YOU SHOULD KNOW…Ayal Feinberg, Gratz’s New Director of Holocaust Studies

Ayal Feinberg (Courtesy of Gratz College)

As a political scientist who studied antisemitism, Ayal Feinberg never felt like he found his academic home. Political science departments categorized antisemitism as a niche field. Jewish studies departments classified it as a part of history.

Feinberg came to that realization during his four years teaching in the Texas A&M University System. Then he saw an opportunity at Gratz College in Melrose Park: director of the Center for Holocaust Studies and Human Rights.

He applied, got an interview and explained how he wanted to approach Holocaust education. It was not just a historic event that we needed to understand in its own time. It is still influencing antisemitism today.

He got the job.

“We have to understand that the Holocaust is an incredibly important event, but it didn’t end in 1945,” he said.

Feinberg, 35, started on June 1. While he still lives in Dallas, he hopes to move to the area soon if interest rates allow.

Gratz College President Zev Eleff said the search for a new director was “international.” The program has about 150 students. A majority are at the Ph.D. level. Gratz needed the right candidate.

“Someone who was certainly expert in Holocaust studies,” Eleff said. “But he could also make it speak to the moment.”

Feinberg grew up in Jenkintown with an Israeli father and a mother who had lived in the Jewish state. The family was secular. After serving in the Israel Defense Forces, David and Susan Feinberg moved to Boston so the former could pursue an MBA.

They named their first son Ayal because they planned to move back to Israel. But then they started a children’s clothing company, Mulberribush, and found success.

They stayed and spoke English in the house.

“They wanted to assimilate,” Feinberg said.

At the same time, the family often visited relatives in Israel.

“They wanted to make sure I was grounded,” Feinberg said.

The son graduated from the Abington Friends School in Jenkintown and Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut. But he described himself as “the worst student.”

When he graduated from Trinity, Feinberg got a job in pharmaceutical intelligence. It was “lucrative,” he said. In 2010 after the Great Recession, Feinberg was making more money than his friends who had gotten good grades.

Less than a year in though, “I realized that I had a soul,” he said. The young man asked himself, ‘What are the questions that I have?’ He decided to go to Israel.

Ayal Feinberg with students after a lecture at Emory University (Courtesy of Ayal Feinberg)

Feinberg spent a year getting a master’s degree in government at Herzliya IDC, now Reichman University. He wrote a paper on “the irony of the Iron Dome.” Israel’s air defense system reduced casualties for Israelis and Palestinians, he argued. It was published in a peer-reviewed journal out of Harvard University.

After the paper, Feinberg entered a Ph.D. program in international relations at the University of North Texas. Around the time he started, he was also following news about riots in Sarcelles, France.

In response to Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza in July 2014, pro-Palestinian protesters had looted Jewish businesses.

As Feinberg put it, he wanted to learn “why a Diaspora group 3,000 miles away was being targeted for a military operation they had no part of.”

He went to the literature and couldn’t find anything. So, he decided to search for the answer himself. Ever since, Feinberg has used “event count analysis” to try to learn why antisemitic incidents happen.

Nazi antisemitism is still at the root of many of these incidents, according to Feinberg.
“This notion of Jews as a race. Jews as an all-powerful, conspiratorial, monolithic entity.

Jews as an enemy of white European race and society,” he said.

Feinberg pointed to the Tree of Life synagogue shooting in 2018, the deadliest antisemitic act in U.S. history, as an example. Robert Bowers, the shooter, held a similar worldview after spending time on Gab, a social media platform where users often espoused it.

After Hamas attacked Israel on Oct. 7, protests of Israel broke out in Center City, at Temple University and outside the Philadelphia office of U.S. Sen. John Fetterman. For years, Feinberg joked to friends that he studied antisemitism because he knew he’d always have a job. He doesn’t make that joke anymore.

He also gave his year-old daughter a Jewish-sounding name, so she’d understand her identity. Now, he’s worried that he’s put her in danger.

“It’s heartbreaking,” he said.

But Feinberg has already gotten approval for a “first-of-its-kind” master’s program in antisemitism studies at Gratz.

“It was always a goal of mine to formalize the study of antisemitism,” he said.

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