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‘Our Class,’ a timely play asking big questions about antisemitism, makes its New York premiere

(New York Jewish Week) —“But what could I do?” 

Variations of this question are asked again and again throughout Polish playwright Tadeusz Słobodzianek’s “Our Class.” The play is inspired by the real-life 1941 pogrom in the small Polish village of Jedwabne, in which local residents murdered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors.  

And now, at a time of increasing antisemitism stemming from Israel’s war with Hamas, “Our Class” makes its New York premiere at Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Fisher Fishman Space. 

“Our Class,” first produced in 2009, tracks 10 Jedwabne residents — half of them Jewish and half Catholic, with the majority of the characters based on real people — from 1925 through the pogrom and beyond. The characters begin as young classmates, children of 5 and 6 playing and learning together and dreaming of their futures. In this context, “But what could I do?” refers to harmless events, such as one student silently standing by while another is teased for his unrequited crush. As they reach young adulthood, the classmates are haplessly thrust into the roles of victim and perpetrator, and “But what could I do?” takes on a terrifying gravity. 

That the murderers in “Our Class” were conducted by Jews’ neighbors, rather than occupying German Nazis, is what made director Igor Golyak so eager to tackle Słobodzianek’s text. 

“It was just regular people, just like you and I, that could reach these heights of hate and find a reason to burn their neighbors,” Golyak, a Ukrainian Jew who immigrated to the United States at the age of 11, told the New York Jewish Week. 

Based in the Boston area, Golyak is the founder and artistic director of Arlekin Players Theater, a company made up of Jewish immigrants and refugees from Eastern Europe dedicated to presenting Russian theater. He’s gained acclaim in recent years for his virtual theater work, including “State vs. Natasha Banina,” which was a New York Times Critics Pick, and “chekhovOS/an experimental game/,” starring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jessica Hecht. 

When Golyak and his creative team first read “Our Class” together in May 2023, they drew comparisons to the ongoing war in Ukraine. What they couldn’t have expected was how Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, and its aftermath that has included both a war in Gaza and global displays of antisemitism, have recast Słobodzianek’s play in a new light. 

“It feels very urgent, like it’s another recognition of the importance of not forgetting the antisemitism and hate that unfortunately exists in the world,” Golyak said. “We think this lies asleep in the world culture. But it is a very light sleeper.”  

The Jedwabne pogrom was thrust into the spotlight in 2001 with the publication of Jan T. Gross’ book “Neighbors.” Gross, a professor of history at Princeton University, discovered that despite public perception — and even a memorial in Jedwabne — the massacre of the village’s 1,600 Jews did not happen by the hands of the Nazis. Rather, it was the local Catholic Polish population who took the initiative in torturing, murdering and burning alive their neighbors. Gross’ revelation led Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwasniewski to apologize to the international Jewish community in 2001, though some Poles remained in denial. A decade later, on the 70th anniversary of the massacre, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski asked for forgiveness again.

More recently, however, the Polish government has adopted an official stance of denial, vigorously rejecting any claims of local complicity in the Nazi campaign against the Jews, which left 90% of Polish Jews dead.

Alexandra Silber, a Jewish actress with a ream of Broadway and West End credits who’s playing the part of Jewish classmate Rachelka, has also felt the tenor of the play shift since the events of Oct 7. “It’s made it horrifying and relevant in a new way,” she said. “I felt really called upon by Rachelka to serve her. I have a lot to say on her behalf.” 

Rachelka is one of a handful of Jewish characters in “Our Class” who aren’t killed in the pogrom. One of her Polish classmates hides her away and eventually marries her. She converts to Catholicism and changes her name. Like with each of the 10 classmates, Rachelka’s journey raises its own questions. 

“Is it better to survive?” reflects Silber. “Rachelka’s Jewishness, her Jewish name, her Jewish soul departs, and she has to live as a new person. Every single thing about her survivor’s life does not resemble who she began as, and is that better?” 

Alongside Silber, the cast is made up of actors hailing from New York, Los Angeles, Ukraine and Russia, and includes both Jewish artists and some with Polish roots. “We’ve really created an unbelievable diversity of humanity in our group of 10,” Silber said. 

Golyak adds that after the Oct. 7 attack, the cast came together in a series of discussions. “We have cast members and team members, designers, that were personally affected by Oct. 7 because of relatives and friends that have actually been murdered,” he said. “So it’s been a very, very personal journey.”

While “Our Class” dives deeply into its challenging subject matter, it is not without its moments of levity. 

“I’m trying to find a lot of humor in this play because people are funny, and that’s what makes them humans and humane,” Golyak said. “We can relate to people that make mistakes and are sometimes funny and sometimes awkward, and these people are just like us.”

