History and Religion Departments Grapple with American Anti-Semitism
By: Nick Santangelo
On Oct. 27, tragedy struck at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Eleven people lost their lives and seven more were injured. It was the deadliest attack on the Jewish people in U.S. history.
Last Friday, the College of Liberal Arts (CLA) attempted to make sense of how such a horrible crime could be committed. To do so, History Professor Ralph Young dedicated his weekly Teach-in event to exploring American anti-Semitism. Religion Professor Mark Leuchter and History and Jewish Studies Professor Lila Corwin Berman engaged a near-capacity Gladfelter Hall auditorium about the history and current reality of anti-Semitism in the U.S.
A visibly shaken Dr. Leuchter opened the talks by apologizing that he may get emotional. But as he repeatedly told students, it’s more important to be honest than it is to be civil in the face of such hate crimes.
Anti-Semitism as a Political Issue
“I’m sure many of you have heard, ‘Do not politicize this. This is not political,’” the professor said. “I am here to tell you this is wrong.”
Over the next roughly 30 minutes, Dr. Leuchter drew parallels from the United States’ current political climate to the world’s history of anti-Semitist language and imagery. He showed images of Nazis from the 1930s depicting caricatured Jews sitting on piles of cash or devouring people.
Dr. Leuchter then introduced the audience to Arthur Jones, an avowed Nazi who is today appearing on Chicago ballots as a GOP congressional nominee. (Chicago Republicans have roundly denounced Jones but failed to run a candidate against him in the primary.)
Continuing, Dr. Leuchter showed memes of billionaire and prominent Democratic Party donor George Soros depicted as the puppet master behind NFL players protesting for civil rights. Next, the professor showed more Nazi propaganda, imagery that also depicted Jews as puppet masters. Rhetorically, he asked the students if they thought there was a connection and if memes like this can radicalize people to the point of violence.
When she spoke after Dr. Leuchter, Dr. Corwin Berman—herself clearly emotionally affected by the Pittsburgh tragedy—suggested that American anti-Semitism has portrayed Jews as being impure. This, she claimed, springs from xenophobic, nativist and anti-immigrant messaging. Dr. Leuchter noted that some politicians who aren’t necessarily anti-Semites themselves have been using coded language to speak to dog whistle to those who are.
“Globalist is a coded anti-Semitic slur,” he explained. “What it implies is that Jews do not have a homeland where their blood runs into the soil. Blood in the soil is a very old nationalist idea in Europe.”
Overcoming the Hate
So how do you combat a form of hate that, as Dr. Leuchter explained, traces its roots all the way back to anti-Semites blaming the Jews for the death of Jesus Christ? Dr. Corwin Berman had some suggestions.
“I think what we need to do is to think about how anti-Semitism and all forms of racism are interconnected,” she said.
She then added that all forms of racism and anti-Semitism are not completely the same, but the Venn diagram has a lot of overlap. One way anti-Semitism differs from other forms of racism and bigotry is that anti-Semites often paint Jews as controlling the world from behind the scenes. Whereas most racists attack their targets for a perceived quality of somehow being lesser, Jews are attacked for allegedly being all-powerful.
Think about how anti-Semitism and all forms of racism are interconnected
Dr. Leuchter seemed to agree. He said that all shootings targeting minorities come from “a hatred that is born of race-baiting. It is a hatred that is born of fear mongering. It is a hatred that is born of nationalism. It is a hatred that is born of a desire for power.”
To help the country overcome this hatred, Dr. Corwin Berman said an important first step for students is showing up to the discussion. The next thing they can do is take action based on what’s learned through the discourse.
“Oppression is always connected to power systems. Always,” said Dr. Corwin Berman. “And so you have to get political.”
Students have an incredible opportunity to do just that today by voting in the midterm election. But beyond embracing the political nature of the problem and casting votes against hate, one College of Liberal Arts student wanted to know what more non-Jews can do to be helpful allies. How, she wondered, could she forward the cause without co-opting the oppression or the tragedies? Dr. Corwin Berman said not to worry about that.
“If you are somebody who wants to show up, who wants to think about systems of oppression, who wants to think about your own biases and be political with me,” responded the professor, “then I want you there. And if it means sometimes you might say something that’s not quite right to me, I’m not particularly worried about it.”