Tonight I begin teaching an eight-week course called “Anti-Semitism and its Antidotes: From Talk to Action” as a part of a Limmud-inspired, cross-communal study programme in Brighton and Hove called Lishmah Sussex.
I’ve chosen the title for two key reasons, both based on observations I have made over the years.
The first is that when people raise the subject of anti-Semitism or talk about it in any way, the conversation rarely stays ‘on topic’. It tends to wander – from definitions of what constitutes anti-Semitism, to debates about its reality or pervasiveness, rapidly descending into an encapsulated history of Jew-hatred throughout the ages.
Actually, this description doesn’t seem to quite do justice to what happens to discussions about anti-Semitism. They don’t wander. They explode.
Let’s face it: For Jews (and for anyone else we may be talking to), it’s difficult to retain complete objectivity about this. Antisemitism – to state the blindingly obvious – is an emotive subject. It touches on our history, our identity, our sense of place in the world – particularly in terms of how we relate to the state of Israel – and, most importantly, our sense of well-being.
In short, ‘talking about anti-Semitism’ is a challenge all by itself.
It’s also, I believe, a subject worthy of analysis.
The second reason for my double-barrelled course title has as much to do with psychology and logic as it does with my own hard-wired commitment to problem-solving. For if my preliminary observation is correct and the mere raising of the subject of anti-Semitism stimulates a matrix of conflicting thoughts and emotions, how much more important is it to explore what can be done about it?
To be sure, exploring how we conceptualise or understand anti-Semitism appears to be a critical first step in locating strategies for countering it.
But equally important is the exploration of the existing actions and interventions against anti-Semitism that have been fought for and developed over the years.
Indeed, once the subject of anti-Semitism is opened up in this way perhaps it will be possible to allow a bit of light to enter into an otherwise very dark place.
If we start to explore how the courts, legislation, codes of behaviour, international relations, freedom of speech, personal initiatives and even one’s own emotional and spiritual disposition can be marshalled in response to this seemingly eradicable hatred, perhaps we can begin to restore some balance to the discussion.
At least that’s the idea.
Will it work? In many respects that depends on the nature of tonight’s discussion.
The key word here is ‘discussion’.
In point of fact, I’d prefer to conduct this ‘class’ not as a lecture but as a focus group. In theory, at least, this approach has two advantages. It will open up the subject of ‘anti-Semitism and its antidotes’ not only to participants for whom it’s geographically convenient to give up an hour or two of their free time in the evening– but to anyone who wants to contribute on these blog pages.
I’m hoping we can explore some of these timely subjects in a truly interactive way – together and in a way that adds more light than heat to how we talk about anti-Semitism.
This article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle.