Antisemitism: Here and Now – A Study and Teaching Guide

By Deborah E. Lipstadt
Study and Teaching Guide By Erica Brown

Love is responsibility of an I for a You…”
Martin Buber, I and Thou

CASE #1: Antisemitism and Intersectionality

You always saw your social activism as an expression of your Jewish values. With every protest, you hear the echoes of the Exodus story. Because you were a stranger, you cannot let anyone else be marginalized. You understood that others feel the same and were taken by Frederick Douglass’ own advocacy for women: “When I ran away from slavery, it was for myself; when I advocated emancipation, it was for my people; but when I stood up for the rights of women, self was out of the question, and I found nobility in the act.” Inspired by Douglass, you found nobility in advocating for those without a voice. In that spirit, you committed yourself to a social activist march as one of its central organizers. In addition to significant personal donations you’ve made to support this cause, you have put dozens of hours into marketing, recruiting, and setting up the march’s logistics as a member of its leadership team. A few days before the march, a number of other leaders invited you to a private meeting and told you they needed you to take your name off the organization’s literature because you are Jewish. Your participation would detract from support for the cause. Intersectionality – a conceptual framework in which oppressive institutions are connected and cannot be separated – is standing in the way of your activism. You are deeply alarmed.

How do you respond?

What do you do?

To whom can you go for support?

CASE #2: Antisemitism for Intellectuals

For decades, you have been a big fan of a particular author, following his career trajectory from his first novel to his essay collections. He first awoke within you an awareness of the plight of his people through his fictional adaptation of a particular era. He recently made disparaging comments about Israel. Researching this further, you discovered that he not only criticized Israel widely, but he was also quoted in an interview supporting the work of a known Holocaust denier. As a minority writer of acclaim, he has used his fiction to create empathic characters. You initially dismissed his remarks, thinking that if you stopped reading the literary works of antisemites, you would deny yourself exposure to some of the world’s great poets, novelists, and playwrights. But something about this writer is different, perhaps because he is a contemporary or maybe simply because he opened your eyes to the suffering of others. His new book just came out.

Will you buy this author’s new book? Justify your answer.

CASE #3: Cyber Hate

Tweeting regularly as part of your work responsibilities within a corporate social media team, you check your company’s Twitter feed often and were disturbed to see a surge in antisemitic tweets. They seemed random and illogical, but the harsher the language, the faster the tweets traveled. You did some quick research. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) claims that “Racism, sexism, homophobia, religious extremism and conspiracy theories have deep roots in social media, and perpetrators have recognized and capitalized on the near-universal reach of popular platforms.” In one of their latest reports – an analysis that tracked a calendar year of tweets – they contend that 4.2 million antisemitic tweets were posted and reposted on Twitter by three million unique handles. Sadly, you noticed that a middle manager who supervises you has one such unique handle and is responsible for posting and reposting tweets immersed in the subculture of white supremacy. You are not sure he knows you are Jewish and are unsure it would make a difference. Your great-grandparents were Holocaust survivors and a great uncle was a partisan fighter in the Warsaw Ghetto. Even though he is your boss, you are not prepared to stand idly by, wondering if his supervisor knows about his cyber activity, even if it’s not on work time.

Discuss your course of action.

CASE #4: The Politics of Antisemitism

A large synagogue in your area was recently vandalized. Worshippers who turned up for a Shabbat service were dismayed to find large black swastikas spray-painted on the doors and several of the Hebrew letters of the synagogue’s name ripped off the building’s exterior. A few days later, many tombstones in the Jewish section of the local cemetery were knocked over. The town has been regularly praised for its inclusivity and was regarded by its residents as a safe and happy place to live. The president of the synagogue board is outraged because the mayor of the town refuses to see any connection between the incidents. He is trying to minimize the damage by isolating the incidents and downplaying their impact. As mayor, he is trying to hold the center and lean on the town’s long history of peaceful relations among all community members. The mayor is Muslim. Some members of the synagogue are attacking him as an antisemite. You feel that the charges against the mayor are unproven and know the damage that such labels can have on an individual’s political career, but you are struggling to understand why he has not taken a more forceful stand. You decide to write him a letter.

Share the contents of your letter.

CASE #5: BDS Fatigue

You are a junior at a small liberal arts university in the Midwest. You went on a Birthright trip in the winter of your freshman year. When the trip was over, you became actively involved in your college Hillel. You wanted to stay connected to the Jewish people. You suffered two terrible years of Hebrew school in sixth and seventh grade, mostly bored and sore at your parents because you could not try out for the school’s soccer team. Birthright exposed you to a whole other Jewish universe. You had a wonderful, immersive, and positive experience of Judaism for the first time in your life. In the first semester of your sophomore year, already a board member at Hillel, you watched Students for Justice in Palestine gain momentum on campus. They held several rallies on the quad, and posters emblazoned with “Israel is an Apartheid State” were plastered all over the student center. You and some other members of the Hillel leadership rushed to remove them and put up posters in support of Israel, but SJP ripped them down. The poster war ended, unsurprisingly, in a student senate vote on whether to support BDS on campus in the late spring. You barely studied for finals, trying to galvanize Jewish and non-Jewish students to support the anti-BDS movement and vote the initiative down. The night of the vote, you stayed up until 2am, when the results were announced. Your side won by only one point. It was a pyrrhic victory – and only the beginning of the fight. Your team was exhausted, and you did poorly on finals, which were only a week after the vote. Now, in the fall semester of your junior year, you are watching a replay. The posters have gone up again. The fury is brewing, but you are mentally spent. Your parents were upset about the drop in your GPA and could not see why you prioritized a cause over your own academic success. You were upset that so few students joined you last spring and feel it’s time for other students to do their share; the problem is that so few are willing. The leader in you says to continue the fight. The student in you says to focus on your studies.

What do you do at this juncture?

CASE # 6: To Jew

Leaving a retail store and wishing the clerk a nice holiday, you stopped in your tracks when the sour clerk whispered loudly, “If only the Jews wouldn’t work us so hard.” You left the store with your friend, puzzled and upset. You were in a large store; the chain was founded and run by a man with no Jewish ties, and the store was located in a rural area without a noticeable Jewish population. The two of you check in with each other. “Did he say what I thought he said?” you ask your friend. “He did. What should we do?” she responds. “Nothing,” you reply. She was unsatisfied with your passivity and marched back into the store to tell the clerk she was Jewish and offended by his comment. The clerk looked at her stone-faced and said, “You don’t look Jewish.”

What should your friend say or do next?

CASE #7: Antisemitism for Children?

A friend in your neighborhood has a daughter in 2nd grade who frequently comes over to play with your 7-year-old daughter. They have developed a lovely friendship, similar to the one you have with her parents. One afternoon in your kitchen, as the girls were having a snack, the neighbor’s child asked your daughter for the name of her priest.

“We don’t have a priest. We have a rabbi.”

“Why don’t you have a priest?”

“Because we’re Jewish.”

“I hate Jews. My dad says that Jews don’t go to heaven.”

You overhear this and are not sure where this rather demure girl picked up this kind of language. When you walk her back to her house, you make a point of speaking to her father privately when he answers the door. You share the dialogue. Shockingly, he is not surprised. He and his wife are very religious. The father simply says, “Jews who do not believe in Jesus will go to hell,” as if it were as evident as a simple math problem.

How do you respond?