Fighting antisemitism by tracing its roots

The uptick in modern antisemitism can be traced back to its historical roots, says Paola Tartakoff ahead of her talks at Mount Holyoke College.

As part of Mount Holyoke College’s sixth annual Building On Our Momentum (BOOM!) Community Day, Paola Tartakoff will be on a panel with Laura Liebman, entitled “Where Past Meets Present: A Conversation on the Roots of Antisemitism.” The panel will be moderated by Mara Benjamin, Irene Kaplan Leiwant Professor of Jewish Studies and Chair of Jewish Studies at Mount Holyoke College.

Tartakoff will also give a talk as part of Mount Holyoke College’s lecture series “Fighting Antisemitism at Mount Holyoke and Beyond” entitled “Antisemitism Today: How Did We Get Here?

Tartakoff is chair and professor of history and Jewish studies at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. Her work focuses on relations between Jews and other religious groups, including Christians and Muslims, in Western Europe during the Middle Ages — a time when Jews were not only persecuted but also had friendships, business partnerships, collaborations and intellectual exchanges with their non-Jewish neighbors. Many of the narratives and stereotypes that existed or developed during this period continue to echo in society today, forming the basis for modern antisemitism and Judeophobia and providing lessons about how to combat these issues in modern life. 

She spoke to Mount Holyoke before her talk.           

The following interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Talk about the lecture you’ll give at Mount Holyoke College.

So many major antisemitic incidents have occurred in the past several years — for example, the recent hostage situation at the synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, the shooter in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, synagogue and “Unite the Right” marchers in Charlottesville, Virginia. There has also been an uptick in more subtle expressions of antisemitism. But how did we get here? People who aren’t used to thinking about this issue might be puzzled and wonder where this is coming from. But there are always some core themes and myths at play: things like Jews are conspiratorial and have power that far exceeds their number in society or Jews are greedy. My talk will address how the roots of these myths are ancient and became embedded in society long ago, but they continue to manifest in new ways and in new contexts. If you peel away the external circumstances, the same core can always be discovered.

How did you become interested in teaching about and studying antisemitism?

I’m Jewish, and I have always been interested in relations between different groups and the ways in which we all have so much in common with one another but often revert to stereotypes when we interact. This is true for all different groups — it’s not unique to Jews or Christians or anyone else. I’m particularly interested in the origins of these behaviors. As a historian, I have to go to where the sources are, to the surviving documents that I’m able to analyze. The documents I have studied were produced and preserved starting in the 13th and 14th centuries. That’s one reason I study these themes from the medieval period — before then, very little on these themes survived. The documents I have used for my work are stored in modern archives, but they’re also in churches and city halls. Many of them are eaten by worms or are moldy. There’s a certain smell and texture — it’s a whole sensory experience.

In your writings and talks, you distinguish between antisemitism and Judeophobia. What’s the difference?

Each term has a specific history. Antisemitism was coined in the late 19th century in Germany to denote hatred of Jews as a race, not a religion. Jews were beginning to assimilate in larger numbers in Western Europe, and people who did not want that to happen argued that even if Jews converted to Christianity, they would still be dangerous because their alleged negative characteristics stemmed from fixed, inherited traits, not religious beliefs. Antisemitism also can be used more loosely as a synonym for anti-Jewish prejudice. Judeophobia is often used to denote pre-19th century prejudice against Jews, which had a more religious focus — at least in theory, if Jews converted to Christianity, the thought was that they would shed their negative characteristics. Initially, I wasn’t primarily interested in antisemitism or Judeophobia. I was more interested in religious identity and questions about religious conversion. But I learned through my research that despite the promise of baptism being a rebirth, Jews who were baptized throughout much of history tended to never be fully accepted as being Christian. They continued to carry the stigma of being a former Jew.

What kinds of crossovers exist between antisemitism and racism?

Antisemitism is a form of racism; it essentializes a group, painting all of its members with a broad brush. Moreover, it thrives in the same environments in which other forms of racism thrive. So, for example, white nationalists despise Jews as well as other groups they deem nonwhite. Like other forms of racism, antisemitism provides an outlet for people to project their anxieties about themselves and their own society onto others. What can we pin on someone else and demonize them for? In that process, we can avoid grappling with complex realities, and we can also avoid looking in the mirror and seeing the ways in which we’re implicated in what’s going on.

What can non-Jews do to be the best allies to the Jewish community?

If you’re a Mount Holyoke student, come to my talk! Learning is the best starting point. Try to get more educated about this form of bigotry — read, go to events, learn about its history and manifestations and characteristics. Another thing is to speak up when you see or hear something, whether it’s overt antisemitism or a microaggression. There’s no single right way to respond. You don’t have to make someone feel attacked or ashamed, but it’s important to help people recognize expressions of antisemitism when they encounter them. But before you can do that, you have to become educated about what those are and how they manifest. Antisemitism can be protean and shape-shifting and evolving, always taking on new forms.

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