The Antisemitism Education Initiative, a pilot program at UC Berkeley, received a $25,000 grant from the national nonprofit Academic Engagement Network, or AEN, on Sept. 10.
The initiative was started in spring 2019 by campus history and Jewish studies associate professor Ethan Katz, campus law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon and Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, executive director of Berkeley Hillel. The program aims to bring together campus stakeholders for training and speaker series to create a larger awareness of anti-Semitism as a contemporary issue, Katz said.
“As leaders in the Jewish community, like any other isms that exist, we feel it is critical to call out any kind of hatred,” Naftalin-Kelman said. “That requires seeing and understanding so we can call it out. So the basic idea is to educate.”
The program began as a series of conversations in spring 2019, Katz said. By fall 2019, the initiative had created a training module for staff from the equity and inclusion and student affairs divisions, as well as for incoming students. Katz said despite the challenges presented by the COVID-19 pandemic, the program was also able to complete a set of six well-received speaker events from 2019 to 2020.
According to Katz, one of the goals of the initiative is to create a safer campus environment for all students.
“We’re all better off when everyone feels safe and better acknowledged and respected,” Katz said. “When those vicious hatreds are talked about and confronted directly — and to the degree possible, rooted out — everyone benefits.”
According to AEN spokesperson Raeefa Shams, anti-Semitism is increasing on many college campuses as Jewish students feel uncomfortable expressing their identities. She added that she hopes initiatives such as UC Berkeley’s Antisemitism Education Initiative can be effective models for other campuses.
One example of anti-Semitism as an issue on campus was a spring ASUC meeting in 2019, during which anti-Semitic remarks resulted in backlash from the Jewish community. Though the remarks, predominantly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, prompted the initiative, Katz emphasized that the initiative is not fundamentally about that issue.
Instead, Katz said the initiative is a more “sustained, systematic and holistic” set of programs aimed at helping Jewish students feel free to express attachment to Israel or Zionism without fear of verbal or physical attacks.
“Legitimate disagreements about Israeli government policies have devolved into demonization and personal attacks, some of which have only intensified as campuses transitioned to online platforms as a result of COVID-19,” Shams said in an email.
According to Katz, discussion about anti-Semitism needs to happen independently of one’s position on the conflict.
He added that part of the training program helps people distinguish between criticism of Israel and offensive, anti-Semitic tropes.
“When people come into a room to discuss different issues about race and privilege, they should come into the room with some depth and breadth of understanding about the nature of those challenges,” Katz said. “We can have different political views, but the conversation will be more constructive and sensitive if people come with information so we can really challenge all sides.”
Though there are currently only two to three years of concrete plans, Katz said the program requires a sustained commitment, as having one or two speakers is like “putting a bandaid on cancer.”
Katz and Naftalin-Kelman both said they are continuing to create infrastructure for the initiative through training programs and a multimedia video. They also hope to build additional coalitions with other groups on campus that are concerned with issues of hatred.
“There are no quick fixes when it comes to combating campus anti-Semitism,” said Miriam Elman, executive director of AEN, in an email. “The Berkeley model is unique and compelling because it recognizes that doing this work effectively requires a sustained, long-term commitment.”