Publication Date

December 1, 1993

How does one most effectively teach about anti-Semitism to university and college students in America today? Does a study of what has been provocatively termed "the longest hatred" offer insights into other kinds of ethnic and religious hostilities? How can one deal with the daunting problems of objectivity in approaching such an explosive topic?

Ruth Wisse has recently complained that "despite the unparalleled success of anti-Semitism, few university departments of political science, sociology, history, or philosophy bother to analyze the single European political ideal of the past century that nearly realized its ends." (If I Am Not for Myself … The Liberal Betrayal of the Jews [1992].) One need not accept all of the bitterly sweeping indictments contained in Wisse’s book to agree that this country’s ever more diverse undergraduates are surprisingly uninformed about anti-Semitism. Such is the case, though not so surprisingly, with those whose families have recently arrived from Asia or Latin America, where Jewish populations are small or nonexistent. But it is also true for native-born Americans who have lived in close proximity to Jews. Indeed, it is most astonishingly true for a large proportion of Jewish undergraduates themselves.

For the past decade I have taught an upper-division course on the history and nature of anti-Semitism, with enrollments ranging between fifty and a hundred students. (To a large extent inspired by classroom experiences, I recently published a study of a number of famous outbursts of anti-Semitism in the generation before World War I, and I am now completing a general study of modern anti-Semitism.) The remarks that follow describe some things learned in the classroom that may be of value to others, not only in teaching about anti-Semitism but also about kindred hostilities. They are offered with full recognition of how much this enterprise resembles walking through a minefield; the course has been described by students and faculty alike as "audacious" and "provocative."

I am not Jewish. I soon learned that my origins, which at first seemed to me of no particular significance in teaching the course, surprised and perplexed many. At first, most students simply assumed I was Jewish. Even after I began to make the point explicitly in the syllabus and in the first lecture, some students continued to assume I was Jewish. Anyone teaching undergraduate lecture classes is aware that students do not always absorb things said on the first day, even when they are repeated in the syllabus. But the persistence of this misperception was greater than the familiar misperceptions about reading assignments and test dates. I concluded that for many students I simply had to be Jewish to teach such a course. I came to appreciate how revealing that assumption was—and how useful it was for me to make a point of my being non-Jewish, for it helped to establish a different and in some ways more productive classroom environment. For some students, I seemed to gain a certain stature, as one who might be more balanced or who might bring the insights of an outsider to the course. Others seemed simply grateful. I was not always sure why, but in a few cases—when the point was discussed—it reflected an appreciation that a non-Jew considered the topic worth serious attention. Not once in teaching the class have I encountered the charge from students that, as a non-Jew, I could not adequately understand anti-Semitism (or “Jewish suffering,” as the charge is most often formulated).

When I began to speak to various audiences in town about anti-Semitism, I encountered kindred reactions, though more often a bit of suspicion: "Why is a non-Jew studying this subject?" or "Why are you so interested in Jews?" One evening, after a well-received talk to a mostly retired and mostly Jewish group, a woman approached me with a mischievous smile and asked, "What's a nice Gentile boy like you doing in a subject like this?" Again I sensed a particular quality of attention to what I had to say, due to the novelty of my being non-Jewish. With these audiences I did occasionally encounter various forms of the charge that as a non-Jew I was incapable of understanding Jewish suffering, but on the whole the reactions were warmly supportive.

Why indeed had I taken up this subject? The short and easy answer is that a colleague and friend, Professor Richard Hecht, who is Jewish, asked if I would join him in teaching a course on anti-Semitism that he had taught for some time in the Department of Religious Studies. I hesitated, since I had no particular scholarly expertise in the field, but finally consented, in part because I agreed with him that anti-Semitism was a problem in need of a more serious and sober attention in undergraduate teaching, especially in terms of its deeper historical origins and evolution. In examining some of my favorite general texts at that time (1980), I was struck, for example, at the elaborate attention given to the origins and course of World War II in contrast to the terse, even superficial references to both the Holocaust and its origins. My own syllabi and lectures were, admittedly, no better.

I have never regretted accepting that invitation. The course has turned out to be the most satisfying, if also the most challenging and sometimes emotionally draining, of any I have taught, in close to thirty years of experience with undergraduate teaching at a number of universities. It altered both my teaching and scholarly agendas. I had before that time only rarely encountered such intense interest by undergraduates, such active, well-attended office hours, such gratifying teaching evaluations. I had only rarely before come to know students so well or formed such close friendships with them. Many went on to enroll in the history honors seminar I teach for seniors, doing major research papers on various aspects of anti-Semitism. I still get mail—postcards, chatty letters, inquiries about books and articles—from some who took the course in its opening years.

