Lecture gives historical perspective on anti-Judaism

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Students at the UW are often encouraged to approach issues from a holistic perspective, providing them with a deeper understanding and asking them to question what they know.

This holistic perspective was the focus of the “Anti-Judaism Past and Present” lecture Monday, the purpose of which was to show how anti-Judaism has historically led to widespread misconceptions and opinions of the global Jewish community.

The lecture was given by David Nirenberg, a professor at the University of Chicago, and sponsored by the UW department of sociology. It was presented by Scholars for Peace in the Middle East (SPME), a national organization with a newly founded chapter here at the UW.

The main idea behind the talk was “how our historical understanding of what has happened affects decisions that we make today, especially ethical decisions about evaluating what’s going on in politics and other realms,” said Paul Burstein, a member of SPME and a former political science, sociology, and Jewish studies professor at the UW.

SPME, a chapter of approximately 40 members from various departments of the UW community, chose to organize this event with the idea being “to draw people in because they think it’s something interesting and familiar and show them a new way of looking at it,” Burstein said.

Nirenberg began the talk by discussing the debate between those who believe that anti-Judaism sentiment has little to do with history, but lies in the present, and those who believe that history shapes the way in which events, sentiments, and various other structures come to be.

“These debates … are among other things, debates about history,” Nirenberg said, siding with the fact that history is a highly influential factor on our current perspectives of anti-Judaism.

Nirenberg’s book, “Anti Judaism: The Western Tradition,” discusses the relationships between Jews, Christians, and Muslims, both in the Middle Ages and today, discussing how the two time periods overlap and shape our current views.

He discussed this history, showing how anti-Judaism sentiment owes rise to the fact that ancient Christianity and Islam identified by describing their relationship to, and differences from, Judaism.

“Judaism came to mean a mistaken way of relating to the world and to God,” Nirenberg said. “Ancient Christianity and Islam both turned Judaism into a basic concept in which to criticize and make sense of the world.”

This view made any opinions of Jewish people very difficult to change because they were perceived to be a problem simply because of who they were. Nothing could change that, Nirenberg said, revealing how often anti-Jewish sentiment is rooted in the historical hatred of a non-existent group.

He elaborated on this, saying this sentiment was not related to a specific group of individuals or a set of beliefs, but in fact, “it does not require living Jews.”

“Are we acting partly, entirely, or not at all, in the grips of these habits of thought?” Nirenberg asked. “How do we test ourselves against that?”

The advice he gave audience members was to be aware of their habits of thought, and see how it affects their everyday beliefs and perceptions.

It was also announced during the lecture that a new chair for Israel studies will be hired at the UW due to a large donation by Becky Benaroya. As Robert Stacey, dean for the College of Arts and Sciences at the UW said, the department of Jewish studies is “going to become the place in the country to do Israel studies.”

The announcement and Nirenberg’s discussion highlighted the importance of being conscious of global and personal views, and the many ways they can be shaped over time.

Lecture gives historical perspective on anti-Judaism

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