In the wake of the murder of 11 people at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh on 27 October, nearly 100 Darden students, faculty and staff gathered at an event organized by the Darden Jewish Student Association (DJSA) to hear University of Virginia Professors Manuela Achilles and Asher Biemann present “A Discussion on Antisemitism.”
The professors provided a perspective on the rise of antisemitism from its historic roots to its forms today. Achilles also warned that the common use of the term “anti-Semitism” can unintentionally give power to the ideology, which is based on a false pretense that followers of Judaism are a “Semetic” race of people.
Following their presentation, several members of the DJSA shared personal experiences, their reaction to the tragedy in Pittsburgh and their suggestions to fight back against antisemitism. As one Jewish Darden student explained at the event: “We want people to understand what we understand and experience empathy by getting angry with us.”
DJSA President Ilona Altchuler (Class of 2019) opened the session by setting context about the prevalence of antisemitism in the world today. Citing an Anti-Defamation League report, “The ADL Global 100: An Index of Anti-Semitism,” Altchuler noted that an estimated 1.1 billion people in the world harbor antisemitic views while 74 percent of survey respondents had never met a Jewish person before and 32 percent believed the Holocaust is a myth or exaggerated.
Achilles, an associate professor of German and history, shared that antisemitism rose as a marked shift away from religion-based anti-Judaism in the 19th century when German publicist Wilhelm Marr used the term to focus on opposition of Jewish people as a race. From there, the form of hate spread globally to Adolph Hitler and Joseph Goebbels in Nazi Germany as well as to Henry Ford and other prominent citizens in the United States.
Biemann, a professor of religious studies specializing in modern Jewish thought and intellectual history, said the common factor among those espousing antisemitic ideology always position themselves around themes of resilience and resistance to a vaguely defined Jewish threat.
In the modern context, Biemann noted that antisemitism often rises when political and cultural leaders promote fear or are not able to provide security for citizens. As a result, people tend to grasp for existing ideologies such as antisemitism as an outlet for their fear.
The four Darden students who shared their perspectives following the presentation by Achilles and Biemann ranged in backgrounds from an Israeli citizen to growing up in a mostly Jewish community in suburban Chicago to being from the only Jewish family in the community.
After describing frequent encounters with ignorance, hate and defamatory comments about Jewish people in her hometown, one student explained the importance of sharing those experiences. “We’re lucky to have the atmosphere here at Darden where everyone is so loving and supportive, but we want you to know it isn’t like that everywhere.”