Antisemitism, a negative perception of Jews, has been around since the early days of Judaism. It continuously shapeshifts, morphing itself to fit the progressive values of the society it inhabits. Perhaps one of the most devastating forms of antisemitism is internalized antisemitism, i.e. when Jews are the perpetrators of their own hate. This is rather an old phenomenon. For instance, Tiberius Julius Alexander was a Jewish governor and general in the Roman empire, who sent in 5000 Roman troops to destroy the Jewish community in Jerusalem. The outcome? The destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE.
Tiberius was not the first nor the last Jew to suffer from internalized antisemitism. But the destructive impact of internalizing such a powerful hatred is profound, and some Jews today, unfortunately, internalize this hate. Thus, the continuous wave of antisemitism throughout the ages is anything but controversial. However, the University of Victoria in British Columbia seems to think otherwise.
The Fall 2021 semester was originally slated to include a course entitled “Towards an understanding of Antisemitism.” In a time when antisemitism is at its highest in recent years, engaging the next generation in a meaningful discussion on the underlying causes of antisemitism is incredibly important. However, in order for the course to have the ability to have a meaningful discussion, it must first acknowledge that there is never a time or place for antisemitism, which this course did not. Instead, the course described the fundamental aspects of antisemitism as “controversial.”
To make matters worse, Shamma Boyarin, the professor — who appears to be Jewish — slated to teach the course has a history of voicing antisemitic beliefs on his personal Twitter page, which has since been put on private. Not only has Boyarin called the immediate past president of the ADL a “Zionist pig” and mocked journalist Eve Barlow, but he has also insinuated that North American Jews are complicit in genocide. Beyond the false claim of genocide levelled against Israel, accusing synagogues, JCCs and summer camps of being the perpetrator of the Israel/Palestine conflict is a baseless and inflammatory accusation. Further, the course is being taught at a North American school, and will likely attract Jewish students. How can a Jewish student learn about the hatred levelled at their people from someone who has internalized that hate so much so as to accuse Jewish institutions — a large part of many Jews’ upbringing — of committing crimes?
Shortly after numerous Jewish organizations, including B’nai Brith Canada, raised concerns on the course being taught, the course was given the new name “Introduction to Antisemitism: a historical survey of key texts and moments from Augustine to Luther,” and the description describing antisemitism as controversial was deleted. Although the course appears to have been reworked, Boyarin is still listed as the professor, and it is unclear whether the syllabus has changed or if the course description was merely rewritten for public appeal.
The reworking of the course was an important first step in mending this situation. For the duration of the course, the University administration should take steps to ensure the well-being of the students enrolled by doing a thorough check of the syllabus and as B’nai Brith suggested, and cancel the course if it is used as a leeway to attack the Jewish community.
Academic engagement on antisemitism is imperative and whoever leads the discussion is of potentially greater significance. Students deserve to learn about sensitive topics with a professor who does not hold biases, thus allowing for a more sound education.