Blogcast 3: Contemporary Antisemitism and Jewish Education: What's To Be Done?


December 2, 2014

This unique online four-day event brings together an historian, a psychologist, two researchers, a rabbi and a Jewish educator from North America and the United Kingdom to make sense of contemporary antisemitism and consider how to have meaningful dialogue on it in the classroom.


  • Alex Pomson, Rosov Consulting

  • Ruth-Anne Lenga, Center for Holocaust Education, Institute of Education, University of London

  • Eliyahu Fink, Pacific Jewish Center

  • Clive Lawton, London Jewish Cultural Centre; Limmud

  • David Bryfman, The Jewish Education Project

  • Stuart Charme, Rutgers University (Camden)




Alex Pomson
The spectre of antisemitism is a remarkably effective stimulus to Jewish connection. In the nineteenth century, antisemitism brought Herzl back to his community. Today, contemporary educational travel programs to Holocaust-sites prompt thousands of young Jews to connect with the Jewish collective. And yet, a Jewish identity forged through an encounter with antisemitism is surely warped: it depicts the Jew as victim; the object of other people’s prejudice.

What should educators do about antisemitism today? Not to alert young people to its recent virulent reemergence, and to familiarize them with this phenomenon, denies a reality that – unfortunately - impinges on the lives of many people. But to dwell on this contemporary phenomenon risks raising a generation of young Jews fearful of the world, convinced of their own special victimhood, and scared of their own shadows.

How do you recommend approaching this challenging dilemma?

Eliyahu Fink
Great question. It's something that I personally struggle with and I can sense a communal tension between positive Jewish identity or pride and a sort of tribalism based on anti-Semitism.

One thing that is interesting to me is the difference between the dominant Ashkenazi culture that is deeply influenced by the pain and suffering we experienced for 1000 years of European history and the dominant Sephardi / Mizrachi cultures that place far less emphasis on anti-Semitism. Our world is more similar to the world of the non-Ashkenazim in most places. I think the first step to approaching this dilemma is to try and step out of the Euro-centric model of Judaism and focus on the present version of multi-culturalism that is so en vogue today.

The goal is to achieve a level of Jewish pride and identity that exists independent of persecution and perceived hatred of others towards us. Plus, it has to feel authentic and it cannot feel like Supremacism, to us or to others.

One approach to anti-Semitism that I think works well today is used by the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles. Their exhibits and narrative use historical anti-Semitism as a launching point for a discussion about all kinds of xenophobia, racism, bigotry, intolerance, and discrimination. Taking pride in turning our negative experience into a positive experience for others is an excellent way to channel our collective history and existential angst into a positive force.

David Bryfman
Let it be known that I really didn’t want to write this blog entry on day one of this week-long cyber exploration looking at the nexus between Jewish education and anti-Semitism.

A core objective of Jewish education, for me at least, is to foster a deep empathy and connectedness between Jews all around the world. And understanding that when Jews suffer anywhere around the world should have an impact on you is all part and parcel of what many of us now refer to as Jewish Peoplehood.

Except that it’s not working out quite that way in 21st century Jewish life. No matter how many times we talk about existential threats to Jews around the world, Millenials (and younger generations) in many western countries do not perceive there to be an existential threat to Jewish existence. We can tell our youth about anti-Semitism around the world, but for them its just not viewed in the catastrophic language of older generations.

There, I’ve said it. Whereas once anti-Semitism might have been a unifier for Jews, it now doesn’t even register as a part of our youth’s collective narrative.

And for those of us in the field of education – this actually makes a bit of sense. Good education has always been based first and foremost on intrinsic motivation and not extrinsic factors – of which anti-Semitism is certainly one. I’m not saying that teaching about anti-Semitism is actually not good for Jewish education, but maybe it isn’t.

Stuart Charme
If anti-Semitism is a permanent and inescapable part of the Jewish condition, then educating young Jews to be vigilant, if not fearful, would certainly seem to make sense. But if it is a situational phenomenon that is particular to specific times, places, and groups of Jews, talking about it needs to be balanced with other forms of social analysis.

I think the reason that anti-Semitism doesn't register as an existential threat, or even a milder social impediment, to my two 20-something daughters and their Jewish peers, is because they have never experienced being Jewish as a stigmatized or disadvantaged identity. Far from being victims, their experience as Jews has been marked by privilege, access to power, and a social environment where non-Jews think it's cool to be Jewish.

I think Eliyahu is right that linking the study of anti-Semitism with the study of other forms of intolerance, from homophobia to racism is a good strategy, but it requires letting go of the negative specialness or uniqueness that older Jews often associate with anti-Semitism. And it also requires acknowledging Jewish power as well as powerlessness.

The issue of power leads me to think of Israel and its centrality in many contemporary forms of anti-Semitism. This means that education about antisemitism has to be intertwined with Israel education. It is here that many thoughtful young Jews are looking for nuanced and complex analyses of Jewish power that do not use charges of anti-Semitism as a shield against any criticism of Israel's handling of the Palestinian issue, or as a reflex response that denies the authenticity and pathos of others’ narratives of victimization.

Clive Lawton
Sorry for my late arrival, but I hope I'm here now!

Where is this 'virulent re-emergence' of anti-Semitism? As far as I can see, Jews are currently - I make no predictions about next week or next year - somewhere on the top of the human heap. Young Jews today are more affluent and educated, more connected and mobile, more rooted and more successful than pretty well any other group on the planet.

