Education against antisemitism within a human rights framework

Credit: Alejandro Ospina

The UN special rapporteur on freedom of religion, Ahmed Shaheed, criticized in his 2019 report that “hostility, discrimination and violence motivated by antisemitism have received scant attention as a human rights issue,” even though the right to freedom of religion, the right to be free from discrimination, and other human rights are evidently at stake. 

The report highlights the role of education against antisemitism and recommends pedagogic methodologies that “include exploring the history of stereotypes, examining the role of power dynamics in such prejudices and acknowledging shared responsibility for identifying and rejecting antisemitic tropes.” 

Major dissensions have manifested in current debates on antisemitism over the very definition of antisemitism and over the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism. These debates reached the UN when, in her October 2022 report, the UN special rapporteur on racial discrimination, E. Tendayi Achiume, rejected the definition by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), backed by Shaheed in 2019, and endorsed the alternative definition by the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism (JDA). The JDA’s narrower definition shields anti-Zionism against allegations of antisemitism, whereas the broad IHRA definition allows for the definition of many expressions of anti-Zionism as antisemitic. 

Against this contested background, I want to present the following university program as a best-practice example for education against antisemitism. In 2022 the Center for Judaic Studies and Contemporary Jewish Life at the University of Connecticut launched an online learning course titled Why the Jews? Confronting Antisemitism, which attracted 1,600+ students. I reflect on this intervention in my former capacity as the course’s moderator and author of the weekly quizzes.

Even though the course was not designed as human rights education, it is productive to assess it in such a framework. The course was uniquely situated on the border between theory and practice to communicate a human rights issue to an audience whose curriculum does not engage in human rights questions. We explained why antisemitism is of universal relevance in order to foster a campus environment in which no one, Jewish or not, has to be afraid of being different.

When antisemitic graffiti was reported on campus in 2021, Jewish students and Prof. Avinoam Patt, the center’s director, pushed for new educational programs countering antisemitism. Since 2020 the university had been developing one-credit seven-week asynchronous online courses open to the entire undergraduate student body, covering current societal topics. Adopting this popular format for a course on antisemitism allowed us to equip the students with the critical tools to identify antisemitism, to become aware that it exists today, and to confront it wherever it surfaces.

The seven modules oscillated between the history of antisemitism—the different forms and stereotypes from late antiquity and the middle ages via the Enlightenment and the Holocaust to contemporary North America and the Middle East—and Jewish history—the diverse nature of Jewish identity and traditions beyond strategies to counter antisemitism. Against the misconception of antisemitism as something happening elsewhere and in the past, it was important to put special emphasis on anti-Jewish sentiments in US history and in contemporary Connecticut.

When touching upon the contested question of the relationship between anti-Zionism and antisemitism, the learning goals were threefold: first, explaining the historical relationship between the diaspora, the state of Israel, Zionism, and the development of anti-Zionism; second, identifying cases of anti-Zionist positions (imagery, narratives, symbols) that are antisemitic by either definition (endorsed by Shaheed or Achiume); and, third, equipping students with sound criteria for them to apply independently. Instead of teaching either definition as the “correct” one, the definitions were scrutinized, compared, and tested in real-world scenarios that didn’t fall neatly into either definition. 

Judging from some of the participants’ statements, we had the rare opportunity, and conjoined responsibility, to reach students far outside our usual purview. The course gained so much traction largely because it was perceived as convenient and an “easy extra credit.” Rather than dismissing these insincere motivations, it is key to incentivize and institutionalize human rights education for everyone. The syllabus started with the foundations and built higher-level complexities from there up. The multimedia modules presented their content in the form of short faculty video lectures and introductory readings, in addition to podcasts, music, and comedy videos, which speak to various learning types.  

Two discussion board outcomes surprised us: while expressions of anti-Zionism were made twice, five local Christian students reported that, during their childhood, many parents, teachers, and clergymen had promoted the belief that Jews were to blame for the death of Jesus—a notion that we had been too optimistic to cast off as historical.

Did the course achieve its learning objectives? I’m writing this reflection the same month former president Trump hosted rapper Ye and Holocaust denier Nick Fuentes for dinner. Facing these trends, the overarching learning objective had to be to equip our students with the critical capacity to identify antisemitism beyond our virtual classroom. In “Education after Auschwitz,” Theodor W. Adorno emphasized the subject’s autonomy—“the power of reflection, of self-determination, of not cooperating”—as the main faculty preventing antisemitic sentiments. One can reasonably ask whether an online learning course, in general, has the capacity to contribute to such an outcome. However, we did prioritize historical learning, complexity, and open debate over oversimplification and political lip service (because students are usually experts in discerning which of the answers is the socially expected one). 

In terms of sustainability and multiplication, the course received local media coverage and is seeing its second run in 2023 with 1,200+ enrollments. The data of the discussion board and the results of the quizzes await further analysis, and we are currently discussing the possibility of making the course available to other colleges or to the general public.

Future educational human rights projects can learn from this example that, with faculty and the administration on board, it is feasible to respond immediately to political urgency. We had an opportunity to reach one in fifteen students across the entire undergraduate population of 24,000, which indicates that the course has the potential to effectively shift the campus environment toward freedom from discrimination and freedom of religion and belief. Given these numbers, the course was successful in implementing and concretizing aspects of global human rights in a local campus setting by means of education.