Scholar Lab Experiments with Novel Approach to Exploring Antisemitism

Tue, 01/18/2022 - 3:52pm

Dr. Josh Kun, who won a 2016 MacArthur "genius” grant for his unbounded thinking and artistry, doesn’t like to compartmentalize. A scholar of culture, social politics, history and communications, he is more interested in exploring the rough edges that result from unlikely connections than he is in the insularity or reflexive affirmation that might come from operating in a silo.

So it was with a combination of hesitation and determination that he accepted USC Shoah Foundation’s invitation to participate in the inaugural Scholar Lab, a collaborative, cross-disciplinary convening of scholars to research and discuss what Kun worried might be the too-narrow topic of antisemitism.

In the four virtual meetings of six scholars that have convened since August 2020, Kun has found Scholar Lab to be an expansive experience, with robust conversation, creative freedom, and a genuine spirit of open inquiry.

"I think that the Shoah Foundation did a great job of bringing a progressive approach to an ancient topic, of not wanting to repeat what's been said and written, but bringing together different people who have different beliefs and different approaches to understanding how antisemitism moves through the world and how it is used,” said Kun, professor and chair of Cross-Cultural Communication at USC’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism.

Kun is looking forwarding to “riffing” with the other scholars when they convene (COVID permitting) for their first in-person meeting at USC Shoah Foundation in February.

“This in-person meeting is very important, because this is where the ‘reaction’ will happen. In a lab, you put things together and you see what comes out of it,” said Dr. Claudia Wiedeman, who helped create the program as director of research at USC Shoah Foundation. (She recently moved to USC’s Rossier School of Education).

USC Shoah Foundation’s Scholar Lab program funds research and projects that might diverge from the traditional scholarly template in approach and output—a practice already reflected in the first Scholar Lab on antisemitism.

Kun’s Scholar Lab work will mix commentary, music, and archival recordings in an audio essay exploring the Nazi’s use of music as a soundtrack for terror. Dr. Mehnaz Afridi, professor of Religious Studies and director of The Holocaust, Genocide, and Interfaith Education Center at Manhattan College, is writing a work of historical fiction around the role of Muslims during the Holocaust. Rhodes College history professor Dr. Jonathan Judaken is writing a chapter for his book on modern Judeophobia that tries to answer “Why the Jews?” and UCLA’s Dr. Todd Presner is compiling a computational analysis of the language survivors use to describe antisemitism in USC Shoah Foundation Visual History Archive testimony. Dr. Jeffrey Veidlinger of University of Michigan is taking an unflinching look at what prominent Western thinkers have written about Jews.

Over the last year-and-a-half, the scholars have critiqued and contributed to each others’ work in group meetings and private exchanges.

USC Shoah Foundation plans to offer a platform for these projects, and to translate the outcome of the Scholar Lab program into a publicly available product, the format of which will be determined after the in-person meeting in February.

The second Scholar Lab cohort, focused on Memory and the Narrative Form, will convene later this year.

The idea for Scholar Lab was born in 2019, when USC Shoah Foundation supporter Al Tapper challenged the leadership to answer the question, “Why do people hate the Jews?”

Growing up in Worcester, Massachusetts, Tapper had experienced Jew-hatred firsthand, and 50 years later he was still seeing it, from neo-Nazis chanting “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville in 2017, to synagogue shootings in Pittsburgh and Poway, to growing antisemitism in Europe.

“It might seem like a simple question, but I believe if we bring together our best minds to think about this, we can find a deeper understanding of the problem, and maybe help solve the problems of antisemitism and racism,” Tapper said.

In August 2020, after a quick reframing due to the onset of COVID-19, invitations to Scholar Lab went out to thinkers in a range of fields.

Sara Lipton, a professor of history at Stony Brook University in Long Island, New York, was excited to have an opportunity to engage collaboratively from her dining room table.

Lipton has written two books on anti-Jewish polemics and imagery in the Middle Ages and is working on a book, unrelated to Jewish studies, about how medieval Christian preachers spoke about Gothic art in churches.

Lipton described the genesis of her Scholar Lab inquiry.

“For a long time, I had been noticing off-hand references to Jews in sermons that were not explicitly anti-Jewish, but it didn’t coalesce as a project in my mind until I got the invitation to join Scholar Lab,” she said.

She began to recognize patterns.

For instance, in sermons contrasting light and darkness, preachers used Jews as the only concrete representation of shadow, along with more abstract notions like sin or temptation. Or in sermons about the crucifixion, preachers often threw in lines about the Jews hating Jesus, in contrast to Christian love.

Lipton is producing a word cloud with her findings, “a visual representation of how repeated passing references build a narrative in people’s minds that can justify and explain outsized hatred,” she said.

Lipton hopes that politicians, entertainers, and the media—who wield the same level of influence on the public as Medieval preachers did in their time—will take note.

"The project can help teach that it doesn't really matter what your intention is when you're writing ad copy or when you're giving a political speech or when you're composing a sermon. You need to think about the impact and reception,” she said.

Kun’s audio essay on the Nazi’s use of music grew out of unrelated research into how music forms a “scripture of resistance” for 21st century refugees—an idea that stood in stark contrast to his discovery of a “SS Songbook” and an exhibit of idyllic images of Nazis picnicking and playing the accordion just a few miles outside of Auschwitz.

Kun’s paternal grandparents escaped from Hungary to the U.S., via France, in 1939, and his great uncle’s testimony about surviving Auschwitz is housed in the Visual History Archive. He values the venue Scholar Lab has provided to develop a more textured and multifaceted understanding of anti-Jewish hatred.

"I'm not so interested in bordered or bounded inward-looking work. I'm more interested in relationality. So how do these conversations around antisemitism, conversations around Zionism on campus, how can they be conversations that we have across communities,” Kun said.

Wiedeman said she has seen, through the use of Holocaust testimony in educational settings, that when oppressed people can identify with other communities, they develop an increased sense of both empathy and agency. She thinks bringing antisemitism back into broader conversations about racism can empower everyone.

“When someone is hurt because of their identity as Jews, it affects everyone. Antisemitism is not different than any other racism or hatred, and we need to change the narrative around it,” Wiedeman said. “It has to have a place in the conversations we’re having right now, for everyone’s sake.”

See a full listing of Scholar Lab participants and projects and learn more about the program.

Julie Gruenbaum Fax
Julie Gruenbaum Fax was a senior writer and editor at the Jewish Journal of Los Angeles and has co-authored six personal history books. She is currently writing a book about her grandmother’s Holocaust experience.