As Eliyahu comments, we might do well to take a leaf out of the Sefardi book and see the world as an opportunity rather than a threat. We need to teach about the Jewish imperative of optimism and the level of ingratitude implicit in failing to recognize blessings when we're blessed. Simply, we need to stop seeing Jewish life through the lens of the first half of the 20th century and start getting with the current reality.

As I have often said, 'They kill us/hate us - Join' is not a very likely advertising slogan but appears to be the one that many want as the main motivation for today's young Jews.

Similarly, using our all too precious and limited Jewish education time to dwell on the manifestations of anti-semitism through the ages is not just a failure of imagination in what we might best concentrate on. It is an unconscionable waste of time. There is almost an obscenity that some young Jews emerge from their 'Jewish' education better understanding the workings of Auschwitz than the workings of a seder.

Of course we should commemorate and memorialize the victims of the Holocaust (though that's not education as such) but learning about its mechanics and details is an essential part of general human education - not the subset called Jewish education. Of course, insofar as Jews are human - and I'll stand by that assertion! - then young Jews need to learn too about how to avoid being a perpetrator, just like everyone else. Certainly, even more so, being among the privileged, we need to guard against such dangers, so, for example, it is worrying to see Jews joining in with the current xenophobic nonsense against immigrants and outsiders.

Anti-Semitism doesn't stick us together. It stops us thinking. But then, if we're not careful, or we learn to rely on the glue of our continuous reassertion of the existence of anti-semitism, when we get a chance to think again, we've put nothing there of value for people to think about.

Alex Pomson
Thank you to all those who helped kick off this conversation. You’ve moved us forward in multiple different directions…I want to take us a couple of steps back.

Behind your comments lie a set of assumptions about what antisemitism is. Stuart, for example, made a distinction between it being permanent and being situational.

This is a question for all of you, although I’m hoping that those who research and teach about antisemitism can be of special help here: How do you conceive of this phenomenon and especially its contemporary expressions? To put in more colloquial terms, how do you know it when you see it?

David Bryfman
The "how do you know it when you see it" questions is a very interesting one to consider - especially as educators. What educators "know and see" for so many reasons is not what our youth "know and see." Several times I have had audiences of old people cringe when I show them clips with anti-Semitic representations in popular culture (think Sacha Baron Cohen or Sarah Silverman) while young Jews literally roll around on the floor in laughter. (or maybe both examples work because they are Jewish comedians)

Ruth-Anne Lenga
Antisemitism is seen in a variety of forms in the UK - subtle and not so subtle. Motifs that resonate with the Holocaust and myths that have their roots in medieval antisemitism still persist and often appear quite blatantly.

So I guess I would advocate strongly for Jewish education to invest in building into schools' curriculum content, a carefully constructed program that seeks to help it's students recognize and respond to antisemitic signals - and begin quite early on (albeit with due care). We cannot shy away from the reality nor shield our kids from it.

Moreover this learning ( appropriated) should stretch beyond Jewish education to the wider school system. Our universities are fertile ground for overt antisemitism and so by this stage Jewish students need to be operating in an informed way - on how antisemitic ideas have developed, how they are packaged, how they might respond and how and when to draw upon organizations and structures which are in place to protect individuals. Far from young Jews seeing themselves as targets for victimhood in this process, a carefully constructed learning programme for Jewish schools that seeks to do this while inculcating empowerment and agency challenging as it will be should not be beyond the realms of possibility ( I hope).

After all it is not 'being Jewish' that causes anti semitism but the 'issues' or ignorance of those who perpetrate it. Yet bizarrely sometimes a false inference emerges that implies that there maybe something about 'Jewishness' that brings about this antipathy in people.

I remember that a year or two ago a question appeared on an A Level Religious Studies (Judaism) paper that caused a major row in the British education circles. The question was something like 'Explain briefly why some people are prejudiced against Jews'. That question, particular on a paper about Judaism ( as opposed to another subject ) suggested for some that by studying Jewish people, Jewish life, customs and religion ( the content of the syllabus being examined), one might be able to discover (and explain) just why prejudice towards Jews occurs. This was, I hasten to add, far from the exam board's intentions but many were left deeply concerned about the lack of awareness that the questions could be construed in this way. This question appearing on an national exam board paper might reinforce for Jewish and non Jewish students a deeply problematic falsity that antisemitism is inevitable.

I see some problems with inclusivity of antisemitism under a wider 'racism ' agenda, and I am not totally convinced that visits to Holocaust killing sites forges long term Jewish collectiveness. But I'll save these worries for another post once I have tried to get my head around them.

Eliyahu Fink
Alex is asking the right question. What do we actually consider to be anti-Semitism today?

In my opinion, the goal posts have moved to include a much less nefarious form of soft anti-Semitism than in previous eras. If we would tell our Ashkenazi great great grandparents that a synagogue was tagged with swastikas or a group was boycotting products from Israel, describing the prevalent anti-Semitism, they would laugh at us and ask to trade their anti-Semitism for ours.

There is no institutional anti-Semitism anymore. Heck, even a chapter of the KKK lets Jews join now. The things we call anti-Semitism are mostly subtle and usually the wild ravings or rantings of small fringe groups or marginalized individuals. We object to language and implications and stereotypes, and we should. But these are all very enlightened forms of bigotry. There are no pogroms, there are no Crusades, there are no laws that discriminate against Jews, and every opportunity in the world is available to Jews in almost every country Jews live. So, I do believe we need to be honest about the kinds of things we classify as anti-Semitism and we need to be careful that we don't overstate our case.

