Screenshot from “Antisemitism in Our Midst.”
Screenshot from “Antisemitism in Our Midst.”

Antisemitism video explainer from UC Berkeley aims to cool campus debate

A group of Jewish educators at UC Berkeley is hoping that an 11-minute, animated explainer video on antisemitism, geared toward college students, university staff and administrators, will help combat ignorance of Jewish history, improve the discourse on issues related to Israel, and better the campus climate for Jewish and pro-Israel students.

Released Friday, “Antisemitism in Our Midst” was created by the Antisemitism Education Initiative, founded at Cal in 2019 amid a series of public controversies surrounding Jews, Israel and Zionism that roiled Jewish groups and left some students feeling discriminated against.

The video took more than a year to make, supported by a $25,000 grant from the Academic Engagement Network, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C. Executive director Miriam Elman celebrated the release in a statement.

“With heightened anxiety about antisemitism around the country and the disturbing trend of rising antisemitic incidents on college campuses, this educational resource couldn’t be better timed,” she said.

The short film features crisp animated effects, music and a young-sounding male voiceover that begins with basics such as “What is Judaism?” and who are “the Jewish people”?

Using maps and old photos presented with a scrapbooking effect, the video offers a broad overview of the history of antisemitism, from the demonization of Jews by some early Christians, to medieval blood libels, to expulsions from cities across Europe, to the pseudo-“race science” developed in the 19th century that formed the basis for modern antisemitism including Nazism and the Holocaust.

The script was a collaboration of Berkeley Jewish studies professor Ethan Katz; Rabbi Adam Naftalin-Kelman, the executive director of Berkeley Hillel; and law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon. Sarah Lefton of Oakland, founder of the popular animated Jewish education nonprofit BimBam, directed.

The video is meant as a nationwide teaching tool for student groups, diversity and equity administrators, student governments and other organizations seeking antisemitism education.

The Antisemitism Education Initiative, launched two years ago, already has held workshops with staff and plans to incorporate the video in future sessions. Katz also hopes it will find a place at Berkeley’s “Golden Bear Orientation,” held for new students each year.

An April 2019 incident at a Berkeley student government meeting made clear the need for a more concerted push for antisemitism education among the school’s general population, Katz said. During a session of Berkeley’s Associated Students, a student was asked to leave when someone took offense to an Israeli flag sticker on her laptop. And a complaint from Jewish student Ari Pickar was brushed off by another student as “white tears, Zionist tears.” The student then said: “Y’all don’t know what disenfranchisement even means.”

“We can do better than that,” said Katz, commenting on the implication that Jews have no experience with disenfranchisement or oppression. “We can have an argument without saying things that are preposterously ignorant of history,” he said.

Berkeley is not unique among college campuses when it comes to Israel-supporting Jewish students feeling silenced, marginalized or blacklisted. At USC, for example, Rose Ritch stepped down in August from a student government position after being harassed on social media for saying she was a Zionist.

The video explores Jews and race, reiterating the fact that not all Jews are white, neither in America and certainly not in Israel. The false implication “ignores Jews’ distinctive ethnic traditions and long history of racial discrimination,” the voiceover says, and it “associates Jews with privilege in a way that accelerates antisemitic stereoptypes.”

A Feb. 3 UC Berkeley student union meeting where pro-Israel and anti-Israel students groups debated a measure to remove a controversial Bears for Palestine display. (Photo/Sunny Shen-Daily Californian)
A Feb. 3 UC Berkeley student union meeting where pro-Israel and anti-Israel students groups debated a measure to remove a controversial Bears for Palestine display. (Photo/Sunny Shen-Daily Californian)

The final section of the video deals with Israel. After briefly explaining the origins of modern Zionism and the creation of the Jewish state, the voiceover says that today, Israel “holds spiritual, cultural and political significance for Jews worldwide.” The founding of the state also “resulted in the displacement of approximately 750,000 Palestinians,” and “to this day, a Palestinian state has not been established.”

To treat the topic fairly and in a way that would not alienate students, Katz and Naftalin-Kelman held a series of focus groups with undergraduates of diverse racial backgrounds.

Many had positive things to say after viewing the video, while others “had critiques and suggestions,” Katz said. To incorporate student feedback, it was lengthened by about four minutes.

The video offers ways one might criticize Israel without veering into antisemitism: opposing Israeli policies, supporting Palestinians’ right to a state or supporting Arab rights in Israel, for example. It also points to criticisms that do veer into antisemitic ideas or tropes: using phrases such as “the Jewish lobby” or “the power of the Jews,” for instance, denying the Jewish people “a right to a state while defending the autonomy of other ethnic or national groups,” or comparing Israel to Nazi Germany.

Raeefa Shams, director of communications and programming for the Academic Engagement Network, which provided funding for the project, said the hope was to create a widely accessible teaching tool with reach at UC Berkeley and beyond.

“All of us wanted it to be an educational resource anyone can use,” she said.

Katz described long conversations with Naftalin-Kelman while working on the project during which they kept coming back to one central idea — they wanted to create a resource that would aid conversations about Israel, not impede them.

“Adam and I said it over and over again; you can be as critical of Israel as you want to be. You can list 100 things about Israeli policy you think are terrible,” Katz said. “But there’s an element of care required, fairly or not, because of the history of antisemitism, and its contemporary manifestations.”

Gabe Stutman
Gabe Stutman

Gabe Stutman is the news editor of J. Follow him on Twitter @jnewsgabe.