Mitzvah Maker: Alvin Rosenfeld

Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld

This week’s Mitzvah Maker is Dr. Alvin Rosenfeld, a renowned Jewish studies scholar who recently founded the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, at Indiana University.  Last week, GTJ wrote about his institute’s recent conference.  This week, he spoke with GTJ about the next steps he and his institute are taking in their fight against antisemitism.

Q: You recently launched the inaugural conference of your new institute.  What were your impressions of the conference?

A:  I was pleased. Organizing this conference took a lot of work—some 15 months of focused preparation—but it was worth the effort, and I felt that it went very well.  Sometimes in gatherings of this kind, large egos come to the fore and seek to dominate, but not this time. There were many first-rate scholars present, but there were no show-offs and no grandstanding.  Everyone came together and was focused on the issues. They (the issues) were what mattered, and we discussed them in an open, respectful, deeply probing way. We looked hard at antisemitism on the political left and the political right, within populations under the sway of radical Islam, on college and university campuses, within anti-Zionist movements, among some anti-Zionist and antisemitic Jews. We learned a lot, most of it distressing, all of it in need of hard-headed analysis. The problems were easier to identify than the antidotes to the problems, but in our final, wrap-up session, we did our best to think of ways to mitigate, if not eradicate, some of the worst of the problems.

Many of the speakers had not known each other before they met in Bloomington.  So bringing this group together was itself an accomplishment. Senior scholars met and mingled readily with younger scholars, and everyone seemed willing to learn from one another. That’s good.  It’s also promising for future collaborative work in this area. We want to build a cohort of people who care about the issues, which are ongoing and need a lot of attention, well beyond what any one or two scholars working alone can give them.  We need an active, working group of capable, committed people, who take antisemitism seriously and possess sufficient knowledge to address it lucidly. I think the chances of developing such a critical mass of scholars are more realistic now after the Indiana conference than before.

Q: I understand that you intend to publish a book based on the conference.  Could you talk more about that?

A:  Yes, I have already received several papers based on the conference presentations.  They are excellent. The book will bring together refined and expanded versions of some 20 or more of the conference papers and hopefully will be completed within a year.  Indiana University Press, which already has one of this country’s outstanding  lists of scholarly publications in Jewish Studies, has expressed interest in my developing a new series of publications on antisemitism. We are exploring the possibility at the moment. If it happens, this will be just the first book we will publish. Others, including translations of works from European languages, will follow. Notable Hebrew-language texts will also be welcome. The aim will be to introduce readers in this country and abroad to the best scholarship being produced today on antisemitism. To understand it, we need to think broadly, for present-day antisemitism is a global phenomenon and needs to be seen in national but also comparative contexts. To grasp the dynamics of contemporary antisemitism, for instance, requires engaging what is commonly called anti-Zionism as well as more traditional forms of hostility to Judaism and the Jews. It’s not easy, but we’ll give it our best effort.

Q:  Are there any other extensions of the conference?

A: I’m giving serious thought to organizing summer workshops to help young scholars who are interested in working on antisemitism but have not yet trained in this field to the degree they would like.  So, these workshops would involve intensive training sessions to bring people up to speed on the seminal literature on antisemitism, help them develop curricula for the creation of new courses on this subject, guide them in exploring new research areas and develop the skills to enter them, etc.  On the model of the Indiana conference, the workshops would bring together younger scholars and older, more experienced scholars in the field.  An effort of this kind takes a lot of work to organize and also the necessary funds to get it done. The goal, I am certain, is a worthy one: assisting in the emergence of a new, better equipped generation of scholars of antisemitism.  If we could organize several such workshops over the next years, each one involving 15-20 scholars, the payoff would be considerable. The earliest such a workshop could be launched would be the summer of 2012. Wish me well!

Q: Could you talk a little bit about the other work you do at the institute.

A:  I am fortunate to have a little bit of money to fund graduate students interested in analyzing aspects  of contemporary antisemitism in a rigorous academic way.  I currently have three graduate students working with me.  All three are Muslim, or of Muslim family background, which I find heartening.  One is from Baghdad and recently wrote a fascinating paper on antisemitism in contemporary political rhetoric in Iraq.  He is now exploring antisemitic and anti-Western attitudes among the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt– an important topic. The other two students are working on manifestations of antisemitism in Turkey and Tajikistan.

Q: What do you see as the focus of a future institute conference?

A: Organizing, funding, and running a large conference takes a lot of work. I’m still recovering from our first conference, so I haven’t yet started planning in earnest for the next one.  However, the need is real, and my head, which could use a rest, continues to work overtime and offers up new ideas whether I am ready to begin implementing them or not. One would be to study antisemitism alongside philo-Semitism.  Or, perhaps a better way to phrase it: we would focus not just on antisemitism but also on anti-antisemitism.  What makes some people, especially intellectuals, hostile to  Jews and the Jewish state and others ready, willing, and able to come to the defense of the Jews?  The struggle against Jew-hatred is not and never has been an exclusively Jewish matter. Nor should it be.

Consider this: almost a third of our speakers at the conference were not Jewish.  If you were to ask me what explains them, the answer obviously is not self-interest. Rather, they are people of conscience, who recognize moral outrages when they see them and have a low tolerance level for letting them go uncontested. They know instinctively as well as intellectually that antisemitism is degrading and, left unchecked, can be hugely destructive. And so they feel committed to opposing it. Blessings on them! May their numbers multiply. But that is unlikely to happen just by chance. What makes it happen at all? Can we fruitfully study the phenomenon of anti-antisemitism to better understand not only why some people seem apt to turn against Jews and others to defend them?  I don’t know that a conference exploring these questions has ever taken place, but it deserves to. And perhaps it will, once again at Indiana University. But not in 2011. We’ll do other things later this year, but not on the scale of this past conference.

Q: What would you say to students on DC campuses who are dealing with antisemitism, particularly as manifested in one-sided presentations of current issues?

A:  The current issues you refer to are almost always about Zionism and Israel, and rhetoric about Israel varies from campus to campus.  Indiana University, I’m happy to say, is an Israel-friendly campus. We’ve never had anything remotely like Israel Apartheid Week in Bloomington.  On the contrary, our students get together every year in the spring to learn about Israel and celebrate it. On other campuses, an array of radical ideologies—far left, Islamist, and sometimes far right—combined with political correctness assigns Israel the status of a pariah, or criminal state, unworthy of support.  Talking with people wedded to such a point of view is next to impossible and goes nowhere.  If people engage in such thinking, you can’t win them over.  What you can do, need to do, is expose their ugly programs for what they are—propaganda exercises—and make sure they don’t prevail.  It won’t always be easy, but most people are unlikely to be won over by tendentious arguments, let alone antisemitic tirades.

One can and should build alliances with the fair-minded, reasonable people on campus. They are, after all, the majority by far, albeit often the silent majority. Try to enlist their support on behalf of the truth and against malicious, defamatory attacks. Do what you can to bring responsible speakers to campus.  And don’t back down. We are in an ideological war today, no doubt about it. In the end, I am convinced, we will win it, but it will take a great deal of hard work on the part of many dedicated, good people. We just have to make sure they are with us. I believe they will be if they are spoken to honestly and clearly and properly educated about the issues before us. I would tell your students that I can hardly think of more meaningful, purposeful work than that and urge them to go to it.

For more information about the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism, click here.