The other part of all this is whether the anti-Semitism that we do experience is in fact unique. I don't believe there are many people who love all kinds of people and are tolerant of others except they hate Jews. People who hate Jews are the same people who hate other minorities and ethnic groups. In order for something to be the unique thing we call anti-Semitism, I think it should be a special kind of bigotry that applies to us uniquely.

All of this goes to the question of how valuable it is to spend time and educational resources on something that has very real historical implications but at best has been completely redefined for the 21st century to include very soft bigotry and at worst is merely a clarion call of doomsday prophets who are just waiting for the world to come to its senses and start systematically terminating us, like they are supposed to. Maybe we should start taking credit for helping the world become more tolerant and accepting instead of insisting that the world is anti-Semitic and one step away from the apocalypse?

Alex Pomson
I’m going to push back here.

I hear some of you saying a version of, what looks like antisemitism to one generation doesn’t look or feel like it to another – or more crudely, “antisemitism is in the mind.” Others of you are saying, at worst, if Jew-hatred is a reality today, it’s fairly tame (daubings or name-callings) compared with what Jews experienced in the past at the hands of Cossacks or Nazis. Eiyahu, in this respect you used a kind of oxymoron, "soft bigotry."

I’m no expert, but I live in a Jerusalem neighborhood filling fast with French immigrants who have had enough of extreme physical and verbal abuse in the places where they have lived for many years.

I have close family in England who are too scared to wear Jewish jewelry in public. They know of too many others who have been roughed up for making the same mistake.

And I have read of university students on campuses in the US who are fearful of expressing pro-Israel views.

These examples (thankfully) might not compete with atrocities from the past (few could compete with the Cossacks), but they seem consistently to involve some form of violence against Jews for being Jews, surely a dictionary definition of antisemitism. And in many parts of the world, these phenomena seem much more widespread today than at any time over the last twenty-five years.

This might not be doomsday, but isn’t it an objective reality that calls for some educational response?

Stuart Charme
Let me respond to a couple of points in the last round of comments. I think it would be very telling to look at what David called antisemitic representations in popular culture. I'm not so sure that there would be general agreement about whether jokes about Jewish mothers or Jews and money are ipso facto antisemitic, even when they're part of the joking that insiders in all groups participate in. Do we reject Philip Roth for what some called his antisemitic portrayal of Jews in Portnoy's Complaint and elsewhere, or do we celebrate him as another Jewish Nobel Prize winner? If just one Jew considers something antisemitic, while many others don't, does that make it antisemitic? Depending on one's politics, the boundaries of acceptable ways to talk about Jews will differ.

I'm also struck by Ruth-Anne's description of universities as fertile ground for anti-semitism and Alex's mention of "pro-Israel" college students being afraid to express their attitudes.

I have studied at and worked in universities for over 40 years and the only antisemitism I ever encountered was when a holocaust denier not associated with the university placed an ad in the school newspaper offering a reward for proof that any Jews were gassed at Auschwitz.

What many Jewish students encounter at university is exposure to a different analysis of Israel's history and policies vis a vis the Palestinians than they heard growing up, and often it comes from Jewish professors. This is infuriating for politically conservative Jews like Daniel Pipes, who resent the liberal slant of many academics in general. I'm sure there are isolated examples where criticism of Israel can start to seem threatening to Jewish students, but it is all too easy for any criticism of Israel to be labeled "anti-Israel," which for some is the most common form of the "new" anti-semitism.

There certainly are examples of vile anti-semitism in the present-day Arab world, where it is easy to find regular reference to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and to the "blood libel." And I think in France and England, where there are large Muslim populations, vandalism and violence against Jews is a real and troubling reality. I don't see anything really equivalent to that in the U.S. To my mind, it is the Christian right which, despite its stalwart support of Israel, adheres to an eschatological worldview that is antisemitic in a more theological way. The end-times, that most of them believe are near, will require the Jews of the world to realize their mistake and finally accept Jesus, or be destroyed in a final apocalyptic battle.

Clive Lawton
I walk about all over Britain and the world with my kipa on and do not feel the fear that others seem to feel. 'They know of too many who have been roughed up...' How many is that actually? Or is it the furious broadcasting of this or that case from time to time that aggravates that disproportionate fear? Who is being under-sensitive or over-sensitive here?

Recently in Turkey I was warned not to wear my kipa and yet I did. (The world is too big for me to go to places where I need to hide!) And in fact two people did shout at me in the street. 'Shalom' they shouted. One was disappointed to learn that I was not Israeli since he hadn't met any Israelis for a while and was sorry not to see any any more in Istanbul.

As for France, go to the Jewish areas and see how afraid people are as they walk around. Not very! It is true that there have been some horrible manifestations in France from time to time and the majority of French Jews, having escaped North Africa only recently, thought they'd got away from this stuff, so it's not surprising that their very shallow roots in that country are easily uprooted by such events. Not to mention being strongly encouraged to leave by aliyaniks and their friends. Listen to the view of French Jewish leadership on this instinct to leave - and count how many people are actually going compared to how how many are staying. How many of the Jews going to Israel are long standing French Jews. Not many I think.

And are US students afraid to voice their opinions because they are so threatened or because they've never been taught to argue their case. I wouldn't be surprised if they hear every challenge as anti-semitism because that's the way they've been taught to expect the world to be. I'm not convinced.

Having said that, though, I must admit I'm really bad at spotting anti-semitism, as the real intense hatred that I think anti-semitism is, usually driven by some perverted ideological justification, religious in the old days, racial in past times and now quasi-political.

