Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust. (American Jewish University)
Michael Berenbaum, director of the Sigi Ziering Institute for Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust. (American Jewish University)

Scholar’s talks on Peninsula could touch ‘raw nerve’ with tough topics

Is it anti-Semitic to say that Jews have an undue influence on the economy in the United States, relative to their numbers? Michael Berenbaum says maybe not.

“You’re making a statement that’s actually correct,” he said, listing off the prominent Jewish economists that have been members of the Federal Reserve Board.

Berenbaum, who serves as director of the Sigi Ziering Institute: Exploring the Ethical and Religious Implications of the Holocaust at American Jewish University in Los Angeles, doesn’t deny that anti-Semitism exists. He just wants people to think about it clearly.

That’s one of the things he’ll discuss as the scholar-in-residence for the North Peninsula Jewish community, where, over the course of five lectures in January, he’ll dive into topics such as changes in modern anti-Semitism, the mismatch of how Jews see themselves versus how others see them, how anti-Semitism intersects with other hatreds, and what global populism has to do with it. One of the lectures is titled “Not Your Father’s Anti-Semitism,” and another “The Uses and Abuses of the Holocaust Memory.”

“There’s a couple of these I think will be a little bit of a raw nerve for people,” said Rabbi Lavey Derby, director of Jewish Life at the Peninsula JCC, one of the sponsoring organizations the residency.

If anyone is qualified to discuss these hot topics, it’s Berenbaum. An author and scholar, he helped create the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and has consulted on Holocaust museums around the world. He was also head of the Shoah Foundation, established by Steven Spielberg.

Berenbaum, editor of the 2008 book “Not Your Father’s Antisemitism: Hatred of the Jews in the 21st Century,” said there’s a difference between today’s anti-Semitism and that seen before and during World War II.

“We have in the United States an absolute paradox,” he said. Originally the assumption was that anti-Semitism was disappearing as Jews assimilated. But now American Jews are more assimilated than ever, and yet anti-Semitism has reared its head again, spurred on by a climate of tolerance to extreme views.

“Everyone who hates has a megaphone,” Berenbaum said. “And the megaphone is called the internet.”

But, he added, it’s important to be rigorous about what anti-Semitism is, rather than waste efforts on distractions.

“Some of the way we fight it gives power to the anti-Semites,” he said, citing the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which he said has had “zero impact” on Israel, its target, but gets the Jewish community very worked up.

“By doing that we give it so much attention,” he said. “We’re empowering these people to take it forward because it gets real play.”

Derby said Berenbaum’s scheduled talks are characteristic of how the scholar-in-residence program will approach important topics with intellectual rigor and a willingness to be open-minded.

“We are not looking for the easy answer, the easy fix,” Derby said.

The scholar-in-residence program is an annual lecture series organized by the PJCC, local synagogues Beth Jacob (Redwood City), Beth El (San Mateo), Temple Sholom (Burlingame) and Sinai (Foster City), and Wornick Jewish Day School (Foster City).

Each year, leaders from those institutions get together to talk about what they want to see in the program, and invite a speaker.

“It became easily clear that anti-Semitism is the issue that everyone wants to talk about,” Derby said. “Or, is the issue people don’t want to talk about, but need to talk about.”

For Berenbaum, although he has devoted his life to studying it, he’s sorry that anti-Semitism is such a hot topic.

“I have to be deeply saddened that there’s so much interest in anti-Semitism,” he said. “Because my dream one day is to be irrelevant.”

North Peninsula Jewish Community Scholar-in-Residence

Five lectures Jan. 8 to 13 at locations in Foster City, Burlingame, Redwood City and San Mateo. Opening talk at Wornick Jewish Day School requires pre-registration. Free.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.