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The Value in Teaching Anti-Semitism

07/06/2015 12:22 EDT | Updated 07/06/2016 05:59 EDT
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In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader on Saturday, May 16, 2015, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei speaks in a meeting in Tehran, Iran. Iran's supreme leader said Saturday the U.S. only is pursuing its own interests amid worries about safety in the waterways of the Persian Gulf, just after U.S. President Barack Obama hosted Arab leaders at Camp David to assuage their security concerns. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

The first time I encountered the term anti-Semitism was a few years ago when I watched the German propaganda movie Triumph of the Will directed by Leni Riefenstahl. Growing up in Iran has helped me to see many similarities between the Third Reich's propaganda system and the propaganda system that is currently employed by Iranian clerics -- they both justify hatred and especially anti-Semitism.

My interest in this issue became a motivation to take a course that would specifically focus on the topic of anti-Semitism. In university, I had the opportunity to learn about the roots of anti-Semitism and atrocities committed toward the Jewish people in different eras by taking the course "Anti-Semitism from the Enlightenment to the Holocaust and Beyond." Professor Keith Weiser, whose research focuses on modern Jewish history and culture, especially about language issues in Jewish life, has taken on a significant initiative by teaching the history of anti-Semitism to undergraduate students at York University.

In my recent interview with Professor Weiser, he stated, "There is little in the way of a required curriculum beyond distributional requirements at most universities in the U.S. and Canada. Universities typically do not see it as their function to prescribe a course of study to students. That said, it would of course be beneficial if courses about anti-Semitism were available in more institutions or anti-Semitism received greater attention in courses about bigotry, racism, discrimination and the like. Anti-Semitism, often but not always linked to anti-Zionism, has become an increasingly prominent issue on a number of campuses."

However, Keith Weiser has taken one step further. He is currently working on a project with the goal to help prepare junior faculty and graduate students, who are tomorrow's professors, to teach classes about anti-Semitism. In explaining his purpose in launching this project, Weiser adds that "the impulse arises out of my experience and that of two colleagues who teach, one of whom is a philosophy professor at the University of Toronto, the other a historian who directs the Roth Center for the Study of Contemporary Racism and Antisemitism at Tel Aviv University. Once we were professors, we found a growing need to teach about anti-Semitism but had few models upon which to base our curricula and pedagogic approaches."

I asked Weiser's opinion about the relation between anti-Semitism and denial of Israel. Weiser responded:

"It is a question that affects not only academic but world politics. There have been attempts to deny the legitimacy of Israel as a nation state for the Jewish people since the foundation of Zionism as a political movement in the late nineteenth century. Clearly, there is a conflict between the Israelis, who are mainly Jews, and the Palestinians over a land both peoples hold dear and compelling historical, religious, and cultural arguments can be made on behalf of both peoples' claim to the land. For me, the most basic definition of anti-Semitism is hostility or opposition to Jews as Jews, to regard or treat them differently from other peoples because of some intrinsic quality they possess and cannot or will not rid themselves of without doing damage to who they are."

Weiser believes, "It is understandable that there are those who object to Israel's conduct because they feel it impinges on the human rights of Palestinians, including the right to national self-determination. I do not think this in itself makes you an anti-Semite; it makes you critical of Israel. But to deny Jews the right to self-determination and the same regard for their welfare that one feels is due to Palestinians and other peoples strikes me at a minimum as evidence of a double standard and likely anti-Semitic, even if those who hold this position do not recognize it as such and wish to be free of all bigotry."

Recently, Weiser and his colleagues have applied for and received a grant from the Social Science and Humanities Council of Canada to produce a volume exploring key terms and concepts in the study of antisemitism from different disciplinary perspectives and to organize a pilot summer seminar for graduate students and junior faculty to introduce them to the study of anti-Semitism and explore pedagogic models.

It is hoped that providing them with basic tools, including the published volume, will help them conceptualize and teach courses themselves. The end result will ideally be more and better courses about anti-Semitism taught from different disciplinary perspectives as well as the incorporation of antisemitism as a subject in courses dealing with related phenomena such as racism, homophobia, Islamphobia, etc.

Special thanks to Professor Keith Weiser, History Professor at York University, Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies.

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