Jewish Studies

Dahlia Krutkovich ‘21

My Russian professor, Dr. Amanda Ewington, began our first class after the shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh with a brief overview of Russian anti-Semitism. After moving through different waves of pogroms, forced resettlements, and mass-emigrations, she ended with a warning: be vigilant of a modern American anti-Semitism.

While the shooting in Pittsburgh is nothing short of a tragedy, she said, it is equally important to recognize that those who rail against “cosmopolitan” and “globalist” conspiracies invoke a centuries-old pedigree of anti-Semitic animus. Any rhetoric that tags individuals or institutions as aligned with omniscient “globalists” permits and perpetuates violence against Jews. After all, those same terms appear as companions to literal slurs in some of anti-Semitism’s seminal texts, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, The International Jew, and Mein Kampf, to name a few.

For many students in the class that morning, this was the very first time they had ever heard these terms contextualized. They were shocked almost to the point of disbelief. 

During my first semester at Davidson, the fact of my classmates’ shock would have in turn shocked me. As a Jewish student from New York City, terms like “cosmopolitan” and “globalist” feel like some of the most basic, most obvious anti-Semitic dog-whistling. Having spent time negotiating Jewishness at a Southern Presbyterian college, I realize my classmates’ reaction wasn’t borne of any sort of disengagement or apathy, but of a lack of exposure. I could attribute their unfamiliarity with conversations about anti-Semitism to our admittedly small Jewish community or the particularities of Southern Judaism, but that would absolve the college of the responsibility it has to its students. Ultimately, Jewish Studies remains a glaring, dangerous curricular gap at Davidson College.

Professors Karl Plank and Scott Denham have done an incredible job of providing some course offerings, but they themselves are among the first to say the college should hire more Jewish-identifying and Jewish Studies-specific faculty. Aside from Plank/Denham classes like Wisdom Literature (a 300-level religion course), Modern Jewish Thought (not offered this year), and the Holocaust & Representations (a twelve-person seminar), exploration of Jewish contemporary identity and history remain, at best, peripheral to Davidson’s academic offerings. Maybe a survey religion course offers a unit on Jewish theology; a Medieval history course could spend a day on blood libel; or an anthropology listing might briefly discuss ritual in Orthodox practice– but as far as courses devoted to understanding the cultural, historical, and political forces that govern Jewish positionality, Davidson students remain critically underserved.

Without academic access to Jewishness at Davidson, the burden of education falls on Jewish students– all 90 of us. This is neither fair to us nor the people who ask for what feels like a “Monolithic Jewish Opinion” on subjects ranging from the death of Jesus to the Gaza Blockade. Unfortunately, my Bat Mitzvah and the copy of The Origins of Totalitarianism sitting on my desk don’t make me a substitute for someone with a PhD.

This semester would have been difficult regardless of curricular support, but it’s been particularly difficult because of the lack of a Jewish Studies program. Events on campus– be they calls for a boycott of Sabra products or instances of unambiguous Holocaust denial– reflect a larger reckoning with Jewishness playing out in our national discourse. Across the country, phenomena that challenge Jewish identity will only become more extreme and more urgent as time goes on. At some point, Davidson students will be called upon, as those committed to “lives of leadership and service,” to respond to these challenges, regardless of whether they’re equipped to handle them or not.

President Quillen wrote last Tuesday that she sees the college’s fundamental mission as one to “assist students in developing disciplined minds so that they can distinguish fact from lie, epithet from argument and prejudice from point of view.” While I take solace in these words, statements like “Hitler did nothing wrong” and their associated ideologies will continue to linger on our campus as long as students remain unequipped to push back. Intent was easily legible in this case, but next time, the epithets scrawled across the top of a whiteboard might be more difficult to locate, more veiled in what they seek to communicate. While Davidson can reactively attempt to stamp out anti-Semitism on its campus, at what point will the college seek to actively prevent it?

I cannot express the extent of my gratitude to administrators as individuals, as people. Their words of support and comfort throughout the last week have helped sustain our admittedly beleaguered Jewish community. Institutionally, however, I have to ask for more.

Dahlia Krutkovich ‘21 is an undeclared student from New York, New York. Contact her at dakrutkovich@davidson.edu

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