'Brandeis Conversation' Considers Significance of Election for Jewish Community

Brandeis students, faculty and staff gathered the evening before the presidential inauguration for “an honest conversation about our concerns and our hopes,” according to Professor Jon A. Levisohn (NEJS/Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education), who moderated this Seminar in Contemporary Jewish Life event before an audience of about 40.

A panel of faculty and students presented a range of views on the election of Donald Trump at this January 19 event. Dr. Rachel Fish, associate director of the Schusterman Center for Israel Studies, reported that friends in her home state of Tennessee are Trump supporters. This contrasts sharply with what she hears from Jewish friends in the northeast, an indication that “the two sides are speaking past each other.” This is supported by data presented by Professor Len Saxe, director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies, which show that Jews voted overwhelmingly (71%, according to exit polls) for Hillary Clinton, in sharp contrast to other white ethnic and religious groups, such as Protestants, 58% of whom voted for Trump.

Professor Stephen Whitfield (American Studies) said that the United States has, until now, honored George Washington’s 1790 pledge to the Newport, RI Jewish community that the nation will give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Of the election, Professor Whitfield said that “In its ugliness, viciousness, divisiveness, encouragement to violence… something here has been breached that I don’t think has happened before.”

Many in attendance were dismayed by the antisemitism on display by Trump supporters during the campaign. Isaac Kurtz ’17 said that within the Jewish community there is a lack of agreement between the left and right on what antisemitism is, so that sometimes it is “used as a political tool to discredit the other side.”

Professor Sylvia Barack Fishman, of NEJS and the Hadassah-Brandeis Institute, noted “the breathtaking misogyny” expressed toward Hillary Clinton during the campaign. Professor Fishman said that Clinton’s actual history was overwhelmed by false narratives, a phenomenon familiar to Jews, who “have always suffered from fake news” such as the blood libel.

Dr. Mark Brimhall-Vargas, chief diversity office and vice-president for diversity, closed the discussion with words from poet Maya Angelou: “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.” He said that he is hearing similar conversations taking place among Latinos. “I don’t know what’s coming,” he said, “but we need to be prepared.”

The Seminar in Contemporary Jewish Life is the meeting ground for members of the Brandeis community to explore the culture, education, politics, art, literature, history and sociology of contemporary Jews and Judaism.


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