The January 15 terrorist attack on Congregation Beth Israel in Colleyville, Texas is the latest high-profile case of anti-Semitism in the United States. It is reasonable to draw a line between the 2018 massacre at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh and the deadly Chabad shootings of Poway the following year. From the gruesome attacks later that same year in Jersey City to the most recent hostage situation outside of Dallas.
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Community leaders are calling for improved security at synagogues and other Jewish institutions. In previous cases, policymakers have recommended increased education about anti-Semitism in our schools and elsewhere. The program of these types of initiatives is often centered on the Holocaust. Many consider the teaching of the Nazi terror against the Jews to be the main intervention in combating anti-Semitism. The Holocaust is also the starting point for addressing other genocides and human atrocities around the world.
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This is the case at Gratz College in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. Gratz is the oldest independent Jewish college in the United States and home to the world’s largest graduate program in Holocaust and Genocide Studies. As President, I am extremely proud of our teachers and students who engage in very difficult and disturbing subjects. They do so because there is much wisdom to be gleaned and lessons to be imparted.
It is also recognized that the curriculum on anti-Jewish violence needs to be expanded. We need to better understand the indigenous character of anti-Jewishness. Today more attention than ever is paid to the history of American anti-Semitism. Until a decade ago, it was literature that interested readers could master in a matter of weeks or months. A fellow Jewish-American historian, Britt Tevis, recently wrote of the “handful of scholars [who] brought the subject to their attention” before the mid-1990s.
Since then, the area has grown. I have been moved by the number of important books that focus on what is “American” about American anti-Semitism. A new generation of scholarship places in the American context Peter Stuyvesant’s intimidation of Jews in colonial New Amsterdam and Ulysses S. Grant’s expulsion of “Jews as a class” from his Civil War encampment. It examines local forces that limited Jewish college enrollment, defamed Jews during Prohibition, and crafted legislation that primarily prevented Jewish immigrants from settling in the United States in the 1920s.
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Our better understanding of anti-Semitism in the United States also shows the complexities of identity in the American context, reaching beyond individual prejudice and hatred to larger societal issues. And it seems to me that anti-Jewish sentiment is on both sides of the political aisle.
Anti-Semitism is a confounding variable among the growing number of hate crimes in the United States, much of which centers on skin color and sexuality. Anti-Semitism challenges the simple explanation of hatred. The creation of a so-called tri-denominational America – designating a Jewish-Christian brotherhood shared between Protestants, Catholics and Jews – in the post-World War II period makes contemporary anti-Semitism so surprising. He helped raise awareness among many Jews of color and renewed efforts to disentangle anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism.
There is much to discover about the hostage situation that took place last weekend at Congregation Beth Israel. Above all, Americans of all persuasions should be grateful to authorities and various rescue teams for averting mass casualties. It is also an opportunity to consider American anti-Semitism in more depth. This should not diminish the importance of the Holocaust and stories of violence against Jews in other regions.
Until hate is a scarce resource in the United States, neither should education in all its myriad forms.
Zev Eleff is president of Gratz College and a historian of American Jewish life.