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Boisi Center Hosts Anti-Semitism Panel

In response to the rise of anti-Semitic incidents in recent years, the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life hosted a panel on Tuesday discussing the trend, particularly comparing the rise of modern anti-Semitism with its rise in Nazi Germany. Co-sponsored by Boston College Hillel and the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning, the panel featured three members of academia whose work focuses on relations among religions.

Moderated by Rev. Mark Massa, S.J., director of the Boisi Center, the panel featured Rev. James Bernauer, S.J., director of the Center for Christian-Jewish Learning at BC; Susannah Heschel, chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College; and Mark Silk, director of the Leonard Greenberg Center for the Study of Religion in Public Life at Trinity College. 

The panel opened with an inquiry into the title, “Is There a New Anti-Semitism?” Heschel pointed out how anti-Semitism occurs when there are major shifts in society. She also discussed how this not only increases the likelihood of Jews being pushed to conversion, but also puts their lives in danger.

“Whenever there is a major social, cultural, political shift, anti-Semitism goes on the rise,” Heschel said. “What we’re finding with anti-Semitism is saying ‘you have no right to live at all.’”

Silk agreed with Heschel’s notion that anti-Semitism is facing a resurgence in a very public manner. He discussed his time at BC in 2008, saying that anti-Semitism was not seen in the everyday discourse, but this has changed in the modern day.

“Anti-Semitism was not a public thing to any considerable degree in American public life,” Silk said. “I don’t think we say that now.”

Heschel spoke to some progress in religious relations, noting that discussions of other religions have made it to BC, a Catholic school.

“Look where we are right now,” Heschel said. “We’re at a Catholic university talking about anti-Semitism. When has that happened historically?”

Bernauer discussed two leading forms of anti-Semitism: post-Holocaust anti-Semitism and post-Isreal anti-Semitism, both of which are damaging to the Jewish community. He also mentioned how Jews are being connected with the state of Israel, bringing political controversy to Jewish communities.

“Jews are identified with Israel, and there isn’t that sharp distinction made between Jews and Israelis,” Bernauer said. “And I think that’s really a great danger if it’s not directly addressed.”

The panel also discussed the “mood” surrounding political beliefs. Heschel said people’s passions need to encourage and bring action toward ending anti-Semitism.

“What do we here … is as religious people to try to change the mood, because it’s the mood that I believe is most important,” Heschel said. “It’s not only what people say and what they believe, but the passion they bring to it.”

Silk brought up a statistic that shows people are perceiving an increase in anti-Semitism. According to Silk, the percentage of Americans who believe Jews are discriminated against has risen from 44 percent to 64 percent since 2016.

“I do not think there’s been that kind of increase in discrimination against Jews, but I think it registers what [Heschel is] talking about,” Silk said.

To help illustrate this point, Bernauer mentioned a study done on early members of the Nazi party just before the Holocaust. Thirty-three percent of these early Nazis had no indication of any prejudice whatsoever toward Jews, Bernauer said, and only between 11 percent and 14 percent of early Nazis were actually anti-Semitic. 

“These are the true believers,” Bernauer said. “So it is that passion that is the scary thing. It doesn’t take a large percentage to do great damage to humanity.”

Heschel then noted that passion is apparent from both the left and the right. 

“With the right, the anti-Semitism comes from the crime,” Heschel said. “On the left, it comes with words, but words are also powerful. … But I think on both ends, there is rage and resentment, there’s so much anger.”

Massa then asked the panelists which type of anti-Semitism is worse: the rare but horrific violence and shootings from the right, or the large-scale spread of words and ideologies from the left. Silk gave a straightforward answer, arguing there is more danger from the right.

“What is bad?” Silk said. “Physical threats to the Jews? If that’s the worst, in this country, if you look at violent incidents. … I would say there’s more danger from the right. I think the locked synagogue doors. … They’re not being locked against people from pro-Palestinian groups.”

Featured Image by Molly Bankert / Heights Staff

February 23, 2020