The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life and the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning sponsored a lecture discussing anti-Semitism in America on Tuesday, February 18.
The lecture featured Susannah Heschel, the Eli Black Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, alongside Mark Silk, Director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College (Hartford), and James Bernauer, S.J., the Kraft Family Professor of Boston College’s Philosophy Department and the Director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at BC.
The lecture began with one crucial question: with the perceived rise in anti-Semitic attacks, such as the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue two years ago in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, is the United States facing a new form of anti-Semitism, or a resurgence of older ideas?
The three scholars all agreed that the U.S. is facing a revival of older misbeliefs, but placed in a new context thanks to shifting cultural views. The growth of the internet has allowed new forms of rhetoric to arise and spread like wildfires.
Threats of violence, most famously the cries of, “Jews will not replace us,” shouted by racists and right-wing extremists at Charlottesville’s “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, have become more available thanks to social media – and a lack of criticism from certain government officials, including a tepid response from the president.
There is some good news, however. Mark Silk pointed out that the number of supporters of anti-Semitism on the right has decreased, and 2017 saw no increase in anti-Semitic attacks. Additionally, a study released by the Anti-Defamation League in January showed that only 11% of the population possesses anti-Semitic beliefs, which is down from 15% a decade ago.
However, this was countered by the fact that the number of Americans who feel there is higher discrimination towards Jewish people has increased since 2016 from 44% to 64%.
Fr. Bernauer argued that two “types” of anti-Semitism have emerged having been shaped since the 1940s. The first of these is Post-Holocaust anti-Semitism, which uses many of the same pre-Holocaust arguments against Jewish people. It uses paranoia to create a false narrative of “control” over politics and economics. The second is Post-Israeli.
“When I was growing up,” Fr. Bernauer explained, many Jewish people were widely respected, "because they were so involved in the Civil Rights Movement.” However, as time has gone on, there has been a failure by the public to properly distinguish between Jewish people and the Israeli government in many cases, especially since the government’s actions undertaken during the Six Days’ War and the decades that have followed.
Specifically regarding the movement of settlers into Palestinian territories, Fr. Bernauer discussed his experience in the region and conversations he and other Jesuits had with a spokesperson of the settlement movement. He argued that as religion has been used to argue both for and against settlements, it has become harder for some to separate religion from the nation—a problem for many Jewish people who do not condone a handful of extremists.
Heschel defended the State of Israel, as it was created by a majority of the United Nations. “Now, do I like the government? No, but show me a government I like!” Heschel called for both sides of the aisle to separate the Jewish people from the Israeli government, just as the American people should not be blamed for atrocious actions performed by the current administration; as she put it, Israel should not be “weaponized.”
Following this, the three responded to a number of anonymous questions from the audience. One question asked if the actions of Harvey Weinstein and other celebrities implicated in the #MeToo Movement contributed to a perceived rise in anti-Semitism.
All three panelists agreed that those acts may have partially led to more vitriolic rhetoric, but Professor Silk was quick to point out that Jewish people should be separated from a handful of “bad actors,” much in the same way Catholics should not be blamed for the actions of priests during the sex-abuse scandal.
Another question asked by the audience was if the Jewish community has done a good job of addressing the perceived rise in anti-Semitism around the nation. All three agreed that all that can be done is being done, and Silk and Bernauer feel it has been effective.
Heschel stated that if what is being done does not work, nothing will, using the 1800’s Germany as a prime example. Jewish Germans at that time made many efforts to make their plight heard, including pushes for tolerance and equal view under the law, but sadly no further progress was made. Highlighting the consequences of these issues, she declared, is what should be done to prevent atrocities from repeating.
Patrick Dumitrescu, MCAS ’23, was one of the many students present at the lecture. He enjoyed the discussion, but did come away wanting more out of it. “It was very informative,” he explained, “but I felt they could have done a better job [of] taking a stance on one side or another. Rather than call for action, they simply stated that both Left and Right have done a little bit to promote anti-Semitism, and continuing with the status quo will fix it, but I’m not so sure it will.”
The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life also presented the lecture entitled “Race, Class, and Ethnicity in College Admissions: Deans Discuss the Harvard Case.”