In contentious classroom, seeking out a definition of anti-semitism

May 15, 2018

No, this is not a mini-mester on how to be anti- semitic. Dr. Naya Lekht, a visiting professor at Cal State Long Beach and a research scholar at the Jewish studies center at UCLA, is currently teaching the second rotation of a mini-mester on various kinds of anti-Semitism through history.

Perhaps surprisingly, it’s also a course on what it means to be Jewish, and also on how what might seem anti-semitic to one person might not be to another.

“My students gave me all types of interesting answers of what it means to be Jewish, but nobody said anything about Israel,” said Dr. Lekht. “If something is anti-Israel, then is it not anti-semitic then?”

Interesting has often meant contrary. Most of the students have disagreed with Dr. Lekht on whether various examples of cartoons or writing were anti- semitic.

“There were many instances,” said Daniel Lorell, who was in the first rotation, “in which the class unanimously or nearly unanimously that a certain piece of artwork, poster, piece of legislation, speech which was critical of Israel or its policy, but not necessarily of Judaism. But, the instruction was otherwise.”

For example, most of the students said that they did not think that Israel represented all Jews, but Dr. Lekht disagreed. Dr. Lekht also argued that at the very least, Israel represented Jews in the eyes of non-Jews.

Dr. Lekht said that she is teaching the second rotation differently because of feedback from the first.

“Instead of beginning with what is anti-semitism, we are having a long discussion about what it means to be Jewish,” said Dr. Lekht.

Even though students in the first rotation disagreed with De. Lekht in many ideas, they still enjoyed learning a different viewpoint.

“It was nice learning a new perspective,” said senior Jonah Sanders. “I never really thought about anti-Semitism in that context before. She definitely had a lot of beliefs that a lot of people didn’t agree with, but it was interesting to talk critically about an issue that is really current in life.”

Minimesters last each three weeks each, and students take three at a time. However, last rotation, schedule conflicts including Sarachek, the Robotics competition, and the Model Congress Trip, reduced the number of times the class met.

“We really rushed through it…,” said Jonah. “Learning more of the history and learning more of the arguments building up to it I think would have made it better.”

As a child, Dr. Lekht lived in the Soviet Union in what is now Ukraine. She never experienced Russian anti-Semitism herself, leaving when she was just six years old. But she heard about it a lot from her parents.

“She was very literate in that,” said Daniel.

Students were convinced by some but not all of what she said.

A political cartoon that many in the class agreed was anti-semitism showed a previous Prime Minister of Israel holding a bloodied baby with the word Gaza on the baby. But a Black Lives Matter statement that Israel practiced “systematic discrimination and has maintained a military occupation of Palestine for decades” was not considered anti-semitic by many in the class.

“I don’t know if there was enough of a why involved,” said Daniel. “It was more of how it manifested itself. I suppose because there isn’t really an answer as to why, but an exploration into that at least.”

Sam Hirschhorn, who is in the second rotation, had a different experiencee.

Sam said that this time around, Dr. Lekht started the course by asking the students to define what it means to be Jewish so that they can better define what anti-Semitism is. He said he really appreciated studying the subject.

“During Jewish History, we studied anti- semitism a little, but we never really went deeply into it, so I think it’s interesting to go deeply into the origins and the different types.”

The experience has been eye-opening for the teacher as well.

“It’s something I’ve been working on for a long time — it’s both personal and professional for me,” Dr. Lekht said. “But it was challenging because I had to recalibrate, rethink what my teaching goals are and what my philosophical and ideological goals are.

“I’m hoping that the students got something out of it because… at the end of the day that’s really the most important thing, that your students feel that they’ve left with some sort of impression or knowledge or something to enhance their life and to look at life a little bit differently.”

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