I've only rarely come across that. I've come across many thoughtless people who pick up the zeitgeist that says that Israel is uniquely oppressive - till they think about it. I was beaten up in my primary school more than fifty years ago for killing Jesus (but I'm convinced that no-one in that playground knew or cared who really killed Jesus or why it mattered. So clearly there are tropes which can lie very close to the surface and can activate people's tendency to distrust the other.

At the same time, In China, I've been interviewed by locals with admiration since they want to find out how the Jews so successfully dominate the world, run the banks, control the media and so on. They want to do it as well as we do!! Yorkshiremen and Scots speak proudly of their reputation for parsimonious money management and several nations are proud of their nose shapes without fear or self-consciousness. Some of these aspects of old anti-semitism simply don't resonate any more. If people think the Jews are good with money - I'm not, by the way - I wish someone would teach me! - then maybe we need not always react with defensive accusations of malevolence. It might be admiring. (Of course if we are entirely against any kind of stereotyping, we'd better make sure our own house is in order before throwing stones.)

But to come back to the educational aspect of things, I'd want to argue that it is the Jews' job to discomfort the world and if people are entirely easy with us we're not doing it right. So we should worry about whether or not the world finds us easy to fit into its scheme or easy to ignore. We should be worrying about whether or not the world finds us hard to stomach because we are challenging them in really important ways.

In the nineteenth century it was around the issue of emancipation (good). In the 20th it was on issues of the equality of all humanity (wonderful that Hitler claimed that conscience was a Jewish invention - I'd love to believe he was right!) but now what is it? That the Jewish version of nationalism is not as benign as nationalism can be? That the Jewish way of waging war doesn't fit with spurious standards of kindliness when killing each other? Most of this is tosh of course and we should challenge such stupid standards - and even wonder why such disproportionate criticisms are levelled against Israel, but we should not be preoccupied with our misfortunes and fail to notice there are a good few countries in the world where it is fashionable for the fashionable to pick on them disproportionately - and maybe understand that Israel is picked out by some at least since it is seen to be one of the last vestiges of European colonialism, for example, rather than a demonstration of unique Jewish malevolence.

In general, we should only see anti-semitism when we have exhausted all other likely explanations. That way we might wean ourselves off this instinct to special pleading and avoidance of criticism by always accusing our critics of something more unacceptable. They might just be thoughtless. They might just be stupid. They might just be ill-educated. And, of course, they might just be right!

Jonathan Cannon  Added by: CASJE
Thank you for bringing this important topic into the domain of public discussion. It seems to me that there are actually two distinct areas of education that relate to anti-Semitism and while there is some overlap, they are certainly not the same. By distinguishing them for me at least, it will be easier, to articulate my thoughts.

The two areas are experiential anti-Semitism and anti-Semitism as part of the Jewish narrative. An entry point into experiential anti-Semitism is Alex's question, "how will I know it if I see it?"

My wife works as a grief counselor with school-age children and one of the things she often notes is that adults try to project their own emotional feelings about a loss on to children with the assumption that they should feel the same way. Her job is to work with the children to understand how the children themselves are feeling, which is often very different to the way that their parents believe that they are feeling. I agree with David that the millennial generation does not see anti-Semitism in all of the manifestations that that the older generation does. That is also true of day school students, and before we decide what to teach, I believe that we should do some work trying to better understand what it is that students have heard about anti-Semitism, what they are feeling and how it is or isn't impacting their lives. The answers will be different in London, Paris, Jerusalem and Los Angeles. To an extent, how planning and education takes place has to be connected to how students are actually responding and not how we think that they ought to be responding.

When teaching the Jewish narrative, it is important, as Clive mentioned to educate students as to manifestations of anti-Semitism, the impact that it has had on Judaism, Jewish life in Jewish identity both at the time and in later generations. It is crucial to explore the question of the relationship between anti-Semitism and how it has been a stimulus for Jewish connection (which I think was the initial discussion point) as well as those occasions on which anti-Semitism has been a stimulus for assimilation and disillusionment.

Maybe I am a lone voice, but I do feel that in age appropriate ways schools should be seeking opportunities to discuss the re-emergence of anti-Semitism. I think that it is not necessarily good education for the teacher to be the one to value this reemergence relative to historic occurrences for the reasons alluded to above. It is entirely possible that while some students might see it in the way that was described in comments above as far less significant than the experiences of our grandparents, there will be others who will see it as the most virulent outbreak of all time, because it is the one that they are experiencing.

This can be an important educational opportunity to engage students in the discussion about the relationship between anti-Semitism and the growing and more public demonstrations opposing some of Israel's actions. My sense is that it is these discussions that engage students in real and meaningful political issues without the educators having already decided what a student should feel or think, that has the potential to increase not just knowledge, but more importantly, Jewish and Israel Identity.

David Bryfman
I know that we can't speculate about hypothetical scenarios but this chain has made me think of a seemingly important and related question. If there was no conflict in Israel would there be any anti-Semitism in the (western) world today?

Jonathan Cannon  Added by: Alex Pomson
David. Please understand that I am asking this respectfully and not facetiously. Why is it an important question?

David Bryfman
No disrespect taken. The question seems to be important given the reality of the world we live in today. Who would have thought that an on-line symposium about anti-Semitism and Jewish education would even have been on the radar before this summer's events in Israel? If what we are really talking about is anti-Israelism and not anti-Semitism then I feel that the repercussions are immense on many levels.

Eliyahu Fink
Of course things that can be interpreted as anti-Semitism occur fairly regularly around the world. I don't mean to tell others how to feel about things they see or experience that seem anti-Semitic. But I will echo the thoughts of Professor Charme and urge others to consider all options before settling on anti-Semitism when seeking to explain disturbing events.