New York audiences will have the chance to see themselves most clearly in the character of Abram, the only one of the 10 classmates who left for the United States before the 1941 pogrom. Throughout the play, Abram (played by “Indecent” star Richard Topol) communicates with his old friends through letters, trying to piece together the conflicting information he receives from the safety of his home in New York. 

Abram serves as a foil, a reminder of the fallibility and subjectivity of memory. “We need to understand this as people living in America, separated by the ocean from evil,” Golyak said. “The more relatable Abram is, the more we understand that this evil is actually closer than we think.”

Technology has become a hallmark of Golyak’s work, and this production uses devices such as a fake documentary movie set — complete with an onstage camera person — along with chalk drawings and projections, to expose elements of the characters’ journeys. He’s joined by a creative team including scenic designer Jan Pappelbaum, music director Lisa Gutkin, choreographer Or Schraiber, and many more.

“Our Class” raises a lot of questions, but neither Słobodzianek nor Golyak are interested in offering simple answers. But for the director, that’s precisely the point. 

“It’s very difficult to overcome these big events in one’s life, and I’m definitely not here to judge who did the right thing or the wrong thing, because I don’t know how I would act in these situations,” Golyak said. “But the beauty of this play is that it asks these questions.”

“Our Class” will be performed through Feb. 4 at BAM’s Fisher Fishman space (321 Ashland Pl., Brooklyn). Tickets start at $59.

The post ‘Our Class,’ a timely play asking big questions about antisemitism, makes its New York premiere appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Alleged Neo-Nazi Indicted for Plot to Carry Out New Year’s Eve Mass Casualty Attack Against Jews, Other Minorities

An American flag waves outside the US Department of Justice Building in Washington, US, Dec. 2, 2020. Photo: REUTERS/Tom Brenner

US federal authorities have charged, and a grand jury has indicted, a foreign national with planning a mass casualty attack against Jews and other minorities in New York on New Year’s Eve.

The United States Attorney’s Office of the Eastern District of New York reported that a grand jury indicted Georgian national Michail Chkhikvishvili with soliciting hate crimes and acts of mass violence.

Chkhikvishvili is reportedly the leader of a group called the “Maniac Murder Cult,” a white supremacist, neo-Nazi group.

Specifically, he was recruiting people to carry out arson and bombing attacks — as well as attacks aimed at Jewish and other minority children, according to US officials.

The US Attorney’s Office explained that the “planned New Year’s Eve attack involved Santa Claus handing out poisoned candy to racial minorities as well as distributing poisoned candy to Jewish children in Brooklyn.”

There were more than 450,000 Jews who lived in Brooklyn as of May 2024. Many neighborhoods are known to be predominantly Hasidic.

Authorities found out about the plot when Chkhikvishvili solicited an undercover law enforcement official to be involved in the attack.

He “sought to recruit others to commit violent attacks and killings in furtherance of his Neo-Nazi ideologies,” US Attorney for the Eastern District of New York Breon Peace said in a statement. “We will not hesitate to find and prosecute those who threaten the safety and freedoms of all members of our community, including members of minority communities, no matter where in the world these criminals might be hiding.”

FBI New York Acting Assistant Director Christie Curtis lauded law enforcement for stopping the attack before it could ever take place.

“The swift disruption of this individual, accused of allegedly plotting violent attacks in New York, sends a clear message: we will use every resource in our power to ensure the safety of the American people,” she said. “The men and women who work on this task force day in and day out exemplify true service to our community, demonstrating unwavering commitment in thwarting those who seek to harm our citizens and our way of life.”

The plot comes amid a wave of antisemitic attacks that ramped up in America and around the world after Hamas’ Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel, amid the ensuing war in Gaza.

Earlier this month, an observant Jew was sucker punched and beaten in the Foggy Bottom neighborhood of Washington, DC. The alleged attacker subsequently expressed his motive, saying “They’re [the Jews] the cause of all our wars,” and “We know who you are! We know the lies that you’ve told, that you have stolen the place of the true children of Israel.”

He was charged with assault and a hate crime.

In December, the FBI said there had been a 60 percent spike in antisemitic hate crime investigations since the beginning of the Israel-Hamas war. Then, in April, FBI Director Christopher Wray said the probes into antisemitic crimes tripled in the months following Oct. 7.

“Between Oct. 7 and Jan. 30 of this year, we opened over three times more anti-Jewish hate crime investigations than in the four months before Oct. 7,” he explained.

Last year, the FBI found that 63 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes in the US were directed against Jews.

