Perspective: Abroad Experience Shows Need for Jewish Studies

Lucy Hammet ’19

On the first day of history class at my study abroad program in Copenhagen, Denmark, my professor asked the class to introduce ourselves and explain what we brought to the class. I found myself stumped. What did I bring to this class? What could I contribute? 

Before going abroad last fall, I’d taken six history classes at Davidson and was looking forward to declaring my history double major when I returned in the spring. Even so, I felt unprepared to answer the question. 

The class was called “Betrayal of Civilization: Jewish History from the Enlightenment to the Shoah” and was taught by Dr. Thorsten Wagner, a Jewish historian and professor of ethics at a fellowship program at the concentration camp Auschwitz. Though I pieced together an answer to his questions, any confidence that I had in my ability to hold my own in a Jewish history class was put to the test from that very first day.

Both my experience in this class in Copenhagen and the distressing stories coming from my classmates still at Davidson have since hardened my belief that Davidson students, especially non-Jewish ones like myself, are in desperate need of a Jewish Studies program. 

It wasn’t until that first day of class abroad that I fully understood that almost everything I brought to the table about Jewish history, the Jewish religion, current issues in Jewish identity, etc. was distorted by a Christian lens. 

While I found that I was highly capable of recalling facts about the Old Testament from years of religion classes at a Catholic high school or contributing to discussions about Jewish persecution at the hands of Crusaders, I was unprepared for the emotional impact that is intrinsic to navigating Jewish history.

Emotion is difficult to quantify and even more difficult to study objectively. After a semester investigating Europe’s Jewish history, I now know that emotion is an intrinsic part of evaluating this type of history. 

Since Jewish history is fraught with controversy, my class would spend entire meetings analyzing the idea of Jewish spaces throughout history or struggling to determine when (if ever) Jews attained an emancipated status in the early European nations that exist today, most often not coming to a clear consensus. 

The most jarring class involved looking back to antiquity and collectively establishing a chronology titled “A Timeline of the Hatred of the Jews.” Objectivity was almost impossible when discussing these issues, especially as they related to ambiguous concepts like hate or acceptance. 

These classroom experiences reminded me that even though I had been taught to be objective, emotion is often inevitable. I now believe that valuing the emotional impact of Jewish history is the only way to begin to comprehend the subject. In this class, I came to understand, like I never had before, that these emotionally-packed issues were not matters of opinion but matters of fact.

From that first day, my time traveling in Europe was framed by the knowledge I gained in this class, highlighted by a few distinct opportunities I had with “Europe as my classroom” (the tagline of my study abroad program). 

Most important was an independent trip to the former concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau for a long weekend. My trip to Auschwitz was the most influential experience of my life to date. 

However, I believe that my experience and the impact that it had on me would not have been the same without a knowledge of its roots, of the experiences that European Jews have had for hundreds of years. 

I spent my time there struggling to comprehend the enormity of the evils that took place there and to reconcile my experience at Auschwitz-Birkenau with my understanding of Jewish spaces that we explored in class. I ended up taking a single photo there, a picture of a quote: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.”

A month later, the entire Davidson community was slapped with the fact that not only did we have classmates, peers, and students who “forget the past,” but that these members of our community did so in a calculated way and with a twisted vengeance. 

Not only did these individuals morph the past, they used these distortions to construct a narrative of the present with the power to do deplorable harm. 

Our educational privilege at Davidson makes “forgetting” the past highly improbable. However, without a proper understanding of the past, we are at risk of allowing these distortions to negate it.  

Fortunately, these misrepresentations do harm only if we let them. Since the incidents of the fall, a vocal part of the student body has expressed an interest in bringing necessary improvements to Davidson’s curriculum, specifically in establishing an Interdisciplinary Jewish Studies program. 

So far, these students have held the attention of the administration and will hopefully see a much-needed curriculum change. 

However, the interest shown by a large part of the non-Jewish student body, I argue, is not enough. 

Despite widespread student support of a petition to establish a Jewish Studies program, it is no longer acceptable for our Jewish peers to carry the burden of filling a knowledge gap for the entire student body.

It is not the Jewish population of Davidson that desperately needs exposure to Jewish Studies. It is students like me, those pursuing an excellent academic experience without the smallest inkling that a looming gap in their education exists. 

While the establishment of a Jewish Studies program at Davidson cannot repair the harm done by the events of the fall, it is a necessary step to confirm that the college not only rejects the anti-Semitism present on our campus but that it will take distinguishable steps to create an inclusive understanding of Jewish history, space, and identity.

Lucy Hammet ’19 is an Economics and History double major from New Orleans, Louisana. Contact her at luhammet@davidson.edu.

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