Most of the students in this course over the past ten years also have not been Jewish. That, too, surprises many, although I soon learned that the age-old conundrum "What is a Jew?" has become even more difficult to answer in late-twentieth-century America (and perhaps most of all in California). Nearly all the non-Jews in the class had close Jewish friends, boyfriends, girlfriends, relatives, ancestors, neighbors, roommates, or other kinds of close contact with Jews. A large number were the product of mixed marriages, sometimes unsure in their own minds what it meant to be Jewish. No doubt, then, those who took the course were not a random sample but, on the other hand, neither were they particularly unusual for undergraduates at the University of California in the 1980s. (A questionnaire, passed out on the first day, asking students about their attitudes to their ethnic-religious identity, proved valuable; its results were discussed in the opening classes and that discussion let students get to know one another, which in turn helped to make ensuing discussions more productive.)

Without the initiative and encouragement of Professor Hecht, it would not have occurred to me to teach such a course. More important, without him, it would not have succeeded as much as it did. Aside from his helping me get started in the literature of the field and his invaluable advice about various pitfalls, he is a talented teacher, a warm and decent man with a rare sense of humor—invaluable in helping us all to loosen up when dealing with such often distressing material.

To be sure, from the beginning we two were not consistently in agreement about either methods or content. On a number of points we agreed to disagree and to make those disagreements integral to the course (he, for example, believed in the central role of religious symbols in the genesis of anti-Semitism, while I was more impressed by social and economic conflict). We concluded that it would be useful for students to observe that differences of opinion on this elusive and emotional topic were to be expected, and that from such disagreements heightened understanding could emerge. We at first assumed that the differences between disciplines and related approaches (that is, history and religious studies) would be the most important, and those certainly remained notable, as did differences of personal style. We did not make much of the role of our personal ethnic-religious perspectives. But increasingly we appreciated that they could not be ignored, although they could not always be cleanly distinguished from professional training and personal style.

Of course, we never—to this day—have thought it justifiable or even pedagogically useful to say, "This is the Jewish viewpoint" or "This is the non-Jewish viewpoint." It is a matter of nuance, not stark contrasts; our agreements far outweighed our disagreements, and, indeed, those agreements have grown as we have discussed and worked through various points. Similarly, we understood only too well how disagreements in this area could swerve in directions that are dangerous to mutually respectful, dispassionate, and impartial inquiry. In selecting readings, composing lectures, and leading discussions, we did not avoid choices and judgments: We had to make clear what we considered to be fruitful or intellectually respectable disagreements. We did not spend much time, for example, studying the validity of the claims of those who deny there was a Holocaust, but we did not avoid such nettlesome issues as Jewish self-hatred or anti-Semitism among African Americans. The course began before the current controversies over "political correctness" gained such visibility, but we had to deal with similar issues almost immediately.

It might be termed, for example, politically incorrect even to ask if Jews had any responsibility for the hatred that has been directed at them. That would be "blaming the victim"—the height of political incorrectness. Anti-Semites have long charged that Jews bring hatred upon themselves, and statements that appear to give even the faintest support to such transparently malevolent charges naturally evoke defensive reactions from many Jews. The parallels with other groups in this regard are obvious.

We strived in the course to get beyond the posturing and sterility that characterize such exchanges. Jews have frequently been victims, but they have less often lacked the will or resources with which to defend themselves than is widely believed; in modern times they have "fought back" in the most direct sense, with weapons in hand, but also in more subtle ways, ones that are finally far more important. Jewish identity, if it is to have much meaning, necessarily has to do not only with victimization but also with the issue of resistance to oppression and domination. And that resistance alone has been enough to provoke misunderstanding, distrust, and hatred, although anti-Semitism can hardly be reduced to such considerations.

Again, there are obvious parallels with other groups. Many of the victimized, past and present, only too understandably want to bring the history of their victimization to the attention of a wide audience—to expose, denounce, condemn, and prevent recurrences. This concern is not only understandable but absolutely necessary when that oppression has been glossed over, ignored, or falsified, as is often the case. However, such legitimate concerns can all too easily fall into various traps, prominent among them overdramatization and lack of balance, which, by endangering credibility, undermine the case that historical victims want to bring to a wide audience. Large if also subtle dangers lie in the direction of portraying Jews, or other victims, as passive, blameless—mere objects—pushed one way and then another by the real movers and shakers of history, their oppressors.

The dimensions and texture of these dangers cannot be adequately pursued in an article of this sort, but it requires only the briefest reflection to understand that Jews portrayed as passive and blameless risk becoming Jews without character or identity. It is axiomatic that those with the most power have the most responsibility, but once that axiom is recognized, more challenging distinctions need to be made. The temptation to deny all responsibility to those with less power incurs the penalty, finally, of denying full humanity to them—with all the implications the term "human" carries: potential for both good and evil, wise and wicked choices, insight and confusion. If Jews, or other oppressed groups, are to be considered part of the human family, with the responsibilities that come with moral freedom, then they must also be understood as morally frail—and responsible in some sense, however attenuated, for bad choices they make.

