IU’s new Institute for
the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism:
Why here? Why now?
In this photo, Alvin Rosenfeld holds a copy of “Mein Kampf,” by Adolf Hitler, inscribed as a gift to a young couple. During Germany’s Third Reich, town mayors presented National Socialist couples with a so-called Wedding Edition of Hitler’s book on the occasion of their marriage.
“The antisemitism of old has morphed into something new …. Neo-antisemitism is a twenty-first century global ideology, with its own thinkers, organizers, spokespersons, state sponsors and millions of adherents. We are at the beginning of a long intellectual and ideological struggle. It is not [only] about Jews or Israel. It is about everything democrats have long fought for: the truth without fear, no matter one’s religion or political beliefs. The new antisemitism threatens all of humanity.”
— Denis MacShane, Labor member of the British House of Commons, Britain’s former Europe minister writing in the Washington Post, 2007.
Because it dates back millennia, antisemitism has been called the longest hatred. The passions that fuel antisemitism — among them, fear, envy, jealousy, resentment, suspicion, anger, xenophobic wariness and distrust--remain constant, but the forms this hatred takes change over time.
“Nazism was defeated in Europe 65 years ago. Antisemitism was not. It is once again a disturbing presence on the European continent and elsewhere,” says Professor Alvin Rosenfeld. “The repertoire of emotionally charged accusations against Judaism and the Jews is made up of a familiar series of destructive myths that have been perpetuated over the ages. By analyzing and exposing them as myths, it may be possible to help people recognize this pathology for what it is and thereby mitigate some of its harmful effects.”
Rosenfeld, a longtime professor of English, was the founding director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. He holds the Irving M. Glazer Chair in Jewish Studies, and has recently established the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (ISCA) at Indiana University. “IU is positioned to make a unique contribution to our understanding of this pressing problem,” Rosenfeld says. The new institute, only the second of its kind at an American university, joins four major research institutes abroad. IU, with its long history of strength in Jewish Studies, is ideally positioned to house such an institute. Endowed funding from the Glazer family provided the institute’s start-up budget. Rosenfeld plans to seek additional funds to support ISCA’s expanding activities.
A significant part of the research effort of ISCA will be to clarify what is new and what has been inherited from the antisemitic lexicons of the past. ISCA will focus especially on the intellectual and ideological roots of what has been called the “new” antisemitism, and will also seek to elucidate the social, cultural, religious, and political forces that nurture such hostility. Three graduate students presently serve as research assistants in individual research projects; others may soon join them.
“A phenomenon of this scope and consequence demands sustained scrutiny at the highest scholarly levels,” Rosenfeld says.
Throughout history, antisemitism has taken different forms, ebbing and flowing, at some times stronger than others, but never disappearing entirely. One aspect remains consistent, according to Rosenfeld: “While antisemitism initially targets the Jews, the hostility it unleashes doesn’t stop with the Jews. Because antisemitism and anti-Americanism go hand-in-hand, the 2001 attack on America almost immediately had antisemitic ramifications. People who think in these distorted terms believe either that Jews control America, and therefore hitting America is hitting the Jews, or — vice versa — that America uses Israel to suppress freedoms elsewhere. Both notions are preposterous, but they evidently have appeal and persist, especially on the hard right, the far left, and within populations under the sway of radical Islamist ideology.”
“If this hatred goes unchecked, a large number of other people will end up being hurt, if not directly by antisemitism, then because of the damage to society that antisemitism inevitably brings with it. It’s always a toxic force and has the potential to spread widely and be hugely harmful. We probably cannot eradicate it, but we need to do what we can to lessen its destructive force.”
An institute-sponsored conference is planned for April 2011 in Bloomington: “Resurgent Antisemitism: Global Perspectives,” will involve at least 20 top-flight scholars from 12 different countries. Their papers will be published in a volume of conference proceedings.
Rosenfeld and his colleague, History Professor Mark Roseman, both offer well-subscribed undergraduate courses on antisemitism. In addition to on-campus activities, ISCA will look to make a positive difference in classroom instruction on a national level. Just as antisemitism is an under-researched subject at most American colleges and universities, so, too, is it an under-taught subject. One of ISCA’s early aims will be to convene summer workshops for college and university faculty members who would like help in developing curricula for courses on antisemitism.
Rosenfeld hopes that over time, the ISCA will serve as a resource for Indiana social studies teachers who wish to incorporate units on antisemitism into their classroom curricula. He expects that such assistance will be especially welcome to middle school and high school teachers who deal with questions of social bias, culturally transmitted racism, and prejudice reduction.
Rosenfeld recently took part in a major conference on antisemitism at Yale, and is a regular speaker at forums on the topic in the US and abroad. “We’re living now in an overheated time, a sour, divisive time,” Rosenfeld said. “The economic turndown is far from over, American forces are engaged in two wars, terror threatens, and the hostility to Israel continues to intensify.
The year 2009 saw a dramatic spike in antisemitic incidents on a global scale. If, as a result of our academic work, we can help educate people about antisemitism, open their eyes to its character, longevity, gravity, and threats, we will be doing something both needful and positive.”