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What is antisemitism? At a Jewish studies conference, scholars use the archives as a guide — and a warning

SAN FRANCISCO (JTA) — Did a New York City coffee shop’s workers quit over the owner’s pro-Israel stance? Was the library at Cooper Union barricaded to protect Jewish students inside from an angry pro-Palestinian mob?

Ten weeks into the Israel-Hamas war, these are the kinds of stories fueling angry debate on social media, with Jews charging bigotry and critics of Israel saying antisemitism is being weaponized to silence them.

These weren’t the kinds of events being debated — at least formally — at the 55th annual convention of the Association for Jewish Studies, held this week in San Francisco. Some 1,000 scholars gathered to network and share their latest research, which in the case of historians, Bible scholars and philosophers tends to look backwards, sometimes by centuries.

But the war weighed heavily during the conference, turning historical issues into debates very much of the moment. A presenter would be discussing, say, Jewish attitudes about contraception in the 1950s and be asked why Jewish concerns about safety are ignored by campus Diversity, Equity and Inclusion programs. At a session on what it’s like to be one of the few Jewish studies scholars at small or Christian colleges, panelists commiserated about being expected to speak for all Jews about the turmoil in the Middle East.

At one session — it had the seemingly uncontroversial title “Hurdles in the Archive: Pinpointing Antisemitism” — the moderator even warned that the panelists would be discussing the challenges of researching historical antisemitism in various archives, not current events. “So although we are, all of us, very conscious of issues around antisemitism now,” said Deborah Dash Moore, the acclaimed historian at the University of Michigan, “this is looking back.”

Good luck with that. Even discussing antisemitism in the mid-20th century, the presenters were foreshadowing the current discourse around events like those at the coffee shop and Cooper Union. Who gets to define antisemitism? If Jews call it antisemitism, must you believe them?

Riv-Ellen Prell, like Moore a force in Jewish studies for the last four decades, described her research at the University of Minnesota into an incident of alleged antisemitism at the dental school in the late 1930s. Three Jewish women in the dental hygiene program were told by an administrator — “for their own good,” according to the archive — that the school couldn’t guarantee them jobs once they graduated because many dentists wouldn’t hire Jews. The women took this as an unsubtle hint to quit, and a local Jewish newspaper editorialized against a “system set against Jews.”

In 2019, when the university was thinking about renaming buildings named after alleged segregationists and antisemites, a regent said Prell’s interpretation of the documents unfairly tagged the dental school as antisemitic. The regent insisted that the dental program administrator was a product of her time, thought she was being helpful, and wasn’t a Nazi or a member of the Ku Klux Klan.

This exasperated Prell, who said it’s a historian’s job to read primary documents and interpret them in context.

“Various administrators at the university believed they were entirely innocent of anti-Jewish behavior,” she said. “They believe that all Jews they encountered were grateful to them.”

Customers line up outside Caffe Aronne in the Upper East Side after reports that the staff members quit due to the store’s pro-Israel activities, Nov. 7, 2023. (Luke Tress)

Ari Kelman, of the Stanford Graduate School of Education, was similarly asked to comb the university’s archives for evidence of anti-Jewish discrimination in the 1950s. There was a document quoting an administrator who was worried that if the school weren’t careful, there would be a “flood of Jewish students” from two heavily Jewish high schools in Los Angeles, Fairfax High and Beverley Hills High. But did Stanford ever act on his bias, the way the Ivies once imposed quotas on Jewish students?

Kelman’s archive search came up empty until he found a tally of high schools represented at Stanford in the years after the administrator’s remarks. Sure enough, enrollments from the two “Jewish” high schools dropped dramatically. The university ultimately apologized for discriminating against Jewish students.

Kelman called the tally a “smoking gun,” but one that only made sense in — here’s that word again — “context.”

“How do you identify antisemitism when you see it, especially when it doesn’t look like Brown Shirts [Nazi paramilitary], or nobody’s using the language of ‘communists’ or other sort of coded terms for Jews?” he asked. “How do you know what it looks like?”

Brittany P. Tevis, a postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Israel and Jewish Studies at Columbia University, said that rather than asking whether something is antisemitic, it may be more useful to ask “whether or not Jews’ rights have been infringed upon. Because unlike a metaphysical concept, like antisemitism, rights are definable and they have been legally defined.”

