By Gwyneth K. Shaw
An education program developed at UC Berkeley aimed at stamping out antisemitism on campus is finding a national audience, with help from a $25,000 grant and a video that strives to put a complex history into simpler terms.
The Antisemitism Education Initiative began in 2019 and is coordinated by the UC Berkeley Chancellor’s Committee on Jewish Life and Campus Climate, the Center for Jewish Studies, the Helen Diller Institute for Jewish Law and Israel Studies, Berkeley Hillel, and the Magnes Collection of Jewish Art & Life.
The initial goal was a simple one, according to Berkeley Law Professor Steven Davidoff Solomon, who started the initiative with UC Berkeley history Professor Ethan Katz and Berkeley Hillel Executive Director Adam Naftalin-Kelman: To educate students and other members of the school community about the roots of antisemitism and modern examples of anti-Jewish bias.
“UC Berkeley is rightly celebrated for its history of free expression and for being an inclusive community,” Solomon says. “I really wanted to make sure that when we consider questions of racial justice, antisemitism is a part of that discussion.”
In the fall of 2020, the initiative received a $25,000 grant from the Academic Engagement Network (AEN), a nonprofit organization that works to promote free expression on campus, support research and education about Israel at universities, and oppose efforts to delegitimize Israel.
The initiative has hosted events, developed a presentation that can be used at new student orientations, and run workshops for faculty and staff. It’s offered consultations and informal advice to educators around the country, and is working to promote what it calls the “Berkeley model” even more widely.
With the grant money in hand, Solomon, Katz, and Naftalin-Kelman worked with Oakland filmmaker Sarah Lefton to write and produce “Antisemitism in Our Midst: Past and Present,” an 11-minute video.
“With heightened anxiety about antisemitism around the country and the disturbing trend of rising antisemitic incidents on college campuses, this educational resource couldn’t be better timed,” AEN Executive Director Miriam Elman says. “We are certain that university leaders, and especially diversity officials and staff, will find the film incredibly helpful in their efforts to promote the values of tolerance, inclusion, and respect for Jewish and all students on their campuses.”
Navigating a tricky course
In simple terms featuring historic and contemporary artwork and photographs, the fast-paced video both explains the roots and persistence of antisemitism and the ways American Jews fall outside the nation’s tendency to define race as white or Black. Jews have benefited from white privilege, it says, while also suffering from discrimination because of this “other” category that can prompt bias.
The video wades into the contentious Israel-Palestine conflict and draws clear lines. Criticizing an Israeli policy, it asserts, isn’t antisemitic. But using traditionally antisemitic stereotypes to make that criticism, or denying the Jewish people the right to a state while defending the right of autonomy of other nations, is.
“It was immensely challenging to try to develop something that would be at once clear and unambiguous on key issues, and sensitive to nuance and the range of experiences of those in a student body so diverse as Berkeley’s,” Katz says.
The initiative’s leaders want readers and viewers to come away from the project’s materials with three main points in mind: First, that Jews in America have historically never really been considered “white,” either by themselves or by outsiders, and antisemitism has a long history as a specifically racially defined hatred. With that in mind, movements to combat racially-based discrimination or exclusion today, such as hatred of Black Americans, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Arab Americans, immigrants, or other historically disadvantaged ethnic minority groups, need to include antisemitism as part of the lexicon.
Second, just as community members take care in conversations about other historically oppressed minority groups, the same care is needed when it comes to topics related to Jews and Israel. Campus communities should be aware of specific historical and persistent anti-Jewish stereotypes and seek to avoid them in contemporary conversations, particularly in conversations about Israel.
Third, while there is room for robust debate about the state of Israel’s policies, criticism should never cross the line into antisemitism. Jewish students should not be singled out and asked about their position on Israel when the nation is not the topic of the discussion, nor have to make certain commitments or avoid certain associations related to Israel in order to be welcomed into spaces that have little or nothing to do with Middle East politics.
“If we think about comparable situations for students of other minority backgrounds or affiliations, we would never think that singling them out to state their position on a hot-button issue related to their group was reasonable,” Katz says. “Likewise, we would see an effort to make them renounce a part of their basic identity — like connection to Israel in this case — as an effort to deny or denigrate part of their culture, and this would make us very uncomfortable. The same standard should apply to the way we interact with Jewish students.”
The script for the video took more than four months of work. Katz, Solomon, and Naftalin-Kelman pored over every sentence, considering how each word would speak to different audiences and looking for phrases that might cause misunderstandings.
Then they showed a rough cut of the video to groups of students from diverse backgrounds. Their feedback, Katz says, was hugely valuable and led to more tweaking of terminology and historical episodes. The makers wanted to acknowledge as many important dimensions and experiences as possible, he adds, and that effort is paying off.
“We’re proud of the product and we’ve received overwhelmingly positive feedback from a range of perspectives,” Katz says.
The video, and the broader initiative, is especially important now, Solomon says.
“In the past few months, antisemitic incidents are up an astounding percentage,” he says. “This video is part of the fight to ensure that people are educated and aware and have the tools to fight antisemitism. I’m proud that Berkeley is a leader in this movement.”