Antisemitism is a societal disease.
Professor Manuela Consonni is Director of The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism in Jerusalem
Professor Consonni, can you tell us about your new prestigious role at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University as Director of the International Center for the Study of Antisemitism?
I was nominated in October 2014 before the death of my predecessor Robert Wistrich, and I took over in May 2015 after his tragic death. My objective is to bring back the study of antisemitism in the Hebrew University, relying on Master’s Degree and PhD students. My predecessor was mainly focused on looking outward, with important initiatives. However, I think it’s more important at this time to focus more on the study and analysis of antisemitism, in which the delegitimisation of the state of Israel still plays an important role; but this isn’t the only area of research to be developed.
Is antisemitism still present in the world today? In 1945, Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel said that after Auschwitz there would be no more antisemitism, but he had to go back on those words.
Certainly, because anti-Jewish prejudice is still very strong.
Why has it come back?
I believe it is a phenomenon that has never waned, in the sense that it is tied to models of inclusion and exclusion in society. Antisemitism is a societal disease. For example, in Japan where there have never been many Jews, there is anti-Jewish prejudice that is perpetuated via the same “topoi” of historic antisemitism.
What do you try to teach?
The history of the prejudice of antisemitism over the centuries. I am very much in agreement with the methodological approach and the theories of David Nirenberg, a scholar from the University of Chicago, and the ways he develops these theories in “Anti-Judaism and the Western Tradition.” It’s no surprise that he uses the term anti-Judaism because there are still many theological elements and prejudices against Jews.
Can you give me an example?
He maintains that even in modern secularised society, there are still theological prejudices.
Today things have changed a lot. Three different popes have gone to visit the synagogue in Rome. Wasn’t liturgical prejudice abolished even back in the times of John XXIII?
Despite the fact that Jews are integrated into the societies they live in, this doesn’t negate the rise of anti-Jewish prejudice in moments of tension, conflict, and crisis like the one we are experiencing today.
Is being anti-Israeli often confused with being antisemitic?
Yes, but it goes both ways. There are criticisms that repeat the ways and means of prejudice. For example, the idea that there’s a worldwide Jewish lobby that influences the politics of the U.S. government to try to not obligate Israel to participate in the peace process is built on a classic idea tied to prejudice against Jews. Nobody thinks about the political interests of the U.S. in having a divided Middle East, for example. It seems trivial to mention it, but living in Israel, and as you remember in Jerusalem, it’s a constant refrain. This certainly doesn’t help the dialogue in Israel between Jews and Arabs.
What do you mean by that?
Criticising government policies is always legitimate, but toward the Israeli government there’s an additional criticism, with aspects that have nothing to do with the conflict and that hurt Jews especially. On the other hand, that goes along with the interpretation of the Israeli government that sees all criticisms as antisemitism, even when this isn’t the case.
So how do you separate criticism of the policies of the Jewish state in terms of the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians from historic antisemitism?
If we could reach a peace agreement, there would be less of a tendency to do so.
What is the relationship between Israelis and Jews from the diaspora?
There is complete overlap between being Jewish and being Israeli, and it has been that way since 1948 when the state of Israel was established.
Do European and American Jews feel Israeli?
Yes and no. They feel singled out and are always called upon to give an opinion on Israeli politics, while an Italian living abroad is not asked what he or she thinks of the Italian government. Or not necessarily. It is different for Jews. And this is the diversity I talk about.
Extreme antisemitism with persecutions and concentration camps, such as what happened under Fascism, Nazism, and Stalinism – these things no longer seem acceptable to society, do they?
This type of antisemitism hasn’t returned for the moment. I don’t think there’s the possibility of a new genocide precisely because the memory of the Holocaust is too fresh. Fortunately Western countries are very sensitive about commemorating and remembering the extermination of the Jews. However, with this excessive remembering, there are hidden pitfalls and dangers.
Where is antisemitism most present today?
A difficult, complex question. Take the academic boycott phenomenon, for example, where legitimate criticism against the policies of the Israeli government is influenced by dangerous tendencies that have elements of anti-Jewish prejudice. The BDS (Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions) movement, which began in the English-speaking world, is spreading across Europe, and it’s a phenomenon that must not be underestimated.
So you think that there are detractors hiding in an academic boycott movement – people who are hostile toward Jews?
Unfortunately, today, we don’t talk enough about the academic boycott that Israel has to deal with at the university level.
Especially in the humanities fields. Many professors, especially from the United States and England, refuse implicitly or explicitly to come to academic conventions organised by Israeli universities.
Why is that?
The BDS movement maintains that Israeli universities are complicit in the occupation or oppression of the Palestinians because they are financed in part by government money. Participating in academic activities would therefore “normalise” the occupation.
Do you feel uncomfortable in Israel?
Israeli academics feel a bit isolated and uncomfortable. Economic boycotts aren’t as strong across the board, but academic boycotts have become a political tool for obligating the government to make peace. However, the fact is that the government continues on with its policies and sees boycotts as the result of prejudice against Jews. While, in the meantime, the liberal democratic intelligentsia and Israel are left at the mercy of extremism.
What is your definition of racism?
Attributing individual characteristics to an entire group of people.
Is yours a history lesson or a political battle against prejudice?
It is the work and commitment of a historian against prejudice, prejudice in general. As I told you, my objective is to bring the study of antisemitism to the centre of academic discourse at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
The Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Antisemitism (SICSA)
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