Villanova students and local residents alike filed into Driscoll Hall last Monday, awaiting a campus discussion titled “The Rise of Antisemitism,” part of Villanova’s fall series, “In Our Time: Living Together in a Multifaith World.” Despite Villanova’s Catholic affiliation, the auditorium was packed with a diverse audience of all ages, demonstrating the importance of creating space for dialogue within a greater community.
History professor Dr. Paul Steege began by establishing context for the discussion by presenting on the history and legacy of antisemitism in Germany. Much of Steege’s presentation focused on questions of belonging within a society: how an individual belongs, where they belong and who determines this position in society This approach revealed the sinister intent behind Nazi Germany.
Dr.Steege set the framework for understanding anti-semitism today by discussing the rise of the largest antisemetic movement the world has known. Adolf Hitler’s quick rise to power, as he led the Nazi party and was elected Chancellor of Germany in 1933, demonstrated his pervasive power over the public. The events that followed his rise to power reflect the ideals of a new German public Hitler hoped to create, which was contingent on erasing difference.
Dr. Steege discussed the 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws, a legal establishment of German citizenship announced after the annual Nazi Party rally held in Nuremberg, Germany. The laws centered on forms of belonging, and “served as a demonstration of how Jews were not part of the German public space.” The laws determined who did and did not constitute as a German Reich citizen, based entirely on familial bloodlines rather than self-reflected religious affiliations. The Nuremberg Laws revoked Reich citizenship from all Jews, who were defined as someone with three to four Jewish grandparents. Steege noted the importance of the collaborative role that churches and civil service organizations played in determining German citizenship through ancestry, divulging baptism records and other evidence which marked religious affiliation.
Later, Dr. Steege noted Kristallnact and other violent events enacted by the Nazi Party which further exhibited the removal of Jews from the German public space. He critically explained that such events were not outbursts or products of antisemitism, but rather acts to mark Jewish difference. Steege concluded his portion of the discussion by emphasizing the strategic role of marking difference. In summarizng his points, Steege claimed that “the marking of others becomes a necessary way of making mass murder an imaginable possibility.”
Rhetoric professor Dr. Billie Murray followed, focusing on both the covert and explicit ways in which antisemitism exists within contemporary culture. She noted that recent public displays of antisemitism are not part of a “new” or “arising” problem, but rather a structural problem woven into our culture. Dr. Murray described the globalism conspiracies within the New World Order as key to the rise of nationalism. She notes that this emerging movement is appealing to many as it fulfills a need for a national identity and a worldview. She maintains that such movements can be dangerous when national unity is built out of prejudices, a sinister unification which echoes Hitler’s German citizenship standards.
Next, Dr. Murray described the common frames in which contemporary society understands acts of antisemitism. She noted that we often make excuses for shockingly offensive behavior by writing it off as a lack of knowledge, or bad judgement. Dr. Murray also explained the manipulative frames within politics, noting that Trump’s recent claim that Jewish voters are “greatly disloyal” is a manipulative ploy that attempts to politically control Jewish people. But if these issues were simply rooted in misinformation or manipulative inconsistencies, Dr. Murray noted, then they could be easily solved through education and laying out simple facts. She maintains that this simplified understanding of modern antisemitism is misguided. She reinforced the notion that antisemitism is a structural issue, which must be framed as such to effectively battled.
Dr. Murray concludes on how antisemitism can be socially combatted. She notes that “solutions require deep cultural work” which means creating new unities, identities, and meaning structures not based in othering, division, and scapegoating. On an empowering note, Dr. Murray concluded that answering questions of identity in relation to the world and other people requires both dialogue and solidarity to move towards just and peaceful conceptions of national identity.
After both presentations, the audience had the opportunity to participate in communicative dialogue. Questions ranging from the role of religious tropes and myths in developing antisemitic attitudes, to how society can effectively address reparations of historical violence towards Jews, the presentation created a space for productive conversations. The dialogic discourse conclusion engaged both the crowd and the presenters, opening opportunities for constructive critique and creative thought. Audience members left with a complex understanding of antisemitism as a contemporary cultural issue embedded in both history and socially constructed structures.