Tevis, who will soon offer what Moore called the first course about anti-Jewish discrimination and the American legal system to be taught in an American law school, described her research into a workplace discrimination claim in 1940s Massachusetts. Although the evidence of antisemitism is “murky,” she, like Prell and Kelman, defended the historian’s right to name antisemitism when they see it.

Which brings us to the café and Cooper Union cases. In both incidents, initial reports suggested pretty clear cut instances of antisemitism, or anti-Zionism bordering on Jew hatred. In the case of the café, the Israeli owner reported that his pro-Palestinian employees quit and, according to his lawyer, tried to “force it to close in retaliation for proudly displaying the Israeli flag.” When word of the incident got out, supporters flooded the place.

But a New York Times followup suggested the story was more complicated: Workers complained that they hadn’t signed up for the owner’s pro-Israel activism at a fraught time, and some of the workers, especially the women, were uncomfortable when some customers began questioning the café’s pro-Israel stance. They denied they were antisemitic.

The Times also dug into viral allegations surrounding an Oct. 25 incident at Cooper Union’s campus in Manhattan. Initial reports, and a six-second video, suggested that Jewish students were trapped in a school library by pro-Palestinian demonstrators chanting, “Free, free Palestine.” The Jewish students said they felt threatened, although campus police said they were on the scene and saw no cause to intervene. A protester said, “in no way was this an attack on Jewish people.”

It’s hard to know how historians will describe these incidents in decades to come, especially when they remain murky in the moment. Should people “believe Jews” when they say they feel threatened as Jews? Is anti-Zionism antisemitism — and do such distinctions matter when protesters are pounding on a library door? “At no time were they yelling out that they wanted to kill people,” the Cooper Union Police Department later said of the library protesters. A fair distinction, or a pretty low bar?

In her response to the AJS panelists, Lila Corwin Berman of Temple University gingerly suggested that historians can go too far in finding evidence of antisemitism when other explanations might suffice. “Sometimes I feel like when there’s a desire to name a very particular force and determine that this is what was happening, there tends to be a politics of not wanting to ask some of the more interrogating questions,” she said — for example, what were the Jews’ motivations in reporting these incidents as antisemitism, and what are the motivations of institutions that commission historians to investigate their archives.

“I get that,” Prell later replied. “But what complicates that is [the question], how do you analyze power?”

In her presentation, Prell said she is interested in the policies and processes that prevent people from holding those in authority responsible for antisemitism.

​​”Our moment demands that we insist that without understanding the mechanisms and lived experience of racism and antisemitism, no document, whatever it states, will ever speak for itself,” she said. “Archives will otherwise be repositories for historical evidence to be dismissed, minimized and ridiculed as falling short of the elusive definition of, in this case, antisemitism.”

The post What is antisemitism? At a Jewish studies conference, scholars use the archives as a guide — and a warning appeared first on Jewish Telegraphic Agency.

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Harvard Alumni File Lawsuit Claiming Campus Antisemitism ‘Devalues’ Their Diplomas

[Illustrative] Harvard University students displaying a pro-Palestinian sign at their May 2022 graduation ceremony. Photo: Reuters/Brian Snyder

A group of ten Harvard University alumni filed a lawsuit against the institution on Wednesday, accusing it of “devaluing” their degrees through permitting and fostering an environment of antisemitism, support for terrorism, and anti-Israel sentiment. 

Filed in a Massachusetts federal court, the alumni claims that Harvard has breached an implicit contract with its graduates, promising to maintain the institution’s prestige, which they allege has been compromised due to a toxic campus environment. This, they argue, has led potential employers and prestigious law firms to distance themselves from Harvard alumni.

“Harvard has directly caused the value and prestige of plaintiffs’ Harvard degrees to be diminished and made a mockery out of Harvard graduates in the employment world and beyond,” the lawsuit said. 

The lawsuit argues that the university’s administration has failed to combat campus anti-semitism, and has consistently overlooked assaults on Jewish students and calls by students and faculty for the annihilation of Israel. It highlighted, among other things, an open letter signed by more than thirty student organizations blaming Israel for the October 7 Hamas-led attack, and campus protests which included chants like “Long live the intifada!” and “There is only one solution: intifada revolution!” and “From the river to the sea, Palestine is Arab!”

