Standing Up to Jewish Hate: Rabbi Ron Fish Engages WJC Community in an Essential Conversation about Antisemitism

Stand Up to Jewish Hate

While the prevalence of antisemitism on college campuses across the country has snapped into sharp focus in recent months, it’s an issue that’s been present for far longer. In an effort to place education about and understanding of Jewish life and culture at the forefront of this essential dialogue, members of the William James College community convened on Thursday, January 25 to welcome Rabbi Ron Fish to campus for a community conversation hinging on the history of antisemitism and the complexity of dealing with it on college campuses. More than 50 faculty, staff, and students attended Lunch & Learn: Understanding Antisemitism Today and Yesterday, which was co-sponsored by the Jewish Student Alliance and Dean of Students office.

“Jewish hate is up 380% in the United States, and instances of antisemitism have been on the rise—in particular at K-12 schools and across college campuses—leaving students and educators feeling bullied and unsafe,” said Meridith Apfelbaum, MS, Director of Student Life & Student Diversity, Equity, & Inclusion of the impetus behind hosting this conversation.  

Since March 2022, when Rabbi Fish was named the Anti-Defamation League’s first East Division Director of Antisemitism Education and Advocacy (impacting Jewish communities from Maine to Delaware), he has been tasked with addressing antisemitism on college campuses today and offering support for young adults during those first years of independence. A graduate of Brandeis University and The Jewish Theological Seminary, Rabbi Fish’s work is directed toward helping Directors of Equity and Inclusion like Apfelbaum, as well as Provosts and University Presidents, to understand the experience of Jewish students on campus and their unique and diverse needs.

 “Antisemitism is a form of hate, and it has existed forever,” said Apfelbaum before underscoring another sobering truth: “When any minoritized group has hate directed at them, all minoritized groups feel that—[and] it’s frightening.” The goal of the discussion was to raise awareness about Jewish hate, and by extension antisemitism, while shedding light within the community at large about how Jewish people—including students, faculty, and staff—feel when it comes to being part of a minority community, “[one] that has hate directed toward them,” said Apfelbaum citing education as the way forward. 

In May 2016, the 31 member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (of which the United States is a member) adopted a non-legally binding “working definition” of antisemitism, available online in more than two dozen languages. It reads: 

“Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.” Since its inception, this working definition of antisemitism has brought the issue to the attention of world leaders and illuminated the fact that more work needs to be done to address an issue deeply rooted in modern society.

Rabbi Fish began his talk by tracing the history of Jewish stereotypes and hatred going back thousands of years, when Jews refused to convert to Christian or Muslim religions before sharing some sources of antisemitic tropes, including how they have endured, changed and reappeared throughout history—rendering them particularly evident today. In his current role, Rabbi Fish is focused on building a more safe and inclusive climate for the expression of all facets of Jewish life on college campuses across the country. As current president of the Massachusetts Board of Rabbis (and former congregational rabbi in Connecticut and Massachusetts for the past 25 years, most recently at Temple Israel in Sharon, Mass.), Rabbi Fish has earned his reputation as a committed and enthusiastic partner for interfaith dialogue—a fact not lost on his audience, the majority of whom were clinicians or aspiring clinicians. 

  “[These individuals] can take what they learned from Rabbi Fish and keep that awareness [top of mind] when working with Jewish clients [to better understand] what they are feeling and what their needs might be in terms of behavioral health support,” said Apfelbaum, informally pointing to the College’s Core Value of Social Responsibility, which aims to “educate providers to meet a diverse society's evolving mental health needs including cultural competence and language training, [and] develop programs and partnerships to ensure access to mental health care for all persons.” Ongoing engagement, as evidenced by student affinity groups, is another way forward. 

The Jewish Student Alliance at William James College, formed during the fall 2023 semester, aims to provide a supportive and inclusive environment for Jewish students and those allies interested in learning more about the Jewish student experience. This group—led by a pair of current students with guidance from four faculty and staff advisors—is committed to creating a space where Jewish students can connect, share common experiences, support one another, and raise awareness of antisemitism. Its overarching goal is to foster an engaging environment where students can feel recognized, valued, and discuss Jewish culture and issues of identity.

“We have a lens through which we see minority communities, a lens that renders Jews invisible,” said Claire Fialkov, PhD, Professor, Clinical Psychology Department and faculty, Center for Multicultural and Global Mental Health who—led by her colleague Jason Kaplan, PhD, LEP, NCSP and joined by Shira Fishman, PhD; and Dan Jacobs, PsyD, EdM, MBA—responded to a need for William James College to elevate awareness about the Jewish experience; the affinity groups were formed not only with this in mind, but also to serve as a place for voicing otherwise silenced ideas and feelings. 

“Even though Jews make up only .2% of the world population, [they] are not seen as a “real” minority,” said Fialkov, citing an impactful takeaway from the community discussion. “Yet despite not being viewed as a minority, Jews have never been truly accepted in any society, and have been ‘othered’ regardless of where they live (with the notable exception of Israel),” she added.  

As part of the program, attendees were invited to #Stand Up to Jewish Hate—a national campaign designed to both raise awareness about antisemitism and hatred against Jews and to encourage all people to post and share the Blue Square to stand up against intolerance—by donning the lapel pins provided. For those unfamiliar with the prevalence of antisemitic rhetoric, the nonprofit shares some staggering statistics: Almost  ⅔ of Jewish Americans (67%) have seen antisemitism online or on social media in the past year. Even more, one-in-eight Jewish Americans have reported being personally targeted by antisemitic remarks or posts online or through social media in the past year.

 “At their core, all of the identity-based affinity groups on campus are intended to create community among students and provide a space to share about [respective] cultures and traditions while educating the larger community about their community,” said Apfelbaum who underscored the importance of ongoing dialogue as essential in moving the dial forward.

“Like so many public communities in the United States and [abroad], any place where people gather, it's helpful to be educated on the needs of minority populations,” said Apfelbaum, expressing gratitude for Rabbi Fish and the work at hand, namely working with educators so they can become more culturally aware and culturally responsive to the needs of the Jewish community.

“Rabbi Fish provided a powerful and important learning opportunity for a large gathering [on campus],” said Fialkov, before looking inward: “For me, personally, [he] shined a bright light on the link between antisemitism and ignorance and the obligation of William James College as a learning community to incorporate Jewish history and awareness of the ramifications of antisemitism throughout our curriculum.”


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