New Pitt pop-up course provides insight into anti-Semitism
After Tree of LifeFrom medieval anti-Jewish legends, to white supremacists

New Pitt pop-up course provides insight into anti-Semitism

College students and older adults will learn about the historical roots, and some current manifestations of hatred.

Students unite at the University of Pittsburgh one week after the Tree of Life attack. Photo by Carolyn Brodie
Students unite at the University of Pittsburgh one week after the Tree of Life attack. Photo by Carolyn Brodie

The massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue building “hit close to home” for Carolyn Brodie, a junior at the University of Pittsburgh. Although she did not know any of the victims, the attack occurred just two miles from campus, leaving her shaken.

“My boyfriend lives in Squirrel Hill, and I have friends who know people who died,” said Brodie, a Harrisburg native who is the current president of the Hillel Jewish University Center of Pittsburgh.

Like many local college students, Brodie is having difficulty processing the murders of Oct. 27 and understanding why they happened.

She is hoping to gain some insight in a one-credit pop-up course offered this semester at Pitt called “Antisemitism Then and Now: Perspectives after Tree of Life.” The 12-week course, which is also open to older adults enrolled in the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, is being offered by Pitt’s Jewish Studies program with the cooperation of the European Studies Center, Department of Religious Studies, Department of History and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.

“I don’t know too much about anti-Semitism,” Brodie said. “This class is a way for me to understand what happened. It’s important to understand anti-Semitism as it’s developed over time, and to look at its foundations.”

Four faculty members of the Jewish Studies program conceived of the class during the aftermath of the Tree of Life massacre, wanting to provide “a scholarly response to help the Pitt community put some of this into context and into perspective,” said Rachel Kranson, an associate professor of religious studies at Pitt.

When the Jewish Studies faculty conceptualized the course, they understood there would be “a lot of different ways to analyze the shooting. There are people who will look at it as an example of gun violence — which it was — or people who will look at it from a psychological lens, what can cause somebody to act in such a violent way. But what we can offer, and what we felt needed to be offered, was the perspective of looking at it through the lens of anti-Semitism. That’s what we know, and that’s what we can contribute to the conversation.”

Through a series of 12 lectures, the course traces the rise and evolution of anti-Semitism, from medieval anti-Jewish legends to present-day hate groups and white supremacists. Scholars from several different disciplines, and with a variety of expertise, will be presenting 30-minute lectures, each followed by a 20-minute discussion period.

“This is a moment when our students and members of our community are hungry for answers,” said Irina Livezeanu, director of Jewish studies at Pitt. “We want to use the moment to dig deeper intellectually into what we can learn about anti-Semitism.”

Forty undergrads are enrolled in the course, which began on Jan. 23 and meets each Wednesday through April 17. It is also attended by about 20 Osher students, as well as a few auditors from both within and outside of the university community, according to Livezeanu.

The syllabus for the course was shaped by the strengths and expertise of the faculty, and covers “the big themes in anti-Semitism,” according to Livezeanu.

Included among the topics is “Racial Anti-Semitism and Inquisition in Late Medieval and Early Modern Spain”; the “Rise of Anti-Semitism in Western Europe”; “Cultural Anti-Semitism in Eastern and Central Europe”; “Nazi Anti-Semitism”; a “History of Anti-Semitic Violence in America”; “Right-Wing Nationalism in Europe”; and “Anti-Semitism and Anti-Zionism: Distinctions, Conflations, and Conjunctions.”

Two of the lecturers come from beyond the Pitt faculty: Lauren Bairnsfather, director of the Holocaust Center of Pittsburgh, and Michal Friedman, an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon University.

Not all strains of anti-Semitism could be covered in a 12-week course, Livezeanu noted. There are no lectures scheduled focusing on Soviet anti-Semitism, black nationalist anti-Semitism, left-wing anti-Semitism in Europe or anti-Semitism in the Arab world.

“There are so many angles we could explore. We recognize that we can’t do everything, and we can’t be exhaustive,” Kranson said.

Jae-Jae Spoon, professor of political science and director of Pitt’s European Studies Center, will be delivering a lecture about European right-wing nationalism.

“In European politics in the last five to 10 years, we’ve seen this huge rise of these far-right political parties that are espousing these kinds of ideas, these very strong anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, Euroskeptic ideas among various parties, including anti-Semitism … in some of the rhetoric,” Spoon said. “And these parties are getting elected; they are really influencing the political debate and discourse in Europe today.”

The pattern is playing out in France, the Netherlands, Germany, Hungary and Poland, according to Spoon, who intends to give students “a sense of the landscape of what’s going on now and what these parties are talking about and how they are attracting voters.”

Spoon said she also will touch on some of the controversial rhetoric coming out of Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition Labour Party in the United Kingdom. Corbyn and his party have been accused of anti-Semitism by all three U.K. Jewish newspapers. (Eighty-five percent of Jews in the United Kingdom believe Corbyn is an anti-Semite, according to a poll by London’s Jewish Chronicle.)

“The left in the U.K. — and other countries, not currently but in the past — we’ve seen connecting what can be perceived as anti-Semitic comments with anti-Israel comments, and Corbyn has been kind of teetering between the two where he has been making very strong anti-Israel/pro-Palestine comments that are being seen as also anti-Semitic, although he is claiming that they aren’t,” Spoon said. “That is definitely part of the conversation, and I will definitely be touching on those things.”

The final lecture, on hate groups and white supremacists, will be delivered by Kathleen Blee, sociology professor and dean of Pitt’s Dietrich School and the College of General Studies. Blee is a member of Congregation Dor Hadash, one of the three congregations attacked at the Tree of Life synagogue building by a white supremacist.

She will be speaking primarily about contemporary hate groups, with a focus on the internet and social media’s role in empowering these groups, and “how and why people get involved, and why they sometimes leave that world,” she said. She will also discuss how “these groups can move people toward violence.”

Jack Lyndon Wells, a Pitt freshman from the North Hills, has enrolled in the course to try to gain a deeper understanding of the rise of anti-Semitism in the United States and to learn what can be done to stop it.

“I think a lot of Pittsburghers feel the same as me,” said Wells, who was raised Catholic. “The attacks in Squirrel Hill really scared me. There are dangerous forces that I feel we are seeing again in America, and I feel that all people can do something to stop the rise of anti-Semitism. I think it’s important to be educated on the past or we are doomed to repeat it,” he said.

Kranson hopes that the course will “help educate people about the various contexts that produced anti-Jewish hatred over thousands of years,” she said. “And I hope that looking at it from all these different angles will be able to offer some insight into what happened here.” PJC

Toby Tabachnick can be reached at

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