Anti-Semitism throughout the ages takes spotlight at seminar

For Jews living in peace and prosperity around the world, these are the best of times. But that doesn’t guarantee the worst of times might not loom in the distance.

That’s the topic at “Anti-Semitism: Historical Pers-pectives, Fresh Insights,” a daylong seminar taking place Sunday, May 15 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center.

The event is the latest installment of Lehrhaus Judaica’s 360 series.    Modeled after the adult education center’s Bible by the Bay series, Lehrhaus 360 explores key issues related to Jewish religion, culture and history, and brings in noted experts to examine them top to bottom.


John Efron

In this case, it features 13 speakers — including scholars, rabbis, historians and Jewish community professionals. Though topics vary from the pagan roots of anti-Semitism to contemporary trends in anti-Israel hatred coming out of the Muslim world, the main theme of the day is simple, according to event director and co-organizer Rachel Biale.


“We are in the midst of a new phase in the history of anti-Semitism,” Biale said. “Whereas historically anti-Semitic tropes focused on the Jew in the diaspora, today the locus of anti-Semitic rhetoric is Israel and the Jews as a separate, unique people in their own sovereign state.”

The keynote speaker of the event is social critic, journalist and New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier, who has titled his opening remarks “How to Understand (and Not to Understand) Anti-Semitism.”

Biale said Wieseltier will “frame the current discussion of anti-Semitism in new, surprising and thought-provoking ways.”


Leon Wieseltier

He will be followed by experts on the subject of the world’s oldest religious prejudice. They include U.C. Davis history professor William Hagen, who will discuss anti-Semitism in Poland over the centuries, and San Francisco State University Jewish history professor Laura Rosenzweig, who will shed light on Jewish infiltration of pro-Nazi groups in 1930s-era Hollywood.


Lehrhaus Judaica co-founder Fred Rosen-baum will be on hand to talk about the history of anti-Semitism in the Bay Area and why it has always been relatively mild.

And no conversation on the subject would be complete without another look back at Nazi Germany, which perfected anti-Semitism into a ruthless killing machine.

John Efron, a U.C. Berkeley Jewish studies professor, has done extensive research on the history of Jewish life

in Germany before and during the Nazi era. He found that hatred of Jews, in that peculiarly vicious Nazi manner, long preceded the rise of Hitler.

His lecture, “Race Science: The Depiction of Jewish Bodies and Sexuality in Nazi Anti-Semitism,” recalls an especially odious aspect of German culture from the 19th and early 20th centuries: the representation of Jews as sexual predators.

“In terms of anti-Semitic discourse, the Nazis didn’t really bring very much to the table that was new,” Efron said. “What was entirely different about them was the implementation of the ideology, using the full force of a modern industrial nation state.”

Efron will detail how the Germans brought anti-Semitism into the modern world, turning an ancient hatred into pseudo-science. Nazi-era medical literature depicts Jewish gynecologists ravishing Aryan women.

“The Nazis expanded that beyond the focus of medicine to make the claim that all Jewish men are predators,” he added. “They were concerned with race mixing.”

In the wake of the Holocaust, “never again” became the watchwords for the Jewish community. But the only way to ensure that is to watch for signs of rising anti-Semitism. Efron sees that today with anti-Israel sentiment seemingly intensifying.

He concedes that Jews in Israel and in the diaspora face few physical or legal threats. But, he notes, one need only troll the Internet for a few minutes to find the most vicious forms of anti-Semitism alive and well.

“There’s no doubt the discourse about Israel is behind some of it,” he said. “In much of it, Israel is incidental to these people’s feelings. They’re out and out anti-Semites. For some, anti-Zionism is central to their anti-Semitism. The idea that one can make a case for sharp distinction doesn’t hold up.”

Biale, who was born and raised in Israel, also noted increased infighting among Jews when it comes to standing by Israel.

“Unfortunately,” she said, “accusations of anti-Semitism have become common ammunition in the ‘wars’ among Jews themselves, with Israel, again, being the focal point of debate.”

Whether that debate heats up at the Lehrhaus Judaica symposium remains to be seen, but Biale is confident the event will add to greater understanding for attendees.

Said Biale, “We thought it would be of great benefit to our community to engage in a deeper discussion of anti-Semitism.”

“Anti-Semitism: Historical Perspectives, Fresh Insights” takes place 12:30 to 6 p.m. Sunday, May 15 at the Osher Marin Jewish Community Center, 200 N. San Pedro Road, San Rafael. $15-$25 (free for high school and college students). Information: (415) 444-8000 or

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.