Circling back to the question that started this discussion and the "push back" from Alex earlier, I think the educational resources dedicated to anti-Semitism should reflect the personal experience of the students. We have ALL experienced historical anti-Semitism in our family history but not all of us experience anti-Semitism in our personal lives and communities. So everyone should be educated on historical anti-Semitism and the generalities of the worldwide Jewish experience today. For places struggling from anti-Semitism I think it's entirely appropriate to provide children with a meaningful context to interpret anti-Semitism and grapple with its challenges. The rest of us must practice empathy towards them, but I think it might be alarmist and somewhat xenophobic to make the existence of anti-Semitism a default position.

Clive Lawton
All tremendously helpful. Thank you.

However, asking us to locate our work in the children's experience, overlooks the fact that the experience itself is already interpreted for the children to some extent by it being defined - or not - as anti-semitism. They do that in the light of their parents'/teachers' explanation of the way the world works. For example, if we accept the (absurd) suggestion that Britain is somehow overrun with raving Muslim extremists making life for Jews worryingly insecure, then it's likely that young Jews will react with fear when a Muslim family moves in next door. (I won't even go into the resonances for this kind of stuff for Jews at this stage, but perhaps we'll return to it later.)

As I mentioned above, I am singularly bad at spotting anti-semitism. I was not brought up to see it or expect it and that probably contributed to my instinct to see either generalized prejudice or bigoted attitudes at play according to how people may perceive me as 'different' - and often I think of that as a badge of achievement or reassurance that I am discomforting them. Others though seem to be remarkably good at spotting anti-semitism at every turn. They are discriminated against at work and in the street. The passing comments of casual strangers are major affronts and so on. I don't want to adjudicate between who is right in such situations - how could I? - but it is disingenuous to suggest that we are not defining our children's response and definition of what they experience before we can come to trying to deal with their experiences as if it's nothing to so with how we tell them the 'Jewish condition' is predicated.

Two of us have commented, for example, on the possibility that US college students are particularly discomforted by their contemporary experiences on campus not because it is so virulently aggressive, but because of the way they are unprepared for it. Thus their experience and response to it is not only to do with the objective level of contumely or worse that they encounter but also to do with the prior nature of the education (or lack of it) that they've received.

If that's the case - and I await challenge! - then that gives us an element of our curriculum in this area... we must help young people analyze accurately and not simply emotionally what exactly is happening and being said in any given situation or period, not in the light of fashionable Jewish narratives (And where do they come from? And who has an interest in peddling them?) but in the light of all the available information about historical anti-semitism, current understandings from sociology and psychology of the motivations and working of prejudice, discrimination and hatred, and the actual facts of any incident rather than the assumed implications of the event or circumstances in question.

Alex Pomson
Thank you all for responding to my push-back, even if you don’t agree with me!

Wearing the facilitator’s mantle, and seeing the clock tick down toward the end of this discussion, I want to prod the group in a new direction, one that Clive started to head down in his last post: what might be the contribution of educational research to these matters?

I’ll put it more precisely: We at CASJE are committed to stimulating the development of high quality applied research in Jewish education. So…what, do you think, are the assumptions and phenomena, in relation to antisemitism, that Jewish educational research might productively explore? In fact, is this a field where research in Jewish education can make a useful contribution?

ronni  Added by: CASJE
As an educator working and living in the south, I wonder if any of the other respondents live in the south? I grew up in the northeast and experienced Antisemitism and went to the south for graduate school in the late 1970's and the Antisemitism was in hyper drive. I then moved back north until three years ago. There is a huge difference based on where you live. Though Antisemitism in North Carolina is significantly different from 35 years ago, it is still experienced on a regular basis. One might not lose their job anymore because they have a Jewish sounding last name as they could in Jacksonville for being gay, but there still may be a swastika on their child's locker.

We were having a similar discussion on JEDLAB from a more practical standpoint of how and when we educate our children in religious school about this. What can we teach and when? Where I have directed schools, teaching students how to speak truth to power begins in the primary grades and what the Jewish response to hate should be starts in Middle School. It would be interesting to know how others feel about the timing and content of teaching students the very practical tools of how to notice Antisemitism and then how to confront it when it happens.

Here is a link to the JEDLAB conversation for anyone who is interested: (link no longer available)

jan_darsa  Added by: CASJE
I appreciate the tension Alex raises in his introductory question of how and where do we address anti-Semitism in the education of Jewish youth. Anti-Semitism, is a pernicious hatred that has a long and deep history that crosses geographical boundaries and historical time periods. It is a hatred that has shaped our history as Jews across time and space. The current events of this past summer do set off alarms when one is aware of that history.

In 1933 many German Jews refused to believe Adolph Hitler and his policies regarding the Jews was anything more than a passing trend, so I am reluctant to dismiss what I know and read about current anti-Semitism as “situational” although I am certainly not equating the current incidents with Nazi Germany. However, I believe one of the best ways for young people today to recognize anti-Semitism is to understand its history. For me that doesn’t mean to “dwell” on anti-Semitism or have students spending more time on studying the Holocaust than studying Jewish texts and Jewish culture, but it does mean knowing Jewish history, which unfortunately includes a two thousand year history of anti-Semitism culminating in the Holocaust.

However, I wouldn’t want to see Jewish identity based on these topics or have these subjects taught as a vehicle to “unify” Jews or have Jews viewed as only victims in history. There has to be a broader context to frame these topics and both universal and particular goals that are clearly thought about ahead of time. I agree with Alex- the term “soft bigotry” is an oxymoron and I also believe there is no shortage of hatred out there in the world today, including anti-Semitism.

