Confronting Antisemitism

Posted by Karen Murphy on March 18, 2015

Last week, the United States media reported on an event that took place at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA).

A month ago, UCLA student Rachel Beyda put herself forward as a candidate for a student judicial board position. In the interview process, a student board member asked her, "Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community, how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?"

Members of the board then debated her candidacy and her ability to be unbiased.

Four members of the board voted against Beyda. A transcript of the meeting shows that some of the student board members expressed discomfort with the questioning and the decision. Following a debate that included the faculty adviser, the board reversed its vote and invited Beyda onto the judicial board.

At one point in the debate, a board member said in defense of his position, "I'm not antisemitic."

It's easy to dismiss his sentiment, but what happened at UCLA is a teachable moment—if we seek to learn from it.

It is time to talk about antisemitism and the way that it shows up in everyday life worldwide from the classroom to the dinner party.

Antisemitism has continued to exist since the end of World War II to be sure, but with the increasing global awareness about the Holocaust, it also became impossible for legitimate political leaders to be openly antisemitic and socially unacceptable to be overtly anti-Jewish.

Recently, however, this has changed.

By nearly all accounts, 2014 was a dismal year for intergroup relations. Hatred, discrimination, and violence made headlines in countries across the globe. The United Kingdom's Community Service Trust recorded 1,168 antisemitic incidents in 2014, the highest annual total it has ever recorded. France is also reporting record-breaking antisemitic incidents. "Half of all racist attacks in France take Jews as their target, even though they number less than 1% of the population," Natasha Lehrer wrote in The Guardian.

Antisemitism is not just a European crisis, nor can it solely be identified as something "new."

There are certainly "new" trends. Antisemitic incidents go up in relationship to events in the Middle East; the internet plays a new and dangerous role in the spread of myths and misinformation; Israel and its policies are conflated with Jews and being Jewish; and there is a new generation of citizens who do not have a direct connection to the dangers of antisemitism and the historical commitment to address it. However, what is "new" might also obscure what is old about this antisemitism.

Beyda was asked whether she, as a Jew, could be unbiased—whether her loyalties were divided because of her Jewish identity. These are old antisemitic tropes.

What happened at UCLA is consistent with research released in the 2014 Anti-Semitism Report from Barry A. Kosmin and Ariela Keysar. Fifty-four percent of Jewish university students interviewed reported witnessing or experiencing antisemitism. Another piece of recent research studied hate mail sent to the Central Council of Jews in Germany between 2002 and 2012. More than 60% of the hate mail came from "well-educated Germans, including university professors," researchers Monika Schwarz-Friesel and Jehuda Reinharz concluded. Only 3% came from "right-wing extremists." They know who sent the mail, both through their own analysis and because some of the writers included their names. Another significant finding is that "hatred for Israel has become the main vehicle for German anti-Semitism. More than 80% of the 14,000 emails focused on Israel as their central theme."

Fascism and Nazism reframed racism and antisemitism as extremist. However, perhaps, the degree to which racism and antisemitism were a part of the social fabric, of the air people breathed, was not addressed. Certain practices might have become untenable—not hiring Jews or allowing them into clubs or admitting them into university programs—but the spirit that animated those decisions has not been entirely quashed.

Over the years, it has become possible for a comfortable, mainstream antisemitism to exist because often it is not accompanied by violence and "aberrant" behavior. Yet, we should take a lesson from highly sectarian societies. We often only see sectarianism where there is violence—in the margins of society—and we don't explore the core structures, attitudes, and behaviors that maintain and nurture it. The same could be said of antisemitism, both in its older and newer manifestations.

Yet there are some glimmers of hope. In January, for the first time, the UN General Assembly dedicated a meeting to combating antisemitism globally. And, some citizens and civil society organizations are speaking up. In Norway, for example, more than 1,000 Muslims formed a human shield around Oslo's synagogue in response to a deadly antisemitic attack in Copenhagen.

These responses are global and local, but addressing antisemitism, like any form of group hatred, cannot just take place when there is a crisis. Classrooms and schools provide the opportunity to forge the kinds of civic spaces that we want our students, as emerging citizens, to cultivate and protect.

The UCLA story offers an opportunity for classroom discussion and learning about civil society. Educators might have students read articles about the event, and then raise questions about the point of views the articles represented—and whether information is missing. They can also help students identify forms of hatred against particular groups, encouraging them to recognize and understand the use of stereotypes and myths today and throughout history. Importantly, educators can also help students to think about what they will choose to do when they witness antisemitism in public or private situations.

Go Deeper:

Facing History's A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitsm explores the roots of this ancient hatred, and helps readers better understand the present in order to change the future. Download a free copy today.

Download our core resource, Facing History and Ourselves: Holocaust and Human Behavior.

Sign up for our upcoming Holocaust and Human Behavior online course. Graduate credit and scholarships are available.

Topics: Antisemitism, Facing History Resources, Religious Tolerance, Holocaust, Teaching Resources, History

At Facing History and Ourselves, we value conversation—in classrooms, in our professional development for educators, and online. When you comment on Facing Today, you're engaging with our worldwide community of learners, so please take care that your contributions are constructive, civil, and advance the conversation.


Welcome to Facing Today, a Facing History blog. Facing History and Ourselves combats racism and antisemitism by using history to teach tolerance in classrooms around the globe.

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