With Anti-Semitism on the Rise, a New BU Course Takes Shape
Jewish students are expressing “growing concern and fear,” says Wiesel Center official
Anti-Semitism is raising its public profile in an already bitterly divided America.
Neo-Nazis gather on a bridge over Route 1 in Saugus holding a banner that says “Jews Did 9/11.” Paper swastikas are left at a Jewish family’s home in Stoneham. Rapper Kanye West tweets “go death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.” NBA star Kyrie Irving tweets a link to an anti-Semitic documentary. And the FBI warns of a broad threat to synagogues in New Jersey.
“For Jews in America, things are tense indeed,” according to a November 4 New York Times piece.
“The more the rhetoric gets normalized, then behaviors do as well,” says Ingrid Anderson (GRS’05,’14), associate director of Boston University’s Elie Wiesel Center for Jewish Studies and a College of Arts & Sciences Writing Program senior lecturer. “There’s rhetoric that has become more acceptable and rhetoric that people slowly begin to act on. This is where we get nervous.”
There have already been high-profile incidents and controversies on several Boston-area campuses this year. And the change is absolutely felt by students on the BU campus, Anderson says. She and Wiesel Center faculty, with help from students, were already developing a course about modern anti-Semitism that they hope will debut next fall.
“My students have talked to me about this a lot and with growing concern and fear,” Anderson says. “They hear all kinds of things they didn’t hear before. Holocaust jokes. I have several students who had close friends who were members of Christian faiths of some kind who blithely state that Jews are the Antichrist. ‘Why are you getting so upset just because I say that?’”
BU’s student population is 25 percent Jewish, she says. “Persian, Moroccan, Ashkenazi, Orthodox, Reform, secular, Israeli—we are a really diverse Jewish population here. The reason they come is because they feel this is a comfortable place to be Jewish while at a secular university getting their degree. And I think they worry that they’re going to lose that.”
Anderson says she hopes the new course will mark a step forward. “We are asking students, what do you need to know? What do other people need to know? And incorporating that into the curriculum.”
Like other forms of prejudice, anti-Semitism never really goes away, she says, but recently it’s heard more in the mainstream, fueled by the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric of the political right. “There are times when it’s more acceptable for people to say those things and times when it’s not. I don’t know that there’s more of it,” she says, “I just think we’re hearing it more. I could be wrong about that, but things like anti-Semitism are so embedded in western cultures—it’s always there.”
Anderson specializes in modern and contemporary Jewish theology, philosophy, and political thought, and teaches courses on images of Jewish masculinity and post-Holocaust ethics.
She says students are most aware of rising anti-Semitism as related to Israel, as other people often ascribe the nation’s complex politics and treatment of Palestinians to all Jews. “Jewish students often feel they’re on their back foot,” she says, “because how do you explain that you don’t care about Israel, or you care about Israel and wish it wouldn’t do that. There are these nuanced feelings that American Jews—and Jews everywhere—may have, but that kind of dialogue doesn’t allow them to express it. It’s not really a dialogue.”
The conversations can feel unsafe to students, Anderson says: “They’re young, they’re away from home, and they’re wondering, where can I go to talk about Israeli politics with other Jews in a place that’s safe—that’s getting harder and harder. What happens if I am in a classroom and a professor says something about Judaism or Israel that’s not factually accurate—where do I go? That’s really hard.”
Racism, anti-Semitism, gender bias, and anti-immigrant sentiment have always been with us in America, she says. “They always come at the same time. Anti-Semitism is a marker of deeper issues in society, generally around the economy or if there’s been some big shift politically that certain aspects of the country really feel is threatening to them. That’s when we see these things.”
After eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Anderson notes, the pendulum swung the other way under Trump, with increasing activity by white nationalists, as well as vitriolic anti-immigrant rhetoric and anti-Semitism. And there are political agendas at work.
“Pull out racist fantasies, pull out anti-Jewish fantasies, make up stuff about women—those things are so reliably divisive and [they] so reliably distract us from larger issues, which are the economy and problems with immigration law,” she says. “I don’t want to oversimplify it, but we are certainly in a stressor moment in American history.”
That’s why Anderson thinks it’s important for institutions like BU to look for ways they can contribute to change. “I think a lot of us are at a loss as to what the [BU] administration can do, other than condemn anti-Semitism, which they have done,” she says. “I can respond with what my tools are—to develop a class and make sure it fulfills Hub credits, so people who might not otherwise take it will take it and learn something. That’s what I can do.
“I’m also interested in helping to support student alliances. It would be great to see Black and Jewish students working together, to see that kind of coalition building.”