Understanding Antisemitism to Create Allies

A workshop offered the Tufts community a chance to learn more about Jewish identity and the history of antisemitism

Shema is a Hebrew word that means to hear, listen, or understand. That was the spirit with which hundreds of Tufts students, faculty, and staff attended Tuesday’s anti-bias training sessions called “Understanding Antisemitism: Creating Inclusive Campus Environments for our Jewish Community.”

The sessions were led by Eli Cohn-Postell, an educator and director of organizational development at Project Shema, a nonprofit organization that trains and supports the Jewish community and allies to address contemporary antisemitism. The workshop is part of Tufts Talks Openly, a new series of programs sponsored by the Office of the Vice Provost for Institutional Inclusive Excellence focused on building awareness and knowledge to nurture an inclusive community.

The program explored antisemitism through a social justice framework and addressed common misperceptions about Jewish identity and antisemitism. It also demonstrated how this form of bigotry has survived and changed over more than 2,000 years and provided participants with ways to recognize and counter antisemitic tropes and actions. 

Cohn-Postell began with two important caveats. The first was that the presentation was not meant to be a comparison or competition between Jewish people and other groups who hold marginalized identities.  The second was that, although there would be space for discussion about the Israel-Hamas war, “Jewish people around the world are not responsible for the actions of the government of the state of Israel, and they should not be required to have a statement about the Israeli government as the price to pay for discussing antisemitism more broadly.” 

He pointed to a rise in antisemitism around the world since the October 7 attack on Israel and called the increased antisemitism a threat not only to Jewish people, but to all marginalized communities because the harm spread by antisemitism fuels other bigotries such as white supremacy. 

Anti-Jewish messages have been woven into the fabric of cultures where Jews have lived since ancient times, and no one is exempt from this kind of cultural conditioning, Cohn-Postell said.

“Antisemitism is built on conspiracy theories, and when it spreads, facts and truth are undermined, and democracy and civil rights become threatened,” he said.

Cohn-Postell gave an overview of Jewish identity and explained that many people perceive Jews as a white religious community. But many Jews identify as people of color and many don't consider themselves religious. In addition, he said, antisemitism is not about opposing the Jewish religion, but about attacking Jews as a people; the word was coined by a German journalist in the late 1800s to describe hatred of the Jewish “race.”

The distinction is important, he said, because sometimes people are attacked for wearing traditional Jewish clothing or entering a synagogue. But synagogues aren’t necessarily attacked because they’re a place of worship, he said; they’re attacked because Jewish people are inside of them. 

He recalled an incident in 2022 when an armed man entered a synagogue in Colleyville, Texasand took four people hostage. That crime was not committed because the people inside were reading the Torah, Cohn-Postell said. It happened because the perpetrator “believed conspiracy theories about Jewish power and Jewish influence over world events, and he went looking for Jewish people,” he said. 

As for race, Cohn-Postell pointed out that there are many Jews of color in the U.S. and around the world. 

He encouraged understanding of the role of violent expulsions throughout Jewish history dating back to 500 BCE. A notable expulsion from Rome in 70 CE led to the migration of Jews to other European countries and set off a series of expulsions across Europe that forced many Jewish communities to move again and again in a global search for safety. 

“To assume that Jews are all white or to interpret Jews as all white is an immediate act of erasure of the existence of Jews of color. Squeezing out the voices of Jews of color reinforces the image for people who are not Jewish that Jews are a solely white community,” he said.

Among other Tufts Talks Openly offerings: a series of conversations called “Dialogue and Action in an Age of Divides,” organized with colleagues from across nine Massachusetts universities; faculty training on making space for and engaging in difficult conversations; and training sessions on addressing hate and discrimination, including anti-Muslim and anti-Arab bias

Back to Top