Tsipy Gur, the founder and executive director of the educational non-profit Classrooms Without Borders, was moved to action after the massacre at the Tree of Life building last fall.
“I decided that we need to do things, we need to educate teachers and adults and lay people about what’s happening, not only about the Holocaust but anti-Semitism,” said Gur, whose team worked for the past year in assembling a roster of national scholars and experts to present at a comprehensive conference called “Antisemitism, Hate and Social Responsibility” held at Rodef Shalom Congregation on Nov. 10 and 11.
“We have here over 300 educators and students and it’s really very powerful,” said Gur just prior to the start of the conference on Sunday.
Through lectures, panel discussions and breakout sessions, the attendees learned about the many forms of anti-Semitism and hate. They were also given tools to fight it, through practical tips as well as the opportunity to get involved with several organizations that set up tables at the conference to share their anti-hate missions.
In addition to teachers and students from around Pittsburgh, attendees included those from New York, Arizona, Ohio and New Jersey. An entire bus filled with learners came from Washington & Jefferson College.
“Anti-Semitism is not just a chapter in European history,” Gur explained to the crowd at the commencement of the conference. “Today hate threatens our democracy, our communities, our lives and the lives we want for our children. At the front of hate is ignorance and fear, especially fear of the other.
“We know that education is our greatest weapon to combat anti-Semitism and hate of all kinds, but if we are to succeed we must teach more than just history. It is imperative to educate our students to be open-minded, to listen, to learn from each other, to share stories and cultures and to develop empathy of those different than themselves. And then to stand up, not to be afraid, and to act when they witness hate in their communities.”
The slate of speakers included noted anti-Semitism scholar Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at the American Jewish University; Kathleen Blee, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences and the College of General Studies at the University of Pittsburgh, where she has researched racist activism; Kenneth Jacobson, deputy national director of the Anti-Defamation League; former neo-Nazi skinhead Shannon Foley Martinez; and David Estrin, founder and CEO of the nonprofit Together We Remember, a global campaign to counter violent hatred.
“They did a great job bringing awesome people here,” said Estrin, 28, a grandson of four Holocaust survivors. “This is about convening people who are on the front lines doing this work so we can better collaborate.”
In his keynote address on Sunday, Berenbaum presented an overview of the state of anti-Semitism in contemporary society.
He began his talk pointing to data from the Pew Research Center that shows that Judaism is the most popular — “or least unpopular” — religion in America today.
Although anti-Semites today constitute a smaller percentage of the population of America, “the irony is there is a demonstrable increase in anti-Semitism,” Berenbaum said, owing in part to “an increase in the expression of hatred in our society.”
“People who hate now feel comfortable in expressing their hatred and they do not feel social stigma involved in the expression of hatred and that empowers all sorts of people who hate to be manifest in their hatred,” he said.
Adding to that is the “megaphone” of the internet and “a social support system, which is social media,” he said. “Less people hate, but they are louder.”
Speaking about the Pittsburgh synagogue massacre, he noted that “the catastrophic news was the murders” but “the good news was the response of the community.”
He compared the response to the shooting in Pittsburgh to the horror of Kristallnacht, during which non-Jewish bystanders watched as their neighbors were terrorized and firemen stood by as synagogues burned.
In Pittsburgh, though, “our first responders ran to save Jews,” he said. “That is the radical difference. The government was there.”
Berenbaum gave an overview of anti-Semitism coming from the far right and the far left, as well as from Islamic radicals.
He also explored anti-Semitism disguised as anti-Zionism and the vilification of Israel. There is a “borderline” he said, from which legitimate criticism of the State of Israel crosses over into anti-Semitism. That borderline is crossed once criticism of Israel encompasses what Natan Sharansky coined as “the three Ds”: “double standard,” when Israel is held to a different and more rigid standard of behavior than other countries in the world; delegitimization, which is when Israel’s critics say that “Israel does awful things therefore it has no right to exist;” and “demonization.”
While the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement has had no economic effect in Israel, he said, it nonetheless has created a “crisis on the left for people who want to be part of the values of the left, but also then at one moment feel that the left has entered into anti-Semitism.”
Berenbaum described the various forms anti-Semitism takes in contemporary Europe, from Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-Israel Labour party to some Eastern European countries “seeking to re-do the history of World War II, to cleanse the nationalists of their responsibility for their collaboration with Nazis.”
Despite his acknowledgement of the proliferation of hatred against Jews, Berenbaum ended on a positive note and with instructions on how to combat hate.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have to tone it down,” he said. “The world is not coming to an end. That may be news to some of us. The second thing is we have to respond to hatred by reaching out to all the elements of community relations and Pittsburgh becomes the model. We have to return to the social sanction for the expression of hatred. And that is if you hear hatred, you speak up. If you see hatred, you speak out.” pjc
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at