The post Alleged Neo-Nazi Indicted for Plot to Carry Out New Year’s Eve Mass Casualty Attack Against Jews, Other Minorities first appeared on

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RNC Spotlights Campus Antisemitism as Elise Stefanik Teases ‘Bombshell’ Findings From US Congressional Probe

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) speaks during a House Education and The Workforce Committee hearing titled ‘Holding Campus Leaders Accountable and Confronting Antisemitism’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, US, Dec. 5, 2023. Photo: REUTERS/Ken Cedeno

US lawmakers are preparing to release later this year a trove of new “bombshell” information revealing the extent to which antisemitism has been allowed to flourish on university campuses across the country, according to a high-ranking Republican.

US Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY) spoke with political pundit and podcast host Megyn Kelly about the efforts of the House Committee on Education and the Workforce to investigate surging antisemitism, including anti-Jewish bias, on college campuses. While reminiscing over last December’s congressional hearing with the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — in which each campus leader proclaimed that calls for a genocide of Jews may not violate school rules depending on “the context” — Stefanik revealed that the committee has obtained new documents shedding light on anti-Jewish hate at elite universities.

“This is pervasive in higher-ed. We have worked on this investigation, and if you think the hearing was bad, Megyn, we’re going to have to talk about all the documents that have been turned over because of our subpoena,” Stefanik said. “We’ll put out a report later this year. That’s even more bombshell material in there. It’s a disgrace what’s happening at these universities.”

Antisemitism has exploded at universities since the Palestinian terrorist group Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, amid the ensuing Israel-Hamas war in Gaza. Over the past several months, the committee has rigorously investigated antisemitism at America’s most prestigious universities. The panel recently unearthed and exposed text message exchanges between Columbia University deans which revealed the campus leaders mocking Jewish students as “privileged.” The lawmakers also alleged, based on their investigation, that Harvard University has engaged in a “pattern of inaction” in response to campus antisemitism.

Stefanik spoke to Kelly at the Republican National Convention (RNC) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where Republicans are gathering this week to nominate their 2024 presidential candidate. The issue of campus antisemitism has been a key issue highlighted at the RNC.

On Wednesday night, Shabbos Kestenbaum, a recent Harvard graduate suing his alma mater over its alleged failure to protect Jewish students, took the RNC main stage and delivered an impassioned speech on campus antisemitism. Kestenbaum said that the surge of unchecked antisemitism on Harvard’s campus in the months following Oct. 7 left him disillusioned with progressives, prompting his move to the political right. 

“After Oct. 7, the world finally saw what I and so many Jewish students across this country experienced almost every day,” he told the RNC crowd. 

“My problem with Harvard is not its liberalism, but its illiberalism. Too often, students at Harvard are taught not how to think, but what to think. I found myself immersed in a culture that is anti-Western, that is anti American, and that is antisemitic,” Kestenbaum said. 

Kestenbaum implored the crowd to support the presidential campaign of Republican nominee Donald Trump. 

“Sadly the far-left wing tide of antisemitism is rising,” Kestenbaum said. “But tonight, tonight we fight back. I am proud to support President Trump’s policies to expel foreign students who violate our laws, harass our Jewish classmates, and desecrate our freedoms … let’s elect a president who recognizes that although Harvard and the Ivy Leagues have long abandoned the United States of America, the Jewish people never will.”

Anti-Israel protests have ravaged college campuses across the United States in the months following Oct. 7. Students at prominent universities such as Harvard, Columbia, and MIT have participated in demonstrations chanting slogans such as “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” and “Burn Tel Aviv to the ground!” Progressive student organizations have also openly banned “Zionists,” forcing Jewish students to choose between supporting Israel and maintaining their social network. Campus demonstrators have also openly cheered Hamas and in some cases threatened or committed violence against Jewish students.

Jewish donors and alumni have condemned university administrators over their unwillingness to shut down demonstrations. As a result, many of them have pulled funding and vowed not to allow their children to enroll at their alma maters.

Robert Kraft, owner of the New England Patriots NFL team, has ceased donating to Columbia University, citing “virulent hate” against Jews on campus.  Ross Stevens, founder and CEO of Stone Ridge Asset Management, pulled a $100 million donation from the University of Pennsylvania. The MIT Jewish Alumni Alliance urged Jewish graduates and allies to protest campus antisemitism by lowering their annual donation amount to $1.

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Pro-Israel Group Calls on US Justice Department to Apply ‘KKK Laws’ to Pro-Hamas Demonstrations

Pro-Hamas demonstrators at Columbia University in New York City, US, April 29, 2024. Photo: REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

StandWithUs (SWU), a Jewish civil rights group based in California, is imploring the US Justice Department to crack down on masked protests at Columbia University by enforcing legal statues which are widely referred to as the “KKK Laws,” citing a hostile environment at the school in which pro-Hamas demonstrators who have harassed and assaulted Jewish students continuously evade justice by concealing their identities.

