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Brandeis students respond to antisemitic hate speech

In response to recent antisemitic rhetoric in pop culture such as commentary from rapper Kanye West, now known as “Ye,” Brandeis students responded in an interview with CBS Local News Boston. The interviewees were Meshulum Ungar ’24, Maya Stiefel ’24, Michael Schwartz ’23 and Oona Wood ’23.

The panel addressed questions regarding the persistence of antisemitism over time and their personal experiences with antisemitism. Schwartz reflected that antisemitism “is a millenia-old problem,” but what was most striking to him was that “it took a really famous celebrity to say something for people to finally pay attention.” Stiefel described her frustration with how antisemitism is “an endless cycle” with transient spikes in media attention depending on the person or event propagating hate. Wood shared that despite living in an overall progressive community in Los Angeles, she witnessed antisemitism through a banner reading, “Kanye is right” from a bridge on Interstate 405. 

The students concluded the interview by emphasizing that antisemitism persists in many different facets, regardless of whether or not it is being captured by the media due to high profile figures. Actively learning about the diversity, history and cultural practices of Jewish people is one way to mitigate Jewish hate and instead amplify support for the Jewish community, the students recommended. Ungar asserted, “If I could speak directly to Kanye West, I would say that the American Jewish community is ready and willing to engage with you and to explain what makes Jewish culture and history so vibrant, and why your comments are so offensive to us.”

In an interview with The Brandeis Hoot, Stiefel reflected on her experience talking with CBS News, saying, “I am so lucky I had the opportunity to speak about antisemitism to such a public forum. Fighting antisemitism is something I am really passionate about, and if there is one thing I hope people will learn is that this is not about Ye. This is a much bigger problem that has been ongoing for centuries, and this media cycle has just brought it to light. We need to continue the fight and not allow hate to take power in our lives.”

Professor of American Jewish History Jonathan Sarna spoke with The Hoot about the context of recent antisemitism and how antisemitism has changed over time. Sarna explained how there was a dramatic decline in antisemitism in the 20 years after World War II. In fact, there were publications documenting the perceived decline in antisemitism from this time period, such as the book “An End to Antisemitism,” written by Yochanan Altman in 1960. 

Moving forward, the antisemitic terrorist attack of a Pittsburgh synagogue in 2018 caused so much shock not only due to the magnitude of the hate crime but also in relation to the perceived decline of antisemitism in the late 20th century. Sarna recalled, “I remember students were shocked. This was not something that they ever expected would happen in America.”

Sarna credited the resurgence of widespread antisemitism to the digital revolution. Technology has facilitated the communication between antisemitic terrorist groups and has brought together once distanced antisemites. Sarna explained, “It is a mistake to view antisemitism in linear terms. I think we need to appreciate the ups and downs.”

Additionally, the digital era and trends in popular and celebrity culture cause antisemitism to manifest in new ways. Sarna described that today “what worries [him] is that we’ve seen a credible legitimation of hate speech in a way that we’ve scarcely seen in this country since the decades prior to World War II.” In other words, antisemitic hate speech that was once seen on the periphery is now moving to the mainstream, which Sarna asserted is “deeply disturbing.” 

Brandeis is a university that is unique in its rich preservation and championship of Jewish history. The Brandeis community has demonstrated opposition towards Ye’s antisemetic sentiments and continues to uplift the Jewish community through the scholarship of Judaism and Jewish history.

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