Even these remarks render the issues too abstract, since identity is by no means purely a matter of free will; we are born into situations and cultures, and our ability to free ourselves from them, or freely affirm them, is limited. But the point I wish to press is the importance of conceptualizing relations between ethnic groups as having significant degrees of mutuality. How mutual is precisely one of the issues that need to be studied carefully. Jews in concentration camps did not have a great deal of moral freedom, nor did Africans chained to the hulls of slave ships. But even in those extreme cases, I believe, Jews and Africans did not lose a key element of their humanity, that is, their ability to resist, to grapple with moral choices, however horrifyingly restricted. Jews in the last years of Tsar Nicholas II's tyrannical reign "resisted" in any number of ways, ranging from a tenacious assertion of their traditional identity to violent revolutionary action. African Americans resisted slavery, violently at times but more typically and revealingly in a range of subtle ways.

Such issues have been central to scholarly interpretations of the Holocaust. Hannah Arendt's explosive charges in Eichmann in Jerusalem (1977) that Jews themselves, by cooperating with the authorities, made possible the catastrophic dimensions of Nazi mass murder, suggest that Jews might have made better choices and saved millions of lives, although Arendt’s own position, largely derived from her reading of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews (1961) is finally murky. More recent and less reckless observers, and ones who have paid close attention to Jewish, as distinguished from Nazi, sources, have pointed out a range of Jewish responses, from genuinely heroic, to uncertain and confused, to selfish and morally corrupt. (Two rather different examples from what is by now a very large body of literature: Josiah Trunk, Judenrat [1972] and Alexander Stille, Benevolence and Betrayal: Five Italian Jewish Families under Fascism [1991]. Trunk documents in considerable detail how different the leadership of the Jewish councils under Nazi rule was from area to area, while Stille, in a more popular work, makes clear what at first seems unimaginable—how large numbers of Jews in Italy became fascists in the first years of Mussolini’s rule.) Similarly, the question of whether those in other countries, in Europe and the Americas, Jews and non-Jews, did enough to help the beleaguered Jews of Europe brings up the same issues of moral responsibility, good and bad choices, audacity and temerity, altruism and selfishness, compassion and indifference.

The Holocaust, in its extremes, can be clarifying—but also blinding. Jews did not face such appalling decisions during most of modern history, and from the late eighteenth century to the present the theme of mutuality is more fruitful and intellectually engaging. Moreover, Jewish strategies of survival, which varied widely, were as a whole remarkably successful in many parts of Europe and the Americas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Such is especially the case if one is permitted to measure success by such tangible categories as population growth, per capita income, ownership of property, intellectual distinction, or political and social prominence. Similarly, that success cannot be understood without a full and balanced attention to the choices made by non-Jews, which again brings us back to the issue of mutuality. Anti-Semitism was by no means the only or even prevalent reaction: A significant proportion of influential non-Jews offered a friendly hand—however ambiguous it may seem in retrospect—to Jews, to join them in building a modern civilization in which the religious hostilities of the past would be set aside.

Our course deals with what might more properly be called "Jewish-Gentile relations" than with anti-Semitism alone, for there was much more to the relationship of Jews and Gentiles than hostility and persecution. Similarly, we have tried to illustrate the remarkable range of experiences that Jews have encountered in time and in place: the "honeymoon years" of the mid-nineteenth century, the shift in 1880s toward racial antipathies, the "happy exiles" in Italy or the United States, the cataclysm of World War I and the ensuing escalation of hostility to Jews. We try to give students a sense of the intricate textures and ambiguities of historical change—nowhere more striking than in the condition of Jews in modern times. The story is anything but one of unremitting persecution and hostility, and even less one of a rising tide of hatred culminating in the Holocaust. We try to untangle religious and secular factors, particularly the extent to which hard times economically tend to translate into heightened hostility to Jews.

Finding appropriate readings about the history of anti-Semitism for undergraduate courses remains a problem. A large number of excellent scholarly monographs and articles by a new generation of scholars have appeared in the past twenty-five years, but most are too fine in focus and too sophisticated in approach for undergraduate courses. At the other end of the spectrum, in overviews or texts, there is a yawning gap—not in numbers but in quality. A combination of intellectual penetration, scholarly balance, and readability is hard to come by. I cannot recommend, without serious reservations, any general history of anti-Semitism or, indeed, of the Holocaust; the plethora of existing works either fails the test of readability (style, length, clarity) or of scholarly balance, usually both and often strikingly.