Dating back to the administration of former US President Ulysses S. Grant, the so-called “KKK Laws” empower the federal government to prosecute those who engage in activities which violate the civil rights of protected groups, as the Ku Klux Klan did across the US South during Reconstruction to prevent African Americans from voting and living as free citizens. StandWithUs alleges that five anti-Zionist groups — most notably Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) — currently operating on Columbia University’s campus have perpetrated similar abuses in violation of Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which guarantees all students, regardless of race or ethnic background, has the right to a safe learning environment.

The most obvious parallel between their conduct and the KKK’s, StandWithUs noted, is an inveterate shrouding of their members’ faces with masks and keffiyehs, the traditional headscarf worn by Palestinians that has become known as a symbol of solidarity with the Palestinian cause and opposition to Israel. Images and footage of the practice have been widely circulated online, and it has rendered identifying the protesters — many of whom have chanted antisemitic slogans, vandalized school property, and threatened to harm Jewish students and faculty during a weeks-long demonstration between April and May — virtually impossible.

Additionally, the groups — which also include Within Our Lifetime (WOL), Columbia/Barnard Jewish Voices for Peace (JVP), Columbia University Apartheid, Columbia School of Social Work 4 Palestine (CSSW4P), and Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine (FJP) — have proclaimed their intention to purge Columbia’s campus of Zionists, a category which includes an overwhelming majority of Jews in the US and around the world. Their rhetoric, StandWithUs added, is unlike any uttered in the US since demonstrations against school integration in the 1950s.

“We hope the Department of Justice (DOJ) will take this opportunity to restore justice on Columbia University’s campuses and hold bad actors responsible for violating federal laws,” Yael Lerman, director of the SWU Saidoff Legal Department, said on Wednesday. “Columbia President Shafik’s concession that Columbia is a hostile environment for Jewish students in violation of Title VI reflects a critical need for the current administration to take decisive action at Columbia.”

Lerman added, “We urge the DOJ to investigate the school’s failure to prevent groups and individuals on its campus from joining forces and depriving Jewish students of their civil rights, a failure that runs afoul of the KKK laws.”

SWU’s letter — sent to US Attorney General Merrick Garland and the Justice Department on Wednesday — comes amid an ongoing lawsuit the organization’s Legal Center for Justice (SCLJ) filed against Columbia University in February over its alleged failure to prevent and respond to an explosion of anti-Jewish hate incidents which have occurred on the campus since Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre across southern Israel, an event the protesters cheered and defended as an act of decolonization inspired by the ideas of far-left political philosophers such as Frantz Fanon.

SWU amended its complaint against Columbia in June, adding 45 students as plaintiffs and over “230 pages of allegations.” Meanwhile, the accusations which surfaced following the group’s first filing have already stained Columbia’s reputation.

“F— the Jews,” “Death to Jews,” “Jews will not defeat us,” and “From water to water, Palestine will be Arab,” Columbia protesters chanted on campus grounds after Oct. 7, violating the school’s code of conduct but never facing consequences for doing so, the complaint alleges. Faculty engaged in similar behavior. On Oct. 8, professor Joseph Massad published in Electronic Intifada an essay cheering Hamas’ atrocities, which included slaughtering children and raping women, as “awesome” and describing men who paraglided into a music festival to kill young people as “the air force of the Palestinian resistance.”

The protesters later reinforced their rhetoric with violence, the complaint adds. They beat up five Jewish students in Columbia’s Butler Library. Another allegedly attacked a Jewish students with a stick, lacerating his head and breaking his finger, after being asked to return missing persons posters she had stolen. Following the incidents, pleas for help went unanswered and administrators told Jewish students they could not guarantee their safety while Students for Justice in Palestine held its demonstrations.

The school’s powerlessness to prevent anti-Jewish violence was cited as the reason why Students Supporting Israel (SSI), a recognized school club, was denied permission to hold an event on self-defense. Events with “buzzwords” such as “Israel” and “Palestine” were purportedly forbidden, administrators allegedly said, but SJP continued to host events while no one explained the inconsistency.

Columbia University president Minouche Shafik, who took office in July 2023, recently attempted to assuage concerns that Columbia has become a sanctuary for antisemites after it was revealed that five high-level administrators participated in a group-chat in which ideas that “disturbingly touched on ancient antisemitic tropes” were exchanged. She fired none of the administrators, however, which has led to calls for her to resign from office.

“We will launch a vigorous program of antisemitism and antidiscrimination [sic] training for faculty and staff this fall, with related training for students under the auspices of university life,” Shafik said in statement. “Columbia’s leadership team recognizes this as an important moment to implement changes that will build a stronger institution as a result. I know that you all share this commitment.”

Follow Dion J. Pierre @DionJPierre.

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