Courtesy of Jason Koski/Cornell University

Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern studies, describes the historical ties of antisemitism and Islamophobia at a Nov. 16 talk held in the Alice Statler Auditorium.

November 21, 2023

Prof. Brann Discusses Historical Connections Between Antisemitism, Islamophobia

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Prof. Ross Brann, Near Eastern studies, led a talk on Thursday, Nov. 16 about the history and recent occurrence of discrimination and racism towards Jewish and Muslim individuals on college campuses and around the world. The event attracted approximately 25 in-person attendees to Alice Statler Auditorium and more than 1,700 viewers online. 

The event was sponsored by the Office of the Provost and the College of Arts and Sciences and organized by the departments of Near Eastern studies, Jewish studies, comparative Muslim studies, Religious studies, history and anthropology. 

President Martha Pollack began the event by acknowledging the increase in hateful expression on college campuses since the Israel-Hamas war broke out on Oct. 7. 

“Over the past five and a half weeks, around the nation and around the world, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of hate crimes and expressions of hate, especially antisemitism and Islamophobia,” Pollack said. “It’s disheartening and frightening, and it demands that we step up and act to condemn and counter all forms of hate.” 

Cornell has experienced increased division since the start of the war. On Oct. 15, Prof. Russell Rickford, history, called Hamas’s initial attack on Israel “exhilarating” and “energizing,” leading to instances of both support for and opposition against Rickford. On Oct. 25, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel graffiti messages were sprayed across campus. On Oct. 29, Patrick Dai ’24 anonymously posted antisemitic threats that gained national attention and an investigation conducted by the FBI. 

The talk — and the events that led up to it — occurred during the University’s year dedicated to the theme of Freedom of Expression. In response to Rickford’s comments, Pollack made a speech on Nov. 8 reiterating the importance of a commitment to free speech. At the Nov. 16 event, Pollack emphasized turning to experts during times of such contention.

“As a community of scholars, a critical part of [fighting against antisemitism and Islamophobia] is turning to our scholarship, using rigorous and principled analyses of the forces that cause hate and the steps that can mostly effectively counter it,” Pollack said. 

Brann’s lecture focused on identifying past and present antisemitic and Islamophobic tropes and the purposes and power dynamics behind these tropes. 

“Today, I am not going to address the horrific events playing out in the Middle East,” Brann said. “Instead, I sense the urgency of a teaching moment. The urgency of a different, albeit related teaching moment, to interrogate two interconnected forms of hate that have sullied our campus, sadly so, and other university communities as an ugly consequence of events in the Middle East.”

Brann has researched and taught about antisemitism and Islamophobia at the University since 1986. In an interview with The Sun, Brann said that he and students and faculty in his department have spoken at public schools and other organizations in the area about antisemitism and Islamophobia. 

Brann provided a definition of antisemitism from the Southern Poverty Law Center, explaining that antisemitic hate groups generally support extremist groups that seek to confound Jewish suffering during the Holocaust and vilify Jewish people as “manipulative puppet masters” behind political schemes. Brann also provided a working definition of Islamophobia from the United Nations, defining it as a fear and hatred of Muslims that leads to antagonism and intolerance of Muslims and non-Muslims. 

The lecture included several real-world “egregious” examples of hateful attitudes towards both Jewish and Muslim individuals. Brann quoted former U.S. Lieutenant General Michael Flynn’s comment about how Islam is a “malignant cancer.” He also showed a variety of visual examples, including a cartoon that depicted Africa as a Jewish man dumping immigrants into Europe. Brann denounced the hateful rhetoric behