by Marissa Stern
The Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville was profoundly shocking and, for many, horrifying. Its resulting violence sparked marches and vigils in solidarity for victims in cities across the country.
In Society Hill, it also provided an impetus for an educational opportunity.
Rabbi Avi Winokur recently started a class at Society Hill Synagogue on anti-Semitism inspired by the acts in Virginia.
“I found it pretty horrific,” he said, “that we had people crawling out of the woodwork who are clearly anti-Semitic and they now felt it was OK to express that publicly without fear of sort of being shunned as being a fringe group and a dangerous group that should be kind of shut away.”
By way of response, Winokur’s adult education class looks at the history of anti-Semitism from early on through today, when spray-painted swastikas have become almost prevalent. He’s taught about anti-Semitism in introductory classes to Judaism, but not on this scale.
Eighteen people signed up for the course — a symbolic number, he noted.
In the first session, the group went around and told personal stories of encounters they’ve had with anti-Semitism.
“I mean, this is Society Hill, Queen Village — this is a certain demographic. And yet, the experiences people had were quite different,” he said. “People were from the Midwest, and if you know anything about the Midwest, you know that there are places there where they never see a Jew. They can grow up and never see a Jew unless they go to college at a more cosmopolitan type of university. Whereas some people who are growing up in New York, you’re surrounded by Jews.”
From there, they went back thousands (and thousands) of years to Emperor Claudius and the dispute that broke out between the Jews in Alexandria and the other inhabitants of the city.
“The Jews of Alexandria were a well-established community that had been there for generations,” Winokur explained. “They were welcomed in the community, they were admired and they were ‘other.’ So they were partially other, and partially of the community. … The idea of having one foot in and one foot out at the same time is reminiscent of modern times, whether it’s today in the United States or more dramatically in Germany between the World Wars and in Europe as the Enlightenment began to take hold.
“You could see this parallel,” he continued, “and the very important thing to me was that it had nothing to do with Christianity to start with, because so much of the history of anti-Semitism in the West has to do with Christianity and what I didn’t want to do was say it’s all about Christianity because I think you end up making a terrible mistake. Even though you have to concentrate on Christian roots of anti-Semitism, you can’t say that that’s the root of it all because that’s just not true.”
The course will travel through time, tackling anti-Semitism in the Middle Ages, the Crusades, covering topics such as blood libels, as well as the eras of the World Wars and ultimately end with modern times.
However, he noted, he is not going to spend as much time on the Holocaust as people might expect.
“I want people to learn things that they don’t already assume are part of the picture,” he said.
The Jewish-Christian history and relationship is one that he pursues outside of this specific course as part of a Jewish-Christian dialogue at Saint Joseph’s University Institute for Jewish-Catholic Relations. The relationship between Jews and other religious groups, such as Muslims, will also be part of the course.
For him, he hopes the course arms people with information and knowledge to fully evaluate the circumstances of modern anti-Semitism, which is no easy feat.
“One of the things I’m trying to teach is that it’s incredibly complicated,” he said. “Anti-Semitism is incredibly complicated. You can be anti-Semitic and pro-Israel, you can be anti-Israel and pro-Jewish — there’s every combination possible and things that people don’t want to hear. People don’t want to hear that you can be against Israel and completely in favor of Judaism, or you can be totally, a major supporter of Israel and basically be against Judaism.
“We haven’t gotten there yet, and we may not get there, but what I’m trying to get people to think is it’s incredibly complicated.”
With studies from the Anti-Defamation League showing harrowing statistics about the upswing of anti-Semitism just in the first few months of 2017 — in April, the ADL released a study determining that “anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S. surged more than one-third in 2016 and have jumped 86 percent in the first quarter of 2017” — Winokur hopes that people understand how nuanced anti-Semitism is.
“What I want them to be able to do is learn enough about it to be able to evaluate things that go on without either being dismissive of it, like it’s just a fringe thing, or be panicky, ‘Oh my God, here we go again,’” he said.
“They have to be aware of it, and they have to understand its history and they have to a sense of how to think about it.”
The turnout for the class indicates a need to Winokur.
“People are hungry to learn about this and to sort of realize that it’s not helpful not to know,” he said. “It’s not helpful just to remember the Holocaust. Remembering the Holocaust is of critical importance, but that’s not the beginning and end of the picture, and I think people want to know, ‘What do I need to know in order to evaluate what’s going on now?’ And I think there is a hunger for that.”