika was found scrawled on a door, a Jewish professor said ‘Let’s not make a big deal of it.’”
“A lot of us are blinded by the veneer of social justice and human rights. We have to lift off that disguise and reveal that this isn’t about human rights. It’s hypocrisy of the activists who say they’re supporting human rights but only focusing on Israel.”
Fish raised the issue of diversity officers on campus to protect minorities, a concept that didn’t exist a few years ago. She explained that many of them don’t understand how Jews can be a vulnerable minority, as criteria are measured by ethnicity, privilege and power.
“Jews have privilege and they’re white – therefore they’re powerful. In that equation, they just don’t understand the issues you are facing on campus,” said Fish. “We are living in a woke society in which Jews are not part of the equation.”
That thought was echoed later in the day by Holocaust scholar Lipstadt.
“On your campuses, there are diversity officers, and many are doing good things, but many come from backgrounds of looking at Jewish students and saying ‘What are they complaining about?’ We don’t fit into the picture of victim,” she said.
A dilemma that’s been created by campus activism against Israel – whether it’s possible to be a Zionist and still be a supporter of liberal causes – was raised frequently throughout the day, as was the question of whether criticism of Israel is a form of antisemitism.
“It’s perfectly alright to be critical of Israel; it’s not antisemitism. But it crosses over when you are against the existence of the state. It’s antisemitism when there’s a myopic view that’s focused only on Israel,” said Lipstadt.
Fish honed in on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, telling the Post that while not all the people supporting the movement are antisemitic, the leadership and the overall agenda about the elimination of Israel certainly are.
“BDS has made bedfellows with other progressive organizations and individuals that have become folded into the litmus test of how progressive you are on campus, and Palestinians have become the cause célèbre for that. And that’s problematic, because these people are not pro-Palestinian, they’re against Jews having a nation-state and sovereignty – which in my mind is antisemitic.”
Offering the day’s keynote speech, Lipstadt educated the students on how to identify antisemitism, a concept that she is entirely familiar with and that has made her world-renowned due to the celebrated case in which she was unsuccessfully sued by Holocaust denier David Irving, and the subsequent 2016 Hollywood rendering, Denial, starring Rachel Weisz.
Antisemitism makes no sense, so how do you fight something that is essentially illogical without giving it gravitas? she asked the students.
“There are standard elements to all antisemitic charges: they deal with money, power, some sort of reference to smarts, but not positive, more like cunning. They punch above their weight, as in they’re a small group but they control the board of directors, and they’re like the devil or a demon, who disguise themselves.
“Today Jews look like everyone else, so they can do their nefarious deeds,” said Lipstadt. “It’s different from racism. Racists see someone and look down on them – they’re not as smart, they’re lesser than me. An antisemite sees a richer, smarter and more successful person, one who looks like them. The reaction is fear.
ONE OF the primary focuses throughout the conference was examining antisemitism emanating from the American far Left and far Right. Although many speakers made sure to put equal blame on both the far Right and radical Left, names that didn’t come up during the whole day were those of US President Donald Trump, and the claims by his detractors that his lack of moral clarity has enabled the far-right fringe to emerge from the woodwork, and Ilhan Omar, the Democratic congresswomen whose statements and tweets have labeled her as an anti-Israel antisemite.
Lipstadt warned against taking a stand over which side is worse.
“That’s not a useful argument. If you’re engaged in it, then you’re trying to score points for your political thought. They’re both bad, different and the same,” she said.
“Far-right antisemitism, as manifested by Poway or the Tree of Life shootings, is based on white genocide replacement theory. It started out on the fringe far Right, but it has migrated to the Center. You hear it on Fox News – there’s an organized plan afoot to replace white Christian society with black and brown people. But they’re not smart enough to do it on their own – there’s someone behind them, the Jews. What did the Charlottesville marchers chant? ‘The Jews will not replace us.’
“On the Left – as exemplified by the Labour Party in England, some members of Congress and on college campuses – there’s a view of prejudice that’s refracted through the facets of ethnicity, class and power. The progressive Left see a white person and they see someone financially privileged, so they’re powerful, and so they can’t be a victim.”
Fish added that antisemitism on the hard Left is much more insidious and difficult to articulate.
“It’s not the typical trope you hear from the hard Right and not what American Jews are familiar with and know how to smell out,” she said. “Radical Islam is part of the conversation as well, and there has been a reluctancy on the part of American Jewish leaders to talk about it.”
Charles Asher Small, the director of the Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism, warned the students about letting the other side define them.
“In 2019, to be called a fascist, racist, antisemitic, apartheid-supporting imperialist in a liberal academic setting is the worst possible thing you can be labeled. The purpose is to shut us down. You can’t let them define you,” he said.
What was somewhat unsettling about the well-planned and thought-provoking conference was that it needed to take place at all. In America. In 2019.
Campaigns like #Tellyourstorynow, which will be launched nationally in the coming weeks, and the just-launched million-dollar effort by Kraft and the Genesis Foundation called “Speak Out for Israel” aimed at helping combat the global rise of antisemitism and attempts to delegitimize the Jewish state, may make great inroads to raise awareness about the surge in antisemitism. But as articulated by two speakers at the conference, the institutionalized hatred of Jews is not going to disappear anytime soon.
Former skinhead Meeink described his underprivileged South Philly upbringing and feeling of worthlessness, until he was embraced by the skinhead movement as a teen.
“All my life I had been afraid, and now people were scared of me, said Meeink, who used to sport a swastika tattoo on his neck. “It was an awesome feeling.”
Hussein Mansour, an Egyptian who grew up hating Jews and Israel, said it’s just an accepted part of life in the Arab world.
“If I had been living in the West Bank, I would have been one of those 14-year-old boys trying to stab an Israeli soldier, because we were raised to believe that Jews were not human; they were evil.”
Both Mansour, who now lives in the US and works for StandWithUs, and Meeink, who lectures about his skinhead past, managed to break out of the confines of hatred, but, unfortunately, they are a drop in the bucket.
AMID THE tendency to despair, antisemitism expert Small attempted to put the issue into a historical context, encouraging the students by telling them they’re on the front lines of the battle against Jew hatred.
“Students freed the Soviet Jews, students played a crucial role in ending apartheid and in bringing about civil rights in America,” he said.
Lipstadt also left the students with an encouraging thought.
“We are so much more than the victim. We fight, but that’s not who we are. Don’t let the haters determine our identity. Fight the good fight but rejoice in who you are,” she said.
The UCLA student, Maghen, who had traded in his airplane hoodie for a dapper sports jacket, said that the conference had been worth the cross-country trip.
“It’s important to see other students and realize that we’re not alone in this fight for justice for the Jewish people. We’re stronger when we’re in this together.
He, like the other student attendees, had already taken a significant step toward implementing the advice of Rachel Fish by forging a united effort in the uphill battle against antisemitism on their campuses.