It is best to be armed with knowledge to both understand and address this phenomenon in both its universal and particular forms. This may sound self-serving, but I am proud to see so many of our teachers at Facing History and Ourselves addressing this issue in ways that empower students rather than paralyze them Our materials and pedagogy help teachers contextualize these important topics. I believe our teachers resist facile comparisons between today’s events and those that happened before and during the Holocaust while also giving students the knowledge and the tools to recognize and respond to what they see in the news and in their own lives. One of our resent publications is entitled A Convenient Hatred: The History of Antisemitism. That resource, together with our other materials, arm student with the knowledge to sift through the complicated current events.

Matt Williams  Added by: CASJE
Alex and all, thanks for the conversation so far. I want to respond to Alex's last question regarding Jewish educational research and perhaps complicate the on-going discussion. I wonder, to what extent, antisemitism is one of the few vehicles through which Jewish students are exposed to an Other, and what the implications of that may be. It's no secret that day schools are, in many ways, shelters for the privileged, and although many interesting partnership projects (like peace by piece) exist, few schools, as far as I know, take advantage of them. Antisemitism exposes students to a violent or potentially aggressive Other, one that prefigures into an existing socio-cultural narrative that has long anticipated the next Holocaust. In what ways, if at all, is that narrative salient is a question that has been explored, but what might it mean when Arabs, Germans, and the like (almost) only make their way into day school curricula through the lens of antisemitism is an open question. As far as research goes, it seems important to understand when and how students are exposed to Otherness and how, if at all, it's colored by antisemitism.

To give a possibly horrific examples from my own personal experience, I went to a male Orthodox yeshiva in middle school. The only time our hormone-filled 8th grade eyes were exposed to female nudity of any kind (including those sketched health diagrams, which were banned at this school) was through the lens of the Holocaust. Women being marched to the gas chamber. Sex ed via antisemitism?

rgafni  Added by: CASJE
So from the practical to the research- joining this conversation a bit late, but wanted to share some observations from our school community.

Issues-As partners with USC Shoa Foundation, we teach our students a global context to be upstanders through testimonies , of the Holocaust and of the genocide in Rwanda. Side by side- we view what lead people to believe horrors about the "other" and see the unfortunate similarities. How Is it relevant?

Questions-Through the use of technology, Our students are watching the news, on their facebook or other social media and ask many questions .They feel that the world is "Against us", Following the summer events in Israel they asked their teachers-do you think we are in danger?

Challenges-In preparation for our Poland Israel Encounter , parents, teachers and students debate safety, meetings with Polish students, and going through a European airport.

Possibilities- a "tighter" targeted curriculum? Collaboration and meetings with other students? Tech projects?

Prof. Dev around the subject? Experts , role models?


Jonathan Cannon  Added by: CASJE
A few thoughts:

Clive-It is really an honor to be in conversation with a teacher/mentor and a person who helped form my Jewish Identity. One of the many things you taught in the hidden curriculum was that if you are not pushing back against your teacher then you are probably not listening to what they are saying so here goes: There seems to be a overlay in this conversation of something that may best be described as "meta" or "inverted" anti-Semitism which is "the fear that people are becoming too fearful of anti-Semitism" and I am not sure what to make of that as i think it might become its own paranoia.

I am learning an extraordinary amount from the experts in this conversation and accept and agree that there is a tendency in America to over-react to certain instances. I also recognize that to some extent this debate is hypothetical because the conversation has already moved on, and that in the hallways of schools and in the students' homes, the discussion of a "dangerous resurgence" of anti-Semitism" is already front and center, So the question seems more to be a focus on what to do about it rather than whether or not it is factually accurate. To your question Alex, perhaps some research on the relationship between the fears of parents and teachers about current and historic anti-Semitism that they or their families have experienced, and what they feel it "obligates" them to teach the students might be helpful.

All that being said, I don't think it is good education to take the position that we shouldn't teach it because that will only leave the students thinking it is a big deal when it is not all that bad. The phrase and the fear are out there so we should leverage the opportunity to create engagement, not through the threat of antisemitism, but through the discussion that surrounds it and through the interest that such a discussion creates.

Lastly, as the parent of two students at American University and having visited many campuses across the North America, I really haven't detected a fear or serious concern about anti-Semitism. There is a lot of confusion about the blurring of the relationship between being opposed to Israel and being anti-Semitic but that is for another discussion!!

Thank you all for the privilege of being allowed to learn from, and engage with, your insight.

David Bryfman
There is something gnawing at me in the recent back and forth. I know/believe/feel that there are many Jewish organizations and even some communities that actually thrive on anti-Semitism. It offers a reason for the organization's existence, and a rationale for people in a community to "want be Jewish." I am not suggesting that they bring about anti-Semitism, nor take joy in its manifestation. But in many instances these communities and organizations highlight, and I believe exaggerate, instances of anti-Jewish actions. Amongst other things anti-Semitism is seen by some as good for bringing about solidarity and it is a proven fundraising technique. Yes, it makes me incredibly sad and even angry to write this but I don't think it can be ignored and I do not think that it is ultimately good for Jewish education or for Jews.

Stuart Charme
My only experience with teaching about antisemitism is at a public university with a diverse student body. In contrast to teaching about it in the context of Jewish education, where it is a matter of personal importance because it is "our history," what I discovered are the multiple ways that the study of antisemitism gets filtered through the other identities of students. It's quite different for Jewish students to study antisemitism alongside Christians, Muslims, German-Americans, African-Americans, LGBT students, etc. and hear what stands out for them, from shock at learning the long history of Christian anti-semitism to seeing parallels in the persecution of women, gays, and people of color.

