This week on Times Will Tell we’re speaking with Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld, the director of Indiana University’s Center for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.
Rosenfeld founded the Jewish Studies program at Indiana University some 50 years ago and served as its director for 30 years. But retirement has eluded him: In 2009, after observing the rise of anti-Jewish hostility all over the world, he founded the Center for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism.
Rosenfeld visited The Times of Israel’s Jerusalem office on a brisk winter day in late December for a wide-ranging interview on reasons behind the recent incremental flourishing of Jew-hatred, as well as his experiences in founding one of the first Jewish Studies programs in the United States.
“The last time I saw Elie [Weisel] shortly before he died, he was very downcast… He looked at me and he said, ‘I’ve failed… Look at the rise of antisemitism today.’ So he thought, I thought, we all thought that the more people come to know about the persecution and mass murder of the Jews the more reluctant anyone would be to speak hostilely against Jews in the public sphere. But we were simply wrong,” said Rosenfeld.
While early in his academic career Rosenfeld was able to concentrate on poets William Blake and John Wheelwright, his recent work is decidedly darker and deals with antisemitism, Holocaust literature and memory, including the 2011 book “The End of the Holocaust,” and the 2021 collection of essays “Contending with Antisemitism in a Rapidly Changing Political Climate.”
The following transcript has been lightly edited.
Times of Israel: Alvin, thank you so much for joining me today in our Jerusalem offices of the Times of Israel.
Alvin Rosenfeld: I’m happy to be in Israel, as always.
Full disclosure, of course. You were the head of the Jewish Studies program at Indiana University when I studied there 30 years ago, and I, in fact, was a work-study student in the program, addressing mailings and all sorts of other things. And you were my boss, so full disclosure. And here we are again, exactly 30 years later.
So as we all know, antisemitism is very much in the news, especially in the United States. And I wonder if you have any insight into why there is a rise in antisemitism. Or is it just a perception of a rise in antisemitism?
I think it’s a question of both. There is definitely an escalating rise in hostility itself. In addition, we’re more on to it than we had been before. So the perception, I would say, is more constant, more steady, more acute, but it’s not brand new. Since the turn of the millennium, hostility to Jews has been on the rise globally. Until relatively recently, most American Jews have felt fairly immune to it, but that’s no longer the case.
You have founded and are running the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. But let’s turn the clock back a little bit to America circa 1930s. Would you say that the status of Jews in America then was better or worse? Because we always hear about how Jews weren’t allowed in this club, they couldn’t live in this neighborhood, things of that nature.
Right. The 1930s and the 1940s, in fact, were very tense times for Jews in America. There were many restrictions on where Jews could live, where they could work, where they could go to school, even what hospitals would admit Jews. We’re not seeing anything like that today. Thank God. The ’30s and ’40s were a bad time for American Jews.
In the post-war period, in part, I’m sure, because more and more became known about the persecution and mass murder of the Jews in Europe, many Americans, as other people, recognized how bad “bad” can be when antisemitism goes unchecked. So for most American Jews — not all — but for most American Jews in the post-war period, life has been a lot better, more or less normal. Most Jews in America today go about their daily lives undisturbed.
On the other hand, I don’t think there’s a Jewish synagogue, a Jewish school, a Jewish community center in America without protection today. That’s new, and it’s abnormal, and it’s not easy to get used to. When Christians go to church, they don’t have to pass through security, which is the only way it should be. But when Jews go to synagogue on Shabbat or on the holidays, in fact, they’re checked.
It seems as though Europe has had this procedure much longer than the United States. You think that’s a fair characterization?
Europe has had it longer. When I’ve been to Europe, over the years, I did see security before many Jewish institutions and felt good being an American, being in a country where that was not necessary. That’s no longer the case. It has changed, and I’d say changed for the worst. There’s one organization in New York that’s actually trained something like 3,000 security guards to offer protection before Jewish synagogues and other institutions.
So we are in a new chapter of American Jewish history. As you know, there have been brutal attacks on Jews at prayer in different synagogues and day by day in different venues. Things are just not as hospitable and as welcoming as they have been.
I would assume that you can’t put your finger on any one reason why this is the case, but could you give us some reasons?
Yes. Antisemitism is multicausal, so we can’t reduce it to any one set of actors or any one set of attitudes. Recently, the FBI director, Christopher Wray, testified before a Special Security Commission meeting in the House of Representatives and said Jews are getting hit from all sides. And he was right to describe the variegated causes of antisemitism. It’s coming from the left, it’s coming from the right. It’s coming from certain militant segments within Islamic communities, from certain very aggressive segments within the Black communities as well. It exists in certain labor unions. Certain campuses are no longer as welcoming as they had been in the past. So there is no one cause in particular. But when I add it all up together, what we’re looking at is a degree of ongoing hostility, which seems to be increasing, that we’ve not seen before for decades.
