Following the shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh that resulted in 11 deaths, several experts and professors across disciplines at the University of Massachusetts came together to host a teach-in on anti-Semitism and racism.
The event on Tuesday, titled "Hate Before and After Pittsburgh: Anti-Semitism, Racism and White Nationalism," was a collaboration between the Department of Judaic and Near Eastern Studies and the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies.
Various UMass professors spoke on anti-Semitism and racism in relation to the shooting. David Mednicoff, department chair and associate professor of Middle Eastern studies and public policy, opened the teach-in by discussing the tragedy's anti-Semitic nature and its relation to hate crimes as a whole.
"On the one hand, the Pittsburgh mass murderer targeted Jews specifically, clearly and directly because they were Jews, and the clear anti-Semitic nature of this event needs to receive deliberate and focused attention," Mednicoff said. "At the same time, the Pittsburgh murderer's socialization and motivation were enmeshed in a broader web of violent white supremacist nationalism."
Mednicoff went on to discuss how assaults in the U.S. against Jewish citizens have increased over the past few years, also noting a similar trend in assaults against Muslim citizens.
Next to speak was Susan Shapiro, an associate professor and director of the religious studies certificate program at UMass. She discussed the relationship between words and violence, emphasizing that the words used in society can lead to hate against certain groups of people.
"If we are to counteract the present rise in violence against racial, gender and religious targeted groups, we must pay attention to the language we use," she said.
The teach-in occurred on election day. Shapiro referenced this, claiming no matter who is elected, "the problem of racial undertones of violent speech remains for us to address."
Following Shapiro was Alon Confino, the director of the Institute for Holocaust, Genocide and Memory Studies, who claimed political leaders are partly responsible for violent and hateful crimes that occur in the U.S.
To Confino, violent acts can come from leaders who "foster a culture of hate, legitimize violence and give credence to racist, sexist and nationalist ideas."
Stephanie Shonekan, the chair of the department of Afro-American studies, in her allotted speaking time, told the story of the song "Strange Fruits." Originally a poem written by a Jewish man, Abel Meeropol, and first recorded by Billie Holiday in 1939, the song presents hanging fruit on a tree as a metaphor for lynched African Americans. According to Shonekan, the song became an anthem for the movement against lynching and represents the solidarity between Jewish and African-American people.
Shonekan also related the solidarity present in the song to the solidarity between the Afro-American studies department and the Judaic and Near Eastern Studies department.
Jonathan Skolnik, a professor of German studies at UMass, discussed how many acts of violence in the U.S. have racial or anti-Semitic undertones. He cited the 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado, which occurred on April 20, the same day as Adolf Hitler's birthday.
Linda R. Tropp, a professor of social psychology at UMass, used her time to note the psychological response to racism among white people, citing a study that found white individuals show greater support for other races when they are included in discussions of diversity and multiculturalism.
Concluding remarks were given by Anna Branch, the associate chancellor for equity and inclusion at UMass, who emphasized a sense of unity in light of these hateful events.
Following talks from each of the speakers, members of the audience were given opportunities to ask questions.
When asked by one of the audience members what are the next steps that should be taken to address problems of anti-Semitism and racism, Shonekan responded that people must come together and supporters of the cause must bring in more allies.
"It is time to come together, figure it out and keep it going," Shonekan said. "We are feeling good now because we are all together. We are the choir, but how do we reach the folks who aren't here, who would see this flyer and not come."
The teach-in concluded with the audience coming together in Jewish prayer and a reading of the names of those killed at the Tree of Life synagogue shooting.