How we teach about antisemitism is deeply dependent on larger narratives into which it gets placed. When I spent time in Israel I was startled to see that the analysis of antisemitism is often filtered through a Zionist critique of Jewish life in diaspora. Elsewhere, it is studied as a warning about assuming that full acceptance and acculturation are ever possible. It is easy to draw either liberal or conservative conclusions from studying antisemitism. My own focus tends to be on the conditions necessary for antisemitism to become institutionalized and weaponized, for social institutions to become corrupted and human rights to be curtailed. This makes it easy for students to see links to other issues like immigration, citizenship, government institutions from police to military, international monitoring of human rights, etc.

Ruth-Anne Lenga
In response to Alex’s steer regarding a research inquiry for Jewish education: It would be insightful to understand how young people (across a diverse demography) understand antisemitism, how they recognize it and distinguish it from other problems. It would also be interesting to ask them where they bring their understanding of antisemitism from, what knowledge and understanding they have of its origins. Exploring attitudes could also give us important insights. To what extent do they feel their identity is defined by antisemitism, and whether they think it right to spend curriculum time on studying antisemitism. With older students it would be interesting to find out whether they have encountered the ‘self hating’ Jewish phenomena and how that confuses matters. How do they view Christianity and the ‘outside’ world? How much engagement do they have with young people from other faiths? What misconceptions/prejudices might they harbor about others and why might this be so? It would be useful to work with a parallel group of young Jews at schools in non Jewish education settings too. Yes, it is different, but a study of antisemitism in class with plurality of religious and non religious backgrounds could (perhaps paradoxically) be an even more powerful context for empowering for Jewish students in their Jewish identity, challenging antisemitism and possible prejudices towards others.

Clive Lawton
First a response to Jonathan Cannon's challenge (thanks for the compliments - and memories!)

I'm not worried about a new paranoia about avoiding seeing anti-semitism. It's there and it exists. My concern is what it - and our consciousness of it - does to our future relationships. Children and women who have been abused in the past often find that these experiences disable them from healthy relationships in the present because they fear a renewal of former trauma. And they are often severely disabled from getting things into perspective so that, for example, the man who brushes past that woman on the train is misread as someone trying it on. That's my fear for Jews, and young Jews in particular, if we get this out of proportion.

rebliz4455  Added by: Alex Pomson
While I understand that the question before us is whether we ought to teach antisemitism, what is altogether unclear to me is why many of our students should care about antisemitism. In this conversation I am reading about a concern of grown adults, already two and three generations removed from current young learners. Willfully ignoring (for the moment) whether there is or is not (increased) antisemitism, and focusing on my own experience with my supplementary school students, I think that they would say that they do not experience antisemitism. Learning about it does not connect to their own perception of their existence. Other than an interesting note about some other time in history, why should they care? Their own perception is that this is not really something they need to know about to any great extent. It in no way informs their Jewish identity. When they need the tools, they are already beyond my reach, away at college, trying to figure out what is going on that ‘nobody told them about.’ Just for good measure, add in the reality that so many of their parents are actively sheltering them from having their bubbles burst “too young.”

The second issue, already raised (but I cannot locate the comment), is about ‘being different.’ For these same students I am describing above, they may not be so interested in being different. And they may not see being Jewish as being ‘different’ at all. In keeping with the Eisen/Cohen paradigm of multiple identities, being Jewish is just one (often small) part of how they see themselves. And they know this as well about the friends they have grown up with – they are first-born, have remarried parents, have some Swedish ancestry, are known for their Frisbee skills and on and on. Oh – and they happen to be Jewish or Christian or ‘nothing.’ Because antisemitism is not foundational for them, they may not, in fact, ‘know it when they see it.’

Perhaps I am jumping ahead to the ‘how-to’ question yet to be researched, but here on the grounds below the ivory tower these are the questions that concern me. I hope I have not brought the discussion crashing downward because I have appreciated the very high level of this important conversation.

Shabbat shalom.

Alex Pomson
Fellow cast-members and additional contributors, I want to thank you for giving so generously of your time this week. I imagine that the hundreds of people reading this (close to a thousand, now) are struck by your concern for the well-being and mental-health of those whom you educate. Thank you for that.

With just a few hours left before my west-coast CASJE colleagues pull the plug, I encourage you to share a last thought or insight derived from our back and forth. The screen is yours.

In the meantime, (nearly) Shabbat shalom from Jerusalem.

Ruth-Anne Lenga
Following on from Clive’s point:

Trust after abuse may never return - at best it takes time. Those subsequent intuitive responses to 'ordinary occurrences' are the body's natural survival mechanism.

It’s necessary tool for self preservation. We know from Holocaust survivors, that the legacy of their trauma does not fade - it remains. They live with the memory and seemingly ordinary events can sometimes resonate with the past. It is a struggle that permeates through generations afterwards. This as a reality - cannot avoid it. Understanding it, discussing it, speaking to others who have gone through and survived, or even finding some meaning (although this is unfathomable) (V Frankl) points i hope to a possible route to a freedom and finding trust again but the traumatized may well not fully be free of the past.