When I learned at Indiana University in the 90s, Holocaust studies were extremely popular. And I remember taking one course with Prof. John Efron, which had hundreds of students in the course. And I just wonder, I don’t understand how the popularity of the Holocaust and the literature and the films and the books, which is ongoing, you see so much on offer — how can that add up with a rise in hostilities to Jews? Is there any connection or not?
To my good fortune, I was a friend of Elie Wiesel’s for some four decades. When I last saw Elie, shortly before he died, he was very downcast, and I asked him, “How come? What’s up?” And he looked at me and he said, “I failed.” I said, “Elie, what do you mean you failed? You’ve done more to educate the public at large than any other single individual.” He said, “Maybe so, but look at the rise of antisemitism today.”
So he thought, I thought, we all thought, that the more people come to know about the persecution and mass murder of the Jews, the more reluctant anyone would be to speak hostilely against Jews in the public sphere. But we were simply wrong. Today, such rhetoric is unrestrained without checks. We all know of the recent outbursts by Kanye West and some other people saying outrageous things. And yet those outrageous things win applause among certain people.
It’s very, very hard to understand how in the world antisemitism can have appeal. It not only has appeal these days, there’s a certain recreational use of antisemitism. When Dave Chappelle appeared on “Saturday Night Live” in New York recently and was saying certain things he never should have said, he won resounding applause. People were laughing at what he had to say. Antisemitism in certain quarters now is indeed a form of entertainment. It’s performative, and that’s new.
So it’s fashionable in a way, to be antisemitic in some circles. But I also wonder, is the world just more open to anti-everything-ism at this point. Is it just more easily acceptable to be a bad, rude person or a hateful person in public?
The answer to your question is yes, yes, yes. A good deal of that is owing to social media. Many people spend many hours per day tuned into various social media sites in which there are no restraints whatsoever. You can say whatever you want to say about anyone you want to attack. You needn’t give your name. Many people don’t. So all holds are off.
It’s a nasty time, in my own view, it’s a dangerous time. And unless certain reasonable restraints are put on, outbursts of hatred against Jews and various others. Jews are not the only ones getting it these days. But we certainly are getting it. God only knows what lies ahead. It’s not going to be good. It’s already not good and it seems to be getting worse.
Is this a case of the pendulum swinging? Right now, we’re on the horrific side to the Jews, and do you see a way in which the pendulum can swing to the other side again?
I would love to say I see a way. At the moment, I don’t see a way. A lot of this hostility is directed against Israel. That is certainly nonstop in certain quarters. The campus where you studied and where I still teach, relative to other campuses, is in pretty good shape. Indiana University is more an Israel-friendly rather than an Israel-hostile campus. But I can’t say we’ve had no antisemitic incidents. We have had not as many as elsewhere. But the fact that I’m seeing any at all on a campus that’s always been very welcoming to Jewish faculty, Jewish staff, Jewish students, is a sign of the times. That’s very negative.
A lot of the antisemitic incidents are self-reported. Do you think that also plays into the increase of numbers, that the Jews themselves are saying, hey, I don’t need to take this anymore? Is it possible that there always were these incidents and only now people feel empowered to speak out?
I wish more people who are on the receiving end of these incidents would speak out. But, Amanda, the fact is, I have students who tell me things that have happened to them who don’t speak out. So I’d say a fair amount of it goes unreported or underreported. It would be better if they did speak out more forthrightly and instantly than many of them do. And what would be especially good is if their schoolmates, their friends, their neighbors would stand with them and speak out as well.
Jews need and often have friends, but the time for proving friendship is now. Jews should not be caught out alone on the receiving end of people who target them in a very aggressive and hostile way. To the degree we do have people in America who stand with us, and we do, I’d say maybe there may be a turn for the better, but not soon.
We’ve seen, of course, the massive marches in New York standing up against antisemitism, but it seems to me living here in Israel that there hasn’t been the #metoo moment yet for American Jewry. That there hasn’t been this massive outcry yet.
No, we’ve not had our own #metoo movement. Will we? Remains to be seen whether or not we will. Jews generally now are not in favor, I would say. I mean to follow that up quickly by saying I’m absolutely convinced that most Americans are decent people and are not antisemitic. But Jews are now not being spotlighted for any particular concern or pity. Other groups are.
America is right now in the grip of a very polarized kind of thinking and acting. There’s a great deal of tension between groups. The politics of identity right now takes front stage center and that involves race, class and gender. And Jews just don’t figure into those categories. In fact, we’ve become marginalized and worse than marginalized. We’re sometimes accused as being the bad actors ourselves.
There’s a very simplistic ideological thinking these days which caught on in many places that divides human experience into the oppressors and the oppressed, the persecuted and the persecutors. And Jews are often lumped together as somehow white and privileged with other groups on the persecutor side. It won’t hold up to intellectual scrutiny because it’s not really a good mirror of reality. And yet this kind of increasingly dogmatic ideological thinking has taken hold in many quarters and it works against Jewish well being.
