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Drexel Community Confronts Antisemitism by Telling Their Stories

By Liz Waldie

poster for confronting antisemitism through storytelling event with Star of David and blue text


April 27, 2022

Paula Marantz Cohen, PhD, dean of the Pennoni Honors College, lights up the room with a smile. Reflected in her eyes is the hope and joy of seeing an impactful project—one that’s been brewing for years—come together.

“This is something that I’ve wanted to do for a while, because there have been antisemitic events that have occurred throughout the country, and even here at Drexel,” she explains. “It’s one of those areas that we don’t really talk about.” 

Cohen’s hope is that Confronting Antisemitism Through Storytelling, a collaborative event April 28 among Pennoni, Drexel Hillel, Jewish Studies and the College of Arts and Sciences, will spark conversations that are so often dampened by our current society. Rather than taking the form of a panel discussion or conference, the event will focus on the deeply personal, real-life stories of those who have experienced antisemitism first-hand, whether as Jews or allies.

Erica Levi Zelinger, Pennoni’s director of marketing and media, assisted Cohen with organizing the project. In the early stages of planning, Cohen and Zelinger had initially planned to host a Pennoni Panel. However, after discussions with Assistant Teaching Professor of History Toni Pitock, PhD; Executive Director of Drexel Hillel and Campus Rabbi Isabel de Koninck; and Director of Jewish Studies Henry Israeli, the team decided that it was important to move away from a lecture or panel discussion to avoid the sense that the audience would be spoken at, rather than included in the discussion.

“We thought this storytelling format would provide more of a comfortable and exploratory way of discussing the issues of antisemitic rhetoric and behavior,” Zelinger speaks.

The goal of the event, according to Cohen, is to bring together students, faculty, staff and other members of the community to educate each other and consider the present-day implications of discrimination against Jews.

“There’s the age-old presence of antisemitism even when one thinks it’s not a problem,” she says. “It seems to lurk in societies and be activated during times of trauma.”

Cohen attributes much of the current antisemitic behavior to a lack of education and understanding of history. Important details tend to be overlooked, she notes, such as the fact that even the wealthiest Jews were rounded up during Hitler’s regime. Many people don’t know that Israel was founded in the wake of the Holocaust, let alone the deep complexities and problems attached to the current state of the country.

From attacks on synagogues and orthodox Jewish communities to Holocaust denial and conspiracy theories, antisemitism presents itself with many faces today. On university campuses, it often appears in discussions disguised as progressivism. For example, using the term “dual loyalty”—implying American Jews are disloyal to the United States or have hidden agendas motivated by their connection to Israel—is one way that antisemites justify their distrust of Jews and spread harmful ideologies.

“The current normalization of anti-Israelism and antisemitism in universities is quite dangerous in 2022, as it was in German universities during the 19th and 20th centuries,” says Joan Rosen Bloch, PhD, CRNP, FAAN, tenured associate professor and director of Global Health Initiatives in the College of Nursing and Health Professions.

According to the American Jewish Committee and Israeli, Jewish students find themselves in uncomfortable situations when discussing the dismantling of Israel, the only Jewish state in the world, or when they are excluded from conversations about equity. The harassment, marginalization, oppression and murder that results from this spread of misinformation has been present for centuries, and antisemitism has been on the rise in the past several years.

“It's important for Jews to share these stories so that we know that we are not alone, that our voices are being heard,” Israeli notes. “Drexel is a relatively quiet campus, politically speaking, but even here students are feeling a shift in recent years. If more people are aware of the issue, and more come forward to report instances large and small of antisemitism on campus, there is hope that we can counter any hateful messaging before it becomes commonplace, as it is at some universities.”

Everyone in the Drexel community was invited to submit their stories for inclusion in the event. Alumni, students, faculty and staff will all share their experiences. Some have decided to remain anonymous, with their stories appearing in a printed booklet, while others will discuss their experiences in-person.

Engineering student Andrew Galitzer looks forward to speaking about his experience wearing the Jewish head covering, a religious tradition that makes him easily recognizable as Jewish. “I'll speak about how it makes me more attuned to my surroundings, both regarding how people may judge Judaism based on my actions or may hurt me because of my religious identity,” he says.

Initially, the event was intended to be Drexel-specific, but Cohen and Zelinger noticed that some of the stories ventured beyond the university. “We have several stories that are Holocaust-related and some from people whose families have left various countries because of persecution,” Zelinger speaks. “It didn’t feel right to move away from that. We still felt like these stories were important to share, to give a fuller view of the issues of antisemitism.”

Antisemitism has affected generations of people, not just those present during the Holocaust. In Cohen’s family, her maternal grandparents were the only survivors of antisemitism on that side of her family. After being forced to leave their home outside of Odessa, they came to the United States. The remaining family was murdered either in the pogroms or, later, during the Holocaust.

“My mother grew up with just her parents,” Cohen elaborates, “and the loneliness she felt in not having family was very present to me, even though I felt comfortable in my suburban life. I know other people have felt that, too.”

Bloch had a similar experience as a child of Holocaust survivors who were grateful to be able to rebuild their lives in Philadelphia. “I have committed my life as a proud Jewish woman to give back and serve humanity—to make sure the lessons of the Holocaust live on. This means working for social justice, combating hatred and racism. The rise in hate crimes and antisemitism are at dangerous levels and need attention.”

In the fall, Israeli invited history alum Alina Palimaru, PhD ’08, associate research analyst at the RAND Corporation, to lead a virtual talk at Drexel about her study on de-radicalizing violent extremists who have been brainwashed by racist propaganda. Jeff Schoep, a former extremist who led the National Socialist Movement (the largest neo-Nazi organization) for 20 years before exiting the group to form Beyond Barriers—a non-profit set up to counter extremism—joined her for this discussion.

“I intend to continue to bring events to campus that combat racism of all stripes, against any group,” Israeli says. The Confronting Antisemitism Through Storytelling organizers echo this sentiment, and Cohen and Zelinger say they hope to host a follow-up event.

“With this event, I hope people become more aware of the danger of antisemitism and hatred in all its forms,” Galitzer says. “Facing and condemning this historic hatred is a great start to combating antisemitism on Drexel's campus. For centuries, Jews have been hated for our religious identity. I won't sit by as people deny the Holocaust and fight to make us defenseless and homeless again.”

Join us for Confronting Antisemitism Through Storytelling
Thursday, April 28 | 6–8 p.m.
Bentley Hall, 2nd Floor