Nonetheless, there are exceptions. Bernard Lewis's Semites and Anti-Semites (1986), for example, though not pretending to be a general history of anti-Semitism, does provide a brief overview of a sort, combining intellectual rigor with clean, clear writing. Michael Marrus’s The Holocaust in History (1987) does not present itself as a general history of the Holocaust but accomplishes, in two hundred incisive pages, by far the most balanced and penetrating interpretive introduction to a study of it. For individual countries and more limited spans of time, the situation is distinctly better than for general works and texts. Among those who have written about anti-Semitism with exemplary penetration, clarity, and readability are Hans Rogger for Russia (Jewish Policies and Right-Wing Politics in Imperial Russia [1986]) and Michael Marrus for France (The Politics of Assimilation: The French Community at the Time of the Dreyfus Affair [1971]). The most useful brief collection of documents is Richard Levy’s Antisemitism in the Modern World (1990), which also stands out for its ambitious yet clearly written introduction and editorial comments.

Robert Wistrich has written a number of scholarly and otherwise exemplary works; his Socialism and the Jews: The Dilemmas of Assimilation in Germany and Austria-Hungary (1982) must be counted among the richest and most penetrating treatments of Gentile-Jewish relations to appear in the last twenty years. He has also recently published a work, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred (1991), that appears to answer the need for a general study. However, the book suffers from the same traits that disqualify so many other general histories. Filled with names, facts, figures, and without question the result of wide reading, it is disappointingly one dimensional—a list of evil deeds and evil writings, indignantly narrated. It does not much attempt to probe the motivations of the actors of the past or to portray them in subtler hues than starkly evil or good—active and morally responsible villains, passive and blameless victims.

Wistrich's book, like so many others, illustrates a central point: It is easy to describe and denounce anti-Semitism or other ethnic hatreds, often laughably easy, since the proponents of ethnic hatred are typically crude and repellent people. What is difficult—often damnably so—is to understand them. In assuming a stance of simple, unwavering denunciation, one subtly places oneself in the category of the morally upright. In seeking to understand, one places one's foot on the slippery slope of excusing inexcusable acts, or at least seeming to do so. Yet, if we are ever to move beyond the sterile exchanges that so characterize the current scene, it is the second of these we must attempt.

To conclude—and to return to the questions in the opening paragraph—I would like to stress the following. 1) One cannot get around one's ethnic-religious background, and it is better to bring the issue to the forefront, discuss it as honestly as possible, and not hide behind a mask of scholarly objectivity. 2) Partly for such reasons, team teaching is to be recommended; it will also encourage those who teach to resolve differences they have with their colleagues—and be a symbol to students in the classroom of academic dialogue and cooperation. Alternatively, one can make use of guest lectures, especially those offering contrasting interpretive perspectives. 3) While objectivity is elusive—especially if we define that term in impossibly rigorous ways—we can make progress in understanding one another (as distinguished from denouncing one another), if the will is there. 4) The themes of mutual reaction, mutual failures, mutual responsibilities, if they penetrate the texture of a course with both sensitivity and intellectual rigor, will make a more credible, more lively, and finally more effective classroom. "Oppression studies," while a necessary and even understandable first step, must move on to more intellectually (and psychologically) challenging perspectives. Such is the case not only to avoid the obvious danger that those identified as "oppressors" (or at least the descendants of oppressors) will simply tune out, but also to avoid the more subtle danger that the "oppressed" will come to internalize a sense of themselves as victims lacking in human complexity and character, blameless in a way that deprives them, too, of their full humanity—in some ways more effectively than their racist detractors are able to do.

The models of "multiculturalism" over the last hundred years—the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Lebanon, Yugoslavia, the former Soviet Union, the Indian subcontinent—are not reassuring. If current conceptions of multiculturalism are to offer more attractive models, to become something willingly embraced rather than resentfully accepted at universities and colleges in the 1990s, initiatives like the one taken by my colleague, Professor Hecht, need to spread, as do efforts at mutual comprehension rather than charges and defensive countercharges, spiraling out of control. There are many like me, I am sure, who would welcome the opportunity to move beyond "oppression studies" to more challenging agendas. There are risks in that enterprise—and many who will denounce it—but also, if my experience is any guide, many rewards.

— is professor of history at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he teaches courses on modern European history. He is the author of The Red Years (1974), A History of European Socialism (1981), and The Jew Accused: Three Anti-Semitic Affairs: Dreyfus, Beilis, Frank, 1894–1915 (1991). He is currently completing Through Esau's Eyes: Jews and Non-Jews in Modern History, a Reinterpretation of the "Jewish Question."

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