Anti-Semitism teach-in brings Rice community together

The mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh and last year’s deadly Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville are just two examples of anti-Semitism – commonly defined as hostility to, prejudice or discrimination against Jews.

Rabbi Kenny Weiss, the executive director of Houston Hillel and a lecturer in Jewish studies at the University of Houston, makes a point during the Nov. 5 teach-in. Photos by Jeff Fitlow

An anti-Semitism teach-in at Rice focused on these expressions of hate and how communities can support people affected by them with sensitivity, cultural competence and compassion. Rice’s Boniuk Institute for Religious Tolerance, School of Humanities and its Program in Jewish Studies, Department of Sociology and Religion and Public Life Program hosted the Nov. 5 event.

The teach-in followed an Oct. 29 candlelight vigil for the 11 people killed inside the Tree of Life synagogue.

Paula Sanders, a professor of history at Rice and director of the Boniuk Institute, said the event furthers the institute’s mission to understand religious intolerance and tolerance and to foster religious pluralism.

“The teach-in met both of these goals: helping our community understand anti-Semitism, the oldest form of structural hatred known, and showing support for all those affected,” Sanders said.

Throughout the day, figures from within the Rice community spoke at the Rice Memorial Center’s Miner Lounge, including Brian Ogren, the Anna Smith Fine Assistant Professor of Judaic Studies, and Melissa Weininger, the Anna Smith Fine Senior Lecturer in Jewish Studies and associate director of the Program in Jewish Studies. Sid Richardson College senior Amy Kuritzky hosted a well-attended student panel at noon.

Stanford and Joan Alexander Postdoctoral Fellow Joshua Furman, who is also the director of the Houston Jewish History Archive at Fondren Library’s Woodson Research Center, spoke on the topic of faith, intersectionality and activism. Furman provided printed copies of two speeches by Martin Luther King Jr. and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, two civil rights era leaders who frequently worked together.

“When I marched in Selma, I felt my legs were praying,” Furman quoted Heschel as saying in the years after the march through Alabama. And while blacks and Jews made great strides working together during those years, Furman said the relations since had frayed.

Citing a 2015 article by Rabbi Stephanie Kolin, “I Am Jewish and Black Lives Matter,” Furman encouraged guests to look for ways to combat hate speech and violence across the board while supporting those who actively protest.

“Seek real connections, listen hard and follow powerfully,” he said.

Rabbi Kenny Weiss, the executive director of Houston Hillel and a lecturer in Jewish studies at the University of Houston, brought levity to the day by screening Mel Brooks clips from “The Producers” and “The History of the World, Part I” during his lecture entitled, “Humor: An Appropriate Tool for Addressing Anti-Semitism?”

Everything from Holocaust jokes to self-deprecating humor can be strategically and smartly employed by comedians, Weiss argued, as a means of bringing down an antagonist while also ensuring that tragic events are never forgotten. As Brooks himself famously said, “If your enemy is laughing, how can he bludgeon you to death?”

Weiss encouraged guests to view “The Last Laugh,” a documentary about Holocaust humor, in which he said comedian Sarah Silverman summed up an answer to his rhetorical question by saying, “Comedy puts light onto darkness, and darkness can’t live where there is light.”

Christians’ role in addressing anti-Semitism

The RMC’s Meyer Conference Room was filled to the last seat for the day’s final presentation, “A Sociologist Looks at Anti-Semitism, White Nationalism and Christianity,” led by Elaine Howard Ecklund, founding director of the Religion and Public Life Program at Rice and the Herbert S. Autrey Chair in Social Sciences, and Bob Thomson, postdoctoral fellow in the Religion and Public Life Program.

Milton Boniuk, right, founder of the Boniuk Institute, attended the teach-in at the Rice Memorial Center.

Ecklund pointed out that Jewish Americans, who constitute 2 percent of the U.S. population, were the subject of 54 percent of all religiously motivated hate crimes in 2016, according to the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics. “This is a massive overrepresentation of a group of people who are being victimized,” she said. The Bureau of Justice Statistics also believes that hate crimes are vastly underreported, particularly among vulnerable populations, she said.

Ecklund said researchers argue that white Christians can play a key role in overcoming anti-Semitism. “We can imagine that we might have several options for responding to the recent incidents of anti-Semitism and anti-Semitic violence,” she said. “We might use our privilege to advocate for justice in particular ways that are embedded in communities and relationships. And I would argue from years of studying Christian traditions myself that it’s a core ethic of the Christian faith community as well as many religious communities to ‘suffer with’ … to suffer with those communities that are victimized.”

She emphasized the importance of dialogue between those of different backgrounds and faiths. Ecklund cited an opinion piece written by Leonard Saxe, professor of contemporary Jewish studies and social policy at Brandeis University, who wrote, “As a social scientist who studies the relationship among religious and ethnic groups, and issues such as anti-Semitism, it is clear that along with accepting responsibility for our fellow citizens, we need to find different ways to talk with others.”

Ecklund closed her presentation with the famous quote from the German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, who said, “First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out — because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.”

About Jeff Falk

Jeff Falk is associate director of national media relations in Rice University's Office of Public Affairs.