The suit also points to then-Harvard president Claudine Gay’s testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce, where she stated that calls for genocide against Jews would only violate bullying and harassment policies “depending on the context,” as indicative of the school’s tolerance of antisemitism.

The lawsuit is part of a growing dissatisfaction among graduates over what they perceive as rampant antisemitism on U.S. campuses, according to attorney Nitsana Darshan-Leitner, president of legal aid group, Shurat HaDin, who is representing the alumni alongside New York-based lawyer, Robert Tolchin.

Darshan-Leitner criticized the colleges for becoming “hate centers” under the guise of academic freedom. 

The lawsuit, Darshan-Leitner said, reveals the “growing outrage and contempt that graduates all across the US are feeling over the wild antisemitism and hate speech being encouraged and explained away on the American campuses.” 

“This dangerous weaponization of higher education by radical faculty and students as well as the impotent administration response, all justified under the guise of academic freedom, has turned the colleges into hate centers which has greatly devalued their reputation and diplomas,” she said, adding that the suit could prompt similar actions from graduates of other institutions.

Tolchin accused the university of succumbing to “the flavor of the month, the lowest level of discourse.”

“Harvard’s seal proclaims “Light and Truth” in Latin and Hebrew–yes, Hebrew, the language spoken by the indigenous Israelites. Yet light and truth have been hard to find at Harvard. The darkness of antisemitism and the dishonesty, hate, and discrimination have cast a pall over Harvard so embarrassing that people do not wish to be associated with Harvard,” Tolchin said. 

Harvard has been accused of facilitating an educational environment that is unwelcoming to Israelis and Jews for years, with the lawsuit citing annual events such as “Israel Apartheid Week” and incidents targeting Jewish students and symbols on campus. 

Antisemitism expert Dara Horn, a Harvard alumnus who was asked to join Gay’s anti-Semitism advisory committee, authored a damning essay published this week in The Atlantic in which she detailed the Jew hatred on campus predating October 7. 

She noted that staff members “who grade Jewish students used university-issued class lists to share information about events organized by pro-Palestine groups;” In one instance, a professor continued teaching after rejecting the findings of an investigation by Harvard after he was found discriminating against several Israeli students. Last spring, a student was asked to leave because her identity as an Israeli was making her classmates “uncomfortable.”

She also pointed to courses themselves “premised on anti-Semitic lies”, pointing to one called “The Settler Colonial Determinants of Health”, and noted that lecturers invited to speak at the campus included some who peddled in blood libels that Israelis harvest Palestinians’ organs or that the IDF uses Palestinian children for weapons testing. 

“The mountain of proof at Harvard revealed a reality in which Jewish students’ access to their own university (classes, teachers, libraries, dining halls, public spaces, shared student experiences) was directly compromised,” Horn writes.  The alumni’s legal action comes alongside another lawsuit filed by six current Harvard students on January 10, claiming that the university has not done enough to combat antisemitism on campus which had become a “bastion of rampant anti-Jewish hatred and harassment.” It also comes a day after a professor at the university, Walter Johnson, resigned from two anti-Zionist campus groups after they posted antisemitic cartoons.

The post Harvard Alumni File Lawsuit Claiming Campus Antisemitism ‘Devalues’ Their Diplomas first appeared on

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Israel Not Budging After Eurovision Disapproval of Song Commemorating October 7

Eden Alene, winner of the reality show “The Next Star to Eurovision,” during finals in Neve Ilan studio near Jerusalem on Feb. 4, 2020. Photo: Shlomi Cohen/Flash90.

Israeli Culture Minister Miki Zohar sent the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) a letter on Thursday urging them to approve Israel’s submission to the Eurovision song competition, after the EBU called it “too political.”

“As you know, the State of Israel is experiencing one of the most difficult and complex periods since its establishment. We lost our loved ones, and there are women, men and children who are still held captive by a terrorist organization,” Zohar said.

Israeli media reported that the broadcasting union would not approve the song, called “October Rain,” after a number of countries even issued threats to boycott the event if Israel participates. The EBU issued a statement saying “We are currently in the process of carefully examining the lyrics of the song – a process that is confidential between the EBU and the Public Broadcasting Corporation until a final decision is made. To all broadcasters, they have until March 11th to officially submit their songs. If a song does not meet the criteria for any reason, the corporation will be given the opportunity to submit a new song or new lyrics, according to the contest rules.”

