Holocaust, antisemitism scholar shares thoughts on communal responsibilities post-Oct. 7
Time to learnOld story, new reality

Holocaust, antisemitism scholar shares thoughts on communal responsibilities post-Oct. 7

Michael Berenbaum offers insight before Pittsburgh visit

Michael Berenbaum. (Photo courtesy of Michael Berenbaum)
Michael Berenbaum. (Photo courtesy of Michael Berenbaum)

Scholar Michael Berenbaum has a comprehensive understanding of the Holocaust. Right now, he’s focused on the present.

“This is a difficult time in Jewish history and a difficult time in American history,” Berenbaum told the Chronicle. “We have to understand our situation and respond accordingly.”

For decades, the academician has helped American Jews and the wider public discern various truths and complexities regarding antisemitism and the Shoah. He is a distinguished professor of religion at American Jewish University and the director of Sigi Ziering Institute. He previously served as deputy director of the President’s Commission on the Holocaust, project director of the United States Holocaust Memorial and director of the USHMM’s Holocaust Research Institute.

Berenbaum is slated to visit Pittsburgh and offer his expertise in the coming weeks.

On March 12 at 6 p.m., the Californian will deliver a public talk at Duquesne University titled, “Why the Holocaust Still Matters.”

While in Pittsburgh, he’ll also speak with teachers from Classrooms Without Borders and, he said, “probably meet with my old friend Carole Zawatsky [CEO of Tree of Life, Inc.] and look at what they’re doing at the Tree of Life project.”

The latter is of particular interest, Berenbaum continued, given his role as a museum maker.

In 2009, he and Edward Jacobs launched Berenbaum Jacobs Associates, a firm specializing in museum designs, exhibitions, memorials and other projects.

Whether it’s Tree of Life or another space, “I’m always interested in why and how they’re creating museums,” he said. “From my mind, the issue in creating museums is, what’s the story you have to tell? Where do you tell it? To whom are you telling it, and then with what?”

Coming to Pittsburgh and learning more about Tree of Life will be “very interesting,” Berenbaum continued, because “Tree of Life has become a symbol of both the worst and the best in America.”

Although the massacre of Oct. 27, 2018, was the most violent antisemitic attack in U.S. history, the aftermath demonstrated overwhelming communal resilience.

“It’s an example of how we do not let the haters win,” Berenbaum said.

For many, watching Pittsburgh from afar yielded an obvious message, he continued.

People of all faiths responded to the horror by saying, “This is not the community we want to be in. This is not what we want to have in our community.”

Support for the Jewish community post-Pittsburgh synagogue shooting was overwhelming but, more than five years later, a different story is unfolding.

Following Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s military response, U.S. antisemitic incidents have dramatically escalated.

In the three months preceding Jan. 7, the Anti-Defamation League tracked 3,291 antisemitic incidents — a 361% increase from the same period one year earlier.

Those incidents are “occurring in a context in which all sorts of hatred is found in our society, and permission to hate is felt in segments of the community,” Berenbaum said.

Extremists possess powerful tools, including social media platforms, to disseminate abhorrent claims, but there’s another aspect to the rise of hatred, the scholar said: “For a very long time, we had the idea that Israel was the cure for antisemitism. And we have a new reality in which Israel cannot only quench the fires of antisemitism but fuel the flames.”

Berenbaum said he began noticing this about 15 years ago.

The events of the past four months, he said, have demonstrated that museum makers tasked with finding new ways of fighting antisemitism must understand recent events when asking,

“What do you want the audience, the visitors, to take away?” Because whatever ideas people leave with are “a very important part of the experience.”

Berenbaum said he’s looking forward to visiting Pittsburgh, meeting with educators and sharing thoughts on the Holocaust and antisemitism. And though his work often places him in lecture halls, museums and intellectual spaces, his message is for the layperson.

“I want the average person to understand that we had generations of Jews, including my grandparents’ generation, that said ‘Shver tsu zayn a yid’, ‘It’s tough to be a Jew,’” he said. “I want people to develop a certain sense of resilience and toughness, what we would call a thick skin, and not give up Jewish pride, not give up their sense of community, and not let fear triumph.”

Tsipy Gur, founder and executive director of Classrooms Without Borders, said Berenbaum’s expertise will enable scores of educators to coalesce and consider new reactions to an age-old plight.

“We have to understand where we are, understand the responsibilities and what we have to do,” Berenbaum said. “I hope that my talks will illuminate that and will help people engage in those responses.” PJC

Adam Reinherz can be reached at areinherz@pittsburghjewishchronicle.org.



read more: