Three experts discussed “70 Years after Auschwitz,” in a panel discussion put together by the Jewish Studies department at Ursinus to examine the extent of anti-Semitism today.
Rachel Glick listened incredulously while her fellow Ursinus classmate blithely said he’d never encountered a problem since he’d been on campus. That because her experience with anti-Semitism remains indelibly etched in her mind.
“I think the worst one was someone coming right up to my face saying it’s a shame I’m going to hell because I’m Jewish,” recalled the junior co-president of Ursinus Hillel, following a thought-provoking 90-minute panel discussion on anti-Semitism on Oct. 29. “And I’ve had people asking me where my horns are. I’m thinking, ‘Did I just hear that?’ It’s not their intentions are harmful. It’s just making a stereotypical joke. They need to read more. The ignorance is absurdly high on this campus and in all our generation.”
That was the purpose behind “70 Years after Auschwitz,” the panel discussion put together by the Jewish Studies department at Ursinus to examine the extent of anti-Semitism today, particularly on college campuses. Three experts — Dr. Jeffrey Herf, Univesity of Maryland professor of history; Dr. Elliot Ratzman, Temple University assistant professor of religion; and Dr. Sharon Musher, Stockton University associate professor of history — debated a number of issues.
Among the topics: What is the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism? How much of an impact is the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanction) movement having on Israel and on the Jewish community? And, simply, is anti-Semitism on the rise and, if so, what can be done about it?
Well over 200 students, faculty and other interested parties — some of whom weren’t Jewish — came to Collegeville to hear the panel, which came as a surprise to some of those involved. “I’m absolutely shocked,” said Alexandria Frisch, in her third year as Ursinus assistant professor of Jewish studies, who moderated the discussion. “We had a Holocaust survivor speak last year and 80 people showed up. Other events have drawn maybe 20 or 30.”
Those who came out on this evening heard differing viewpoints from men and women who didn’t have a particular agenda. That was the goal. “It is a discussion we want to have here on campus,” said event co-organizer, Dr. Jonathan Marks, Ursinus’ professor of politics. “But we want to get away from the propaganda that too often monopolizes and clouds the discussion.
“Even with an issue like anti-Semitism, you have one group claiming it doesn’t exist, people saying they’re making it up. The other side sees anti-Semitism in any criticism of the state of Israel. Here on a college campus, we’re looking to get beyond the propaganda and the counter-propaganda and let them think for themselves.”
Mission accomplished. “I didn’t really know what to expect,” said Jane Sutton, a junior economics and dance major who’s not Jewish. “One of my professors told me it would interesting, so I decided to come. I don’t think I realized how much of an effect anti-Semitism has on campus. I think of it more as in the military than here.”
Only a freshman, Massachusetts native Megan Koeller has already discovered that’s not the case. “I’ve heard people say, ‘Oh, there’s a quarter on the ground — you should go pick it up.’ ” said Koeller, who’s also not Jewish. “It might seem like little stuff, but it adds up.”
Still, just seeing Ursinus stepping to the forefront on such a divisive topic stunned one local alum from a different era. “They had a quota for Jewish students when I went to school here,
especially for girls,” recalled Rhoda Hershman, Class of 1952. “Jewish men went to Ursinus because it had an excellent pre-med department and English department. But Ursinus was never so impressed with itself that it wouldn’t change.”
It’s hard to say if a 90-minute discussion could change anyone’s mind. But keeping an open dialogue is never a bad thing.
“What’s really important is students learning how to talk to each other with respect and being able to share values,” said Ratzman. “Jews should have to share values with those advocating BDS. If those advocating BDS are just in it for the post-colonial romance, there’s something wrong with their politics. If they’re into BDS because they’re concerned about the suffering of distant strangers, then we have something to talk about.
“But the audience was great. Some people are very angry. Some people are very inspired — maybe both at the same time.”