“The song that Israel sent to the Eurovision Song Contest was chosen by a professional committee made up of well-known names in the local music and entertainment industry,” Zohar added. “It is a moving song, discussing renewal and revival from a very fragile reality of loss and destruction, and describes the current public mood in Israel these days. We see now most clearly because our lives – as one, united society – manage to overcome even the greatest suffering. This is not a political song.”

Despite the news that the song by Israeli singer Eden Golan would not be approved, The CEO of KAN, Israel’s national broadcasting service, and the body that approves the song, Golan Yokhpaz, said “We will not change the words or the song, even at the cost of Israel not participating in Eurovision this year.” Adding “The Israel Broadcasting Corporation (KAN) is in dialogue with the EBU regarding the song that will represent Israel at Eurovision.”

Zohar said later in a television interview “The songwriters, KAN, and the singer will have to make the decisions at the end of the day… I do think that Israel should participate in Eurovision because it is important for us at this time to be represented there, and to express ourselves throughout Europe.”

Speaking to the EBU, he said, “We trust that you will continue in your important task of keeping the competition free from any attempt at political manipulation.”

The post Israel Not Budging After Eurovision Disapproval of Song Commemorating October 7 first appeared on

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UN Representative to the Palestinians Claims Israelis Are ‘Colonialists’ with ‘Fake Identities’

UN Special Rapporteur on Palestine Francesca Albanese, October 27, 2022 (Photo: Screenshot)

The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur to the Occupied Palestinian Territories referred to Israelis as “colonialists” who have “fake identities” while quoting another Twitter/X account on Wednesday, raising questions about the impartiality of the international body.

Francesca Albanese responded to a long post by Alon Mizrahi, a far-left activist, arguing that the reason many Western nations support Israel is that they are colonial projects. 

She highlighted the following quote from Mizrahi: “free Palestine scares them [Westerners] bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities.”

” free Palestine scares them bcs it is the ghost of their own sins, rediscovered as a living, breathing human. The current political structures of colonial projects cannot afford it, so they try to uproot it. Bcs it is a fight between all colonialists and their fake identities..”

— Francesca Albanese, UN Special Rapporteur oPt (@FranceskAlbs) February 21, 2024

The original post claimed that “All colonial powers work together to guarantee the supremacy of made-up identities over genuine, native ones. Because if this model breaks anywhere, it will collapse everywhere.”

Mizrahi argued that “A Palestinian state would be a major, major moral blow to white, Western colonialism.”

The tweet was met with immediate condemnation.

David Friedman, who served as the US Ambassador to Israel from 2017 to 2021 under former President Donald Trump wrote that her tweet was “Exhibit A why the UN is a failure and why we no longer belong in that bastion of hypocrisy and corruption.”

An account documenting Hamas’ October 7 atrocities asked, “If Israel is indeed a ‘colonialist project’ Where should all the Israelis go if this project should be dismantled?”

The perception of UN bias against Israel has also been boosted by the fact that, in 2023, Israel was condemned twice as often as all other countries combined.

It is not the first time Albanese has made comments that raise eyebrows. Earlier this month, in response to French Prime Minister Emmanuel Macron calling the October 7 attack “largest anti-Semitic massacre of the 21st century,” she said “No, Mr. Macron. The victims of October 7 were not killed because of their Judaism, but in response to Israel’s oppression.”

Following backlash, she wrote that she opposes “all racism, including anti-Semitism, a global threat. But explaining these crimes as anti-Semitism obscures their true cause.”

Hamas’ founding charter, in a section about the “universality” of its cause, reads: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews), when the Jew will hide behind stones and trees. The stones and trees will say O Muslims, O Abdulla, there is a Jew behind me, come and kill him.”

Albanese has also argued that Israel should make peace with Hamas, saying that “It needs to make peace with Hamas in order to not be threatened by Hamas.” 

When asked about what people do not understand about Hamas, she added, “If someone violates your right to self-determination, you are entitled to embrace resistance.”

The post UN Representative to the Palestinians Claims Israelis Are ‘Colonialists’ with ‘Fake Identities’ first appeared on

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