Reflecting on Spertus Institute antisemitism seminar

Last week, I had the good fortune of spending five days just south of the Magnificent Mile in Chicago at Spertus Institute participating in a seminar on combatting antisemitism. While talking about antisemitism for days on end may not sound like a pleasant experience, learning, thinking, and collaborating with smart, experienced, dedicated peers and faculty was invaluable. I can’t say that I walked away with the answer to combatting antisemitism, but to be fair, it’s a problem we’ve been tackling for thousands of years! 

This experience was part of a leadership certificate program focused on academic and practical learning about historical and contemporary antisemitism culminating in a local project in our communities. I am proud to say that Edmonton is the only Canadian city represented in this cohort of 17 students which features professional leadership from a variety of Jewish organizations.   

This intensive week of learning offered challenges and opportunities. We heard from several faculty members of top universities (Temple, Brandeis, University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)) and professional leaders from across the spectrum of Jewish communal life. 

The most difficult and impactful session, the one that is still ringing in my ears, was given by Dr. Dov Waxman. He is the director of the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair of Israel Studies (UCLA), a political science professor, and director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Centre for Israel Studies—yes, all those things and he still had a day and a half to spend with Jewish communal professionals! 

Dr. Waxman spoke about defining antisemitism and questions around antisemitism/anti-Israel/anti-Zionism. It was a tough conversation, particularly in this moment but an important one, nonetheless. He introduced two extremes in the academic debate, one where anti-Zionism is always antisemitism (“conflators”) and the other where they are never the same (“deniers”) and pointed out that the debate is fundamentally flawed. Instead of forcing a choice between extremes, he suggested a framework for deciding when criticism of Israel is antisemitic. An underlying condition of this framework is the recognition that antisemitism is a form of racism and applying the same understandings to it as are applied to other forms of racism. Regardless of where one lands ideologically in this debate, the consequences of anti-Zionism are problematic for Jews, and this is where we must remain vigilant and speak out. While we lack visibility into ideological motivations, behaviours that are harmful (including speech) can be clearly identified and must be dealt with. An excellent review of Dov Waxman’s book, The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know, sheds more light on this topic, particularly in relation to academia and what we are seeing today, and is well worth the read. 

As the learning continues, so does our work on the ground here in Edmonton. We remain focused on supporting students and families in our school system, faculty and students in our universities, and the Jewish community at large as we struggle with manifestations of antisemitism in our current moment. May we be inspired by our history and our future and embrace the challenge at hand as generation upon generation of Jews have always done. 

Shabbat Shalom,