Graffiti on the South Street Bridge in late July caught the attention of some passersby and raised an alarm for many more when news of the incident spread through social media.
“F— Jews,” the graffiti read.
The City of Philadelphia was quick to remove the offending message, but the incident served as a reminder — perhaps one a little too close to home — that anti-Semitism is trending upward around the world.
Last month, Politico reported that there was a more than 10 percent increase in anti-Semitic crimes in Germany during the first six months of this year compared to the same time period last year. A few months ago, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas gave a speech suggesting Jews brought the Holocaust on themselves. Then, of course, there was the march in Charlottesville, Va., last year, when neo-Nazis and other white supremacist groups marched through the streets with tiki torches, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.”
In the midst of this, Swarthmore College will host “Resisting Anti-Semitism: Past and Present, Local and Global” at its Lang Performing Arts Center on Sept. 16 from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. This symposium will explore anti-Semitism across three regions of the world and highlight resistance to it.
“We organized the symposium because we know anti-Semitism is a serious issue and we want to learn about this subject too with our community,” co-organizers Rabbi Michael Ramberg, Jewish student adviser at Swarthmore’s Interfaith Center, and Sa’ed Atshan, assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore, said in an email. “Anti-Semitism is real and involves the dehumanization of Jewish people.
“Unfortunately, this phenomenon is not only historic in nature but also contemporary. In the past, it was normalized on a much larger scale, and in the present, the resistance to it is inspiring. That resistance has always been there but it is finding grounding and institutionalization in ways that are inspiring.”
In 2017, Atshan, a Palestinian, was at the center of a controversy at Friends’ Central School, where he was invited to address the school’s Peace and Equality Club. That set off a storm of complaints and his appearance was canceled, drawing student protests. English teacher Ariel Eure and history teacher Layla Helwa, who had invited Atshan to speak, were suspended and later fired; they have since filed a lawsuit against the school.
Atshan was later invited to speak at the school, but declined.
The co-organizers of Swarthmore’s event said that the recent attention on anti-Semitic incidents is not what prompted the creation of this symposium. They would have wanted to hold it anyway, but they hope that the symposium feels more urgent to the broader audience as a result. Anti-Semitism, they noted, has never stopped being a problem.
“People think anti-Semitism began and ended with the Holocaust, which we know is not the case,” said Abby Saul, research assistant for the symposium and a senior studying peace and conflict studies and Spanish Literature at Swarthmore. “Both in the sense that anti-Semitism very much exists today but also, one of the beautiful things about the Jewish global community is how diverse it is. In some ways, part of its beauty is how … we exist everywhere in the world. Something I’m really looking forward to, and something we’ve been trying to be really intentional about in the symposium, is recognizing the realities that exist for folks in places all over the world.”
Throughout the day, the symposium will hold three panels, each exploring anti-Semitism in a different region: the United States, Europe and Northern Africa/the Middle East. The panelists are mostly academics from universities around the world, as well as some rabbis and activists.
Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum, the senior rabbi at Congregation Beit Simchat Torah in New York City, will give the keynote speech. She was the first rabbi at the “gay synagogue” in 1992 during the AIDS epidemic, when the congregation found itself in particular need of spiritual guidance.
“We’re living in a really scary moment,” Saul said, “and we’re on a college campus. We’re academics. We like looking at things and understanding them. Something that we’re excited about [for] the symposium as well is really bringing a community together, to not only look at something intellectually and try to understand what it is, but also build a community.”
Ramberg and Atshan partnered to put on the symposium to demonstrate the importance of solidarity in the face of all oppression. They also want to illustrate some of the efforts made to combat anti-Semitism.
One of these examples, they said, is the work of Israel Gershoni, one of the panelists and professor emeritus of Middle Eastern and African history at Tel Aviv University, who has examined anti-Nazi intellectual and political thought in Egypt historically. Ramberg and Atshan noted that this concept is “not typically part of our contemporary consciousness.”
Saul said she hopes the symposium can build community in resistance to anti-Semitism.
“We believe we’re stronger when we’re coming together,” she said. “If we come to understand and recognize something as a community, then we can create community solutions and make all of us safer. Having these conversations and bringing people together is just one of the ways to begin doing that or continue doing that.”