As universities struggle to address antisemitism, Cornell teaches how to fight it in the courts
Menachem Rosensaft, a legal expert on genocide, will begin his new course in January at Cornell Law School
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As the presidents of Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last week faced widespread condemnation for their stilted, legalistic answers to what seemed to many a straightforward question about genocide, Menachem Rosensaft, a legal expert on genocide, looked on in alarm.
The former general counsel of the World Jewish Congress and the child of Holocaust survivors, Rosensaft has taught a course on genocide at Cornell and Columbia’s law schools for more than a decade. So when the presidents of three of the country’s most prestigious universities failed to offer a straightforward answer when asked if calls for the genocide of Jews violate their schools’ codes of conducts, he immediately recognized how poorly they had responded.
“You wonder what kind of legal advice they had gotten beforehand,” Rosensaft told Jewish Insider last week in a phone call from Germany, where he had participated in a conversation on antisemitism at Bergen-Belsen, the Nazi concentration camp. “The lack of common sense in saying, ‘You know what? Calling for genocide against Jews should not be something that’s downplayed.’ Just condemn it and move on.”
Starting in January, Rosensaft is for the first time offering a new course that may have something important to teach the university administrators struggling to appropriately respond to a crisis of antisemitism on their campuses. Called “Antisemitism in the Courts and in Jurisprudence,” Rosensaft’s course is a survey of the different ways antisemitism has manifested in modern history, and how it’s been handled in the courts. Few courses like it have been offered at other American universities, although New York University’s law school will offer a similar but more academic course this spring.
“My hope is that this course will be a prototype that other institutions can use, and hopefully have the fight against antisemitism, and countering antisemitism, become a serious academic intellectual exercise,” Rosensaft.
He first pitched the idea to the dean of Cornell Law School, where he is an adjunct professor, over the summer. It was tentatively approved to be taught in January 2025; Rosensaft estimated it would take him several months of intensive research to perfect the syllabus. But then, on Oct. 7, Hamas executed the most deadly antisemitic attack since the Holocaust.
“Around October, I think 11th or 12th, I spoke with the dean, and he said, ‘Tell me, do you think you could get the syllabus together on a more expedited form so that we can offer the course now, in January 2024?’” Rosensaft recalled. “I was able to just devote myself full time to pulling everything together.” He retired as WJC’s general counsel and associate executive vice president in August.
Cornell Law School Dean Jens David Ohlin echoed Rosensaft in a statement to JI.
“In light of recent events across the world and across the country, including a disturbing wave of antisemitism, I thought that a course dealing with antisemitism and the law would make an important contribution to our curriculum,” Ohlin said. “From my perspective, it is essential to study and respond to the challenge of antisemitism with our greatest intellectual resources.”
Cornell was in the national spotlight in October after an undergraduate student allegedly threatened to “shoot up” a kosher dining hall at the school’s Ithaca, N.Y., campus. The student was arrested, and the university president responded with a strong show of support for Cornell’s Jewish community.
“We are focusing very heavily, for good reason, on the university presidents who did it wrong and who got it wrong,” Rosensaft said. “But we aren’t giving credit, I think, sufficiently to institutions that are doing the right things and to university presidents who are trying to get it right.”
Rosensaft’s course will require students to read a mix of history papers, legal casebooks and news articles. It offers a broad survey of the different ways that antisemitism has manifested throughout history. This, he argues, is what many people don’t properly understand about antisemitism.
“The difference between antisemitism, as far as I can tell, and other forms of hatred and bigotry is not that it is a more serious or more heinous form of hatred. It’s not. Racism is racism is racism. But other forms of racism or bigotry are binary in nature,” Rosensaft explained. “They are based on color. They are based on religion.”
Antisemitism, meanwhile, “is a multifaceted hatred that can and has manifested itself in a religious form; in nationalist form, in a hatred and antagonism of ‘the other’; in political terms — ‘the Jews are the capitalists,’ or ‘the Jews or the communists,’ and of course in racial terms,” said Rosensaft.
Rosensaft’s course demonstrates these different varieties of antisemitism through legal cases, according to a copy of the syllabus shared with JI.
There’s religious antisemitism shown in the blood libel trials in Europe in the late 19th century. The Dreyfus affair in France shows the “dual loyalty” trope in action. The notorious “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” are explored through defamation and libel trials that took place in the 20th century. Antisemitism as a form of racism is examined in a section on the Nuremberg laws in Nazi Germany. Rosensaft will teach the anti-Zionist “show trials” in Central Europe.
By the time he reaches the 21st century, Rosensaft will look at recent white supremacist trials with antisemitism at their core — the criminal trial of the perpetrator of the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting, and the civil case that followed the violent “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville. He concludes with a unit on antisemitism on college campuses.
“Simply saying, ‘Anti-Zionism is antisemitism’ is effectively like treating cancer by focusing only on leukemia and ignoring other forms,” Rosensaft explained. “The anti-Zionist antisemitism that we see on university campuses today is totally unrelated to the white supremacist antisemitism of Nick Fuentes, or what you get out of Russia and Croatia.”
He hopes that the course, a serious legal study of the issue, will “provide a safe space for students to get beyond the sound bites and get beyond the slogan.”
Of course, that’s dependent on students signing up for the course. He does not yet have sign-up numbers; the spring semester does not start until Jan. 22.
“My hope,” he said, “is that, using that approach, one can actually educate future lawyers and hopefully make this kind of approach accessible to others as to what antisemitism really is and why it is so dangerous.”