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What we don’t talk about when we talk about antisemitism

A new video series from ‘Tablet’ writer Yair Rosenberg attempts to answer tough questions about the world’s oldest hatred

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Yair Rosenberg

In his mission to upend our understanding of antisemitism, Tablet magazine senior writer Yair Rosenberg may end up as the Jewish version of John Green, whose viral hit “Crash Course” history videos reanimated the lessons on world wars and revolutions we slept through in high school. And, starting today, Rosenberg is taking on the loaded topic of the world’s oldest hatred and attempting to turn it on its head, in short, easy-to-digest and visually potent educational videos.

“A fundamental part of the orientation of the series is that it’s asking different questions than many people do when they talk about antisemitism,” Rosenberg told Jewish Insider earlier this week. 

The question people in the Jewish community often ask, he posited, is how to fight antisemitism. “But in my experience, that question is actually skipping a giant constituency,” Rosenberg explained. “Because if somebody’s already asking how to fight antisemitism, they’re already most of the way there. They are not asking, ‘What is antisemitism?’ They’re not asking, ‘Why should I care about antisemitism?’”

The six videos range from four to nine minutes, and each attempts to answer a different question: “Did antisemitism go away after the Holocaust?” “Whose fault is antisemitism?” “Is criticism of Israel antisemitic?” “Do Jewish people cause antisemitism?” “Can Jews be antisemitic or say antisemitic things?” “Why should I care about antisemitism?” The first video will be released today; five additional videos will be rolled out over the next five weeks. 

Each of these topics addresses questions Rosenberg has heard, many times, from people he has met or interacted with online. Some of them address what he views as failings in current antisemitism education. 

“I think that our antisemitism education often confuses Holocaust education for antisemitism education,” Rosenberg pointed out. “If you only study or mostly study the Holocaust, you will be misinformed. Most of Jewish history involved antisemitism, and most of it wasn’t Holocaust. And yet, that’s basically the only thing that a lot of people learn about in any depth, if they learned about it.”

This is for good reason — the Holocaust is the worst manifestation of antisemitism in modern history — but studying a historical event that ended more than 75 years ago is not necessarily the best way to learn about antisemitism in the modern world. 

This would be like teaching about racism in modern America by only talking about slavery, Rosenberg argued. “Racism has many, many other forms, including today in our society,” he said. “Often, if you teach people about some ancient extreme injustice, from their perspective what you’ve taught them is actually that the prejudice is far away from them. And it’s something that other people who they don’t really relate to once did, but today it isn’t really an issue.”

Many people in America — and certainly most people in the world — have never met a Jew, Rosenberg notes. “They have much more basic and ground-level questions about Jews and antisemitism than the ones that often we are talking about when we talk about antisemitism,” he said. “In my experience as a reporter, when you have a lot of people arguing perpetually over seemingly intractable questions on a subject, very often they’re arguing over the wrong questions. And that’s why this appears intractable. And then the trick is figuring out what the right questions are to ask.” 

Rosenberg is known for calmly explaining complicated aspects of antisemitism, both in well-researched articles in Tablet and to his 91,000 Twitter followers. (He calls himself a “troller of Nazis” in his Twitter bio.) Before the pandemic, he traveled frequently to synagogues, schools, and universities around the country to teach about antisemitism.

“I always wanted some way to get these ideas into more people’s hands,” he noted. Being a writer, he first thought about doing a book. He has never made any documentaries or film projects before. But Unpacked, a production company that makes Jewish explanatory content, approached him about creating a series together. Producing videos took some getting used to.

“As a writer, I would just write a paragraph explaining an idea, and they would remind me that you’re going to have the whole screen to work with. Sometimes you can explain something much better with animation or a visual,” Rosenberg said. “Something that might have taken me three complex paragraphs to explain we can do in 15 seconds with the right visual, and it’s much, much more accessible.” 

The challenge will be making sure the videos get onto the screens of people who most need them. “I think a lot of times, our conversation about antisemitism is one that we have with ourselves in the Jewish community. But antisemitism isn’t a problem that’s going to be solved by the Jewish community,” Rosenberg argued. “It’s a problem that’s going to be solved, if it will be solved, by the non-Jewish community.”

Part of his strategy for reaching viewers is working with synagogues and educational institutions that have hosted him in the past. Rosenberg also plans to develop a website with citations, additional articles and further resources for understanding antisemitism that can serve as a companion to the videos. He has also been contacted by some employers who want to hold workplace trainings on antisemitism, and these videos will be one resource he can send them. 

While the ideal audience will be people who are not Jewish, or who are unfamiliar with antisemitism, Rosenberg hopes his video series also reaches members of the Jewish community — particularly those who say they care about antisemitism but then come at it from a partisan perspective.

“Anyone who pays attention to our current public discourse about anti-Jewish prejudice knows that it doesn’t actually seem to work,” Rosenberg argued, “because people only seem to care about antisemitism when it comes from people they already hate and despise, usually their political opponents. And it’s not that they’re wrong. It’s just that that isn’t very effective, because your enemies don’t listen to you. Only your friends do.”

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