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‘If you have a voice, you should use it’: Jewish Club of Notre Dame hosts Antisemitism Awareness Week

| Friday, April 9, 2021

When former student body vice president senior Sarah Galbenski announced Notre Dame’s student senate had unanimously voted to pass Resolution SS 2021-37, sophomore Blake Ziegler’s first thought was “Thank you, God.”

(Editor’s Note: Blake Ziegler is a Viewpoint columnist for The Observer.)

The resolution not only pushed for the acknowledgement and condemnation of antisemitism, but also called upon the University to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism — one that has been embraced by 29 nations (including the United States), the United Nations and dozens of universities across the world.

As secretary of the Jewish Club at Notre Dame, Ziegler spent months researching ways to address the ever-present issue of antisemitism. In light of the recent rise of hate incidents towards Jews, the Jewish Club organized Antisemitism Awareness Week — which included different virtual panels and a Yom Hashoah Holocaust Remembrance Prayer Service — hoping to both engage and unite the community into opposing this behavior. The resolution, Ziegler said, represented the week’s action item and its passing felt like the witnessing of a historic event.

“The fact that the student senate approved the working definition is history in the making, not only for a Catholic university to demonstrate its support and solidarity with a Jewish community that is relatively small compared to other student groups,” Ziegler said. “But also just in the broader scheme that we’re one of the few universities in the country, and as far as I know, the only Catholic University to be considering this.”

Maria Luisa Paul | The Observer
Jewish Club president Bella Niforatos speaks during Thursday’s Holocaust Remembrance Prayer Service.

Ziegler’s palpable joy during Wednesday’s senate meeting contrasted the appalling events that took place during Tuesday night’s virtual presentation with the American Jewish Committee. Minutes before the discussion began, a group of individuals “zoom-bombed” the meeting, sharing lewd videos inside the conference. One person’s profile picture displayed a swastika.

Jewish Club president junior Bella Niforatos said she managed to successfully remove these individuals and proceed with the evening’s programming.

In an email to The Observer, official spokesperson for the University Dennis Brown said the Office of Community Standards had launched an investigation in collaboration with the Office of Information Technology and the Notre Dame Police Department to determine if any members of the community had perpetrated this occurrence.

Niforatos confirmed this was a coordinated action from people not related to the University. In fact, several of the individuals’ IP addresses were from outside the U.S. Nevertheless, Brown said the incident was symbolic of the hatred the Jewish community faces.

“We condemn in no uncertain terms the antisemitic intrusion into a Jewish Club of Notre Dame meeting Tuesday evening, an unacceptable action at any time, and all the more appalling during Antisemitism Awareness Week,” Brown said. “This is a sad reminder of the hatred and intolerance that poisons our daily life. Let there be no question that such bigotry will not be tolerated at Notre Dame.”

Defining antisemitism

While Tuesday’s incident was a clear example of antisemitism, other forms of this behavior are not as easy to recognize.

“Antisemitism is a unique kind of hatred, in that it tends to hide behind vague definitions and lack of clarity because it’s tightly wound up in a lot of the issues facing the Jewish community,” Ziegler said. “Judaism isn’t just a religion, it’s also an ethnicity and a culture and also, to an extent, a nationality. And so it becomes difficult to figure out, well, is this hatred against Jews?”

Not recognizing such tropes as hateful behavior not only constitutes an enormous issue, but can also be more hurtful than undisguised antisemitism, University theology department’s Jordan H. Kapson associate professor of Jewish Studies Abraham Winitzer said.

“A swastika is so flagrant, and so ridiculous,”  he said. “ … What worries me is the new forms [of antisemitism] that are somehow seen as tolerable or acceptable or not even recognized, or even when one brings them up, and other side will say, ‘that’s not it.’”

Because antisemitism is often veiled with vagueness, the IHRA aimed to provide clarity by defining it as “a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews,” that can be manifested both rhetorically and physically and directed “toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The importance of having a clear non-legally binding definition, said Niforatos, is that it provides a global and unified understanding of antisemitism and, thus, an educational tool to fight against it.

“One of the purposes of the working definition is that it’s hard to combat something if you can’t name it, or understand what it is and define it,” she said.

Institutions like Stanford University, Florida State University, Indiana University at Bloomington and Syracuse University have already adopted the IHRA working definition. At other schools, like the University of Pennsylvania, resolutions to do so have been tabled due to concerns about censorship over criticism of Israel. However, Ziegler said undertaking this definition would not lead to censure.

“What the working definition does, is it explicitly says criticism of the Israeli government for its policies and actions is completely legitimate if it’s the type of criticism you can let level against any other government,” he said.

‘There’s a difference between being accepted and being embraced’

Despite Tuesday’s shocking events, Niforatos said there was a silver lining — a united community and increased awareness about antisemitism.

“It showed that we are a community,” Niforatos said about the outpour of support the club received. “The Jewish club is small, but I think this showed that people do actually care about these issues.”

Amity was demonstrated in a myriad of ways. Different clubs on campus reached out to the Jewish Club with messages of support. Students shared Notre Dame Frontline’s solidarity post on their Instagram profiles. Student Government released a statement condemning antisemitism.

Director of Campus Ministry Fr. Pete McCormick — who gave remarks at Monday’s Antisemitism Awareness Week opening event — said the Notre Dame community must do everything in its power to ensure the ideal that it strives towards is maintained — a mission that transcends social media posts.

Even though 82% of Notre Dame’s student body identifies as Catholic, McCormick said the University is committed to welcoming all religions into its fold — something he said could be accomplished by providing opportunities to celebrate different faiths.

“One of the primary areas that we can be thoughtful about is actually to give students from a variety of faith backgrounds the opportunity to have their faith recognized or to have an opportunity to be able to speak about what truth, what insight, what value their faith brings to the very modern day that we live in,” he said.

For Ziegler, creating an inclusive community is not merely about accepting students with different backgrounds, but also about actively embracing them by utilizing education as a stepping stone.

“The best way the Notre Dame community can show solidarity with the Jewish community is honestly just engagement, education, learning more about Judaism, engaging your Jewish friends and family, being open to listening to them and their concerns and addressing them,” he said.

Education, however, could not only be achieved within the personal sphere — it could also be implemented into the University’s academic programming. Winitzer is one of the three professors dedicated to Jewish Studies. Notre Dame does not offer a program in this discipline. Rather, courses are offered under the theology department or cross-referenced with other areas of study.

“No one knows we exist,” he said in regards to Jewish Studies. “We could actually do something that would give exposure and I think would make it look like ‘Wow, Notre Dame. Who knew that you guys can feel secure enough to have this?’ I think that’s something that would be more meaningful than, like a march of solidarity — which is meaningful — but I mean, actions are louder than words in this regard.”

After a weeklong commitment to raising awareness about antisemitism, Niforatos said there is one thing that Notre Dame should remember.

“If you have a voice, then you should use it,” she said.

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