Our children will carry some of the legacy of the long history of antisemitism and it may trigger some inhibitors to trust (although I not sure if it is as compromised as Clive fears, hence the need for research). Whatever the case, a quality Jewish education should, I would suggest, give students sound knowledge of the past, the freedom to interpret and figure out what this means for them, the skills to discern antisemitism as opposed to other negative actions, strategies to handle situations while at the same time building understanding of the 'other' – the religious cultural heritage of others and provide them with experiences of working and living together.

The non Jewish world too has its part to play. I would advocate that schools and universities are more vocal in addressing antisemitism which I think is lost in the more inclusive concern of the ‘racism’ agenda which blurs the picture and does no one any favors because of the warped idea of multiplicity of ‘race’ that the term racism infers.

Stuart Charme
This has been an incredibly stimulating conversation. It has been especially interesting to be engaged in discussing these issues during a week when the American media and public has been transfixed by the lack of indictments of police for the killings of unarmed black men. It seems to me that this is a case where the study of antisemitism can offer Jewish students insight into the sense of fear, frustration, and powerlessness that people feel when societal institutions like the police and criminal justice systems do not seem ready to protect them as well as they might. It is also a case that highlights the privilege that white middle-class Jews enjoy in regard to these issues at this moment in U.S. history.

Clive Lawton
Picking up from Stuart's last point - we should not forget that right now Jews are more likely to be the powerful than the powerless and we should educate with that in mind. Education about the Shoah, for example, should spend easily as long on how to avoid being a perpetrator (which is at least theoretically teachable) as on how to avoid being a victim (which is not only probably not teachable but carries all sorts of really offensive implications and implied criticisms of the victim.)

Any education about anti-semitism needs to remind all that it is not a consistent phenomenon. Some might say that it has a disturbing capacity to transmute in different circumstances - from religious, to individual, to racist, to political - but it might also be that the Jewish tendency to be exceptional in nearly all circumstances (I don't mean 'amazing' though I hope we're that too!) means that almost whatever configuration of society and its preoccupations, we'll not quite fit. So perhaps the really persistent thing is Jews and not anti-semitism!

In the hagada we're told that 'in every generation people have arisen...' And this has become part of our narrative. No harm in that. But in the last century or so, we've read it as saying 'in every generation, everyone has arisen...' And that's simply not true. An equally important part of the narrative of Jewry is the history of Babylonian/Iraqi Jews or Indian Jews or Dutch Jews to that of central/eastern Europe. Even Israeli Jews will have to be careful of assuming that their current one century old history proves that life is better for Jews there than in any other place over a period of one hundred years.

So, what to teach?

A careful understanding of how prejudice works and its various manifestations over history as relates to the Jews.

Getting it in proportion... Far more important to remember the exodus than the slavery, though obviously you can't understand one except in the context of the other. (Interesting in this respect to see how few Jews make it through in the Seder to the truly forward looking part of the Hagada.)

Note that classically, Jews were advised to keep their mourning limited - you can't sit shiva for more than 7 days however much you may want to.

So also proportionate vigilance... Careful and guided reading of the media and discussion of local and contemporary experiences to determine what is and isn't anti-semitism - and then helpful discussion about the more constructive/effective ways to react/respond.

I'm very happy with all of Ruth-Anne's recommendations for areas of research, and also the various suggestions that Jews are often better placed to understand their situation if amongst non-Jews for at least some of the time. So interfaith encounters, school links and exchanges, visitors from other far more suffering groups currently and so on will help students refine their understanding and utilize their antennae effectively.

Finally, of course, all of this in a programme that repeatedly stresses what is obviously true - that Jews are an astonishingly fortunate and successful group, widely appreciated and admired in the world, in the upper echelons of just about everything. Time to give thanks!

Shabbat shalom to all and thanks for the chance to hear so much good stuff from so many good people.

David Bryfman
This week has offered many challenges for both understanding contemporary anti-Semitism and for Jewish education.

The key research question that I am left, particularly given the global nature of this conversation is: What are some of the core features that characterize 21st century global Jewish identity (peoplehood)? I am curious to see whether anti-Semitism even makes this universal list.

As a Jewish educator I am still left wondering why the lessons of anti-Semitism often become solely about the Shoah. And further make me wonder what the values are when we do educate about anti-Semitism (and the Shoah for that matter).

And the bridging question still remains - is there a real connection being fostered between the researchers and the practitioners amongst us? At times it seems that at least 2 levels of conversation have been ongoing, all important, and still at times very discrete.

Feeling very blessed to have been part of these conversations.

Shabbat Shalom to all

Eliyahu Fink
Thank you all for including me in this critical conversation. I've learned a lot from this discussion.

Upon reflection, my general recommendation in this area is the same as in almost any other educational question. We must not be dogmatic about anti-Semitism. We must acknowledge that it is subjective. We must teach in order to inspire self discovery. We must educate our children to think critically about the things they are being taught. Perhaps most of all, we must empower individuals to find their own voice within the various shades of approaches to all problems, including anti-Semitism.

In terms of research, I would love to see hard data on the factors that comprise a 21st century Jewish identity. Variables would include religious affiliation, observance, geographical location, and number of generations it has been from the time one's ancestors arrived to their current home country. That would be useful to educators, rabbis, and parents in helping channel their efforts and resources to provide the environment that generates the kind of Jewish identity we seek.

My best to all of you. I am happy to stay in touch. It's easy enough to reach me via email or Facebook.

This has been a great conversation, which has surfaced important questions regarding contemporary antisemitism and Jewish education.

Thanks to everyone who participated. Special thanks to The Jewish Education Project for being a partner for the blogcast.

Please visit for more information about the Consortium for Applied Studies in Jewish Education and to read our previous blogcasts.