I remember when I was in a women’s studies class — it was an African American women’s studies class — we were talking about all sorts of oppressors, et cetera, et cetera. And I did a little comparison to what happened in Jewish history as well. And I remember clearly the professor there being so angry with me and saying there’s nothing that can compare to this. And Jews were white and things of that nature. That was the 90s. So you’re saying it’s much worse now?
It is much worse. And we’re right now on the edge of a discussion that would take more time and more care than we can give it. But Black-Jewish relations are right now tense in the United States. Some of the hostility directed against Jews, including some of the most brutal physical assaults against Jews, come out of certain segments of the Black community. By no means the Black community as such. There is no such thing.
But nonetheless, in various boroughs of Brooklyn, week by week, sometimes day by day, Jews are especially visible. Hasidic Jews in particular, are on the receiving end of physical assault. Much of which, again, is unreported or underreported. But from what we know about who the actors are, a good deal of it involves racial tension there. It needs careful attention.
And is this not again, just history repeating itself, especially in New York?
Sad to say, it is. We’re both familiar with the Crown Heights riots of a number of years ago. We’re not, so far, seeing anything quite that bad. But what we are seeing for a significant number of Jews makes daily life-threatening. That simply has to stop. But I don’t see signs that it’s about to stop. If anything, it seems to be increasing.
So you studied this illness of antisemitism. Is there any kind of cure on the horizon? Is there any way to help people stop being antisemitic?
From your mouth to God’s ear, of course, I wish there were. Antisemitism, as we both know, dates back over many centuries. It waxes and wanes at different times and in different places. Right now it’s on the increase. That doesn’t mean it has to stay on the increase.
What can be done right now as we speak to help curtail some of it? I wish I could say eliminate it, but that would be naive. But we perhaps can do certain things to curtail it. I’ve been a professor forever, so I would say education. Education is going to be important. It’s not in and of itself sufficient.
Leadership across the board has to speak out. That’s to say political leadership, cultural leadership, religious leadership, educational leadership. We’re seeing some of that, but not nearly enough. More work needs to be done in interfaith relations, interracial relations, intercommunal relations. If we make headway in some of these areas, will it help? Sure. Will it call it quits to Jew hatred? No.
Okay, let’s talk very briefly about Jewish Studies as well. Because, as I mentioned, you founded the Jewish Studies program. When did you found the Jewish studies program?
Amanda, next year we’ll be celebrating our 50th anniversary. So we’re one of the oldest Jewish Studies programs in the country, still one of the largest, and I’d like to believe one of the best as well. And it’s true that I created it and directed it for 30 years, which is why I look so tired as I sit across from you right now. But I feel proud of the program.
It continues to attract a fair number of students, not as many as it has in the past. In that respect it is part and parcel of what’s happened in humanities courses as such at American and also at foreign universities. But we get lots of very good students. We offer something like 40 courses a year, many of which still enroll well. We never ask our students if they’re Jewish or not Jewish.
I just finished teaching a course on the Holocaust myself. It was limited to 25 students. I don’t know for sure how many were Jewish, how many not Jewish, but I would say an accurate estimate generally is maybe 20 non-Jews, five Jews, and that’s all to the good. I welcome anybody and everybody who wants to come and study with me.
When people ask me what it is I teach, I say, “unhappy subjects.” And then they ask me, what does that mean? And then I tell them, I just finished teaching a course on Hitler.
It’s hard to get more unhappy than that, in fact. I want to ask you, though, that when you did found the program, what was the atmosphere in America at that point? There is a flourishing of different Jewish studies programs that sprouted throughout the country almost at the same time. You were one of the first.
What spurred academics to do this?
Right. In those days, the code word that was used in the academy was multiculturalism, and a number of universities were interested in diversifying their curricula by offering more multicultural courses. Unfortunately, as I and others saw, Jews were not considered within the multicultural agenda, just as today we’re often not considered as part of diversity, equity, and inclusion. So we had to go out on our own and make the claim, which is totally legitimate and justifiable, that indeed, there is such a thing as Jewish culture, backed up by a long and extraordinarily interesting history, with its own languages and literatures and music and religion, you name it.
At the time when I introduced this idea to the then-dean of the college, himself a chemist, not Jewish, he immediately saw the good of what it was I was proposing. He said, by all means, we should do it. I’m going to ask two things of you: One, go ahead and raise the money necessary for establishing such a program. And two, make sure that anyone we bring here to teach in the program be as well qualified as scholars we’re bringing into the chemistry department or the French department or the history department.
And I agreed to do both. And 50 years later, my, oh my, do I give my blessings to that dean. He was very farsighted, extremely cooperative, and the results, 50 years later, are there for everyone to see.
I did not, however, foresee the need to create an Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism. I thought I had done enough with administrative work, but observing the rise of anti-Jewish hostility on a global basis, I said to myself, it’s time now that we devote very careful, ongoing, scholarly and pedagogical attention to what’s happening.
Unfortunately, you’re right, obviously. And I thank you so much for joining me today.
It’s my pleasure, Amanda. Thirty years later.
Amazing. So let’s speak again much sooner than in another 30 years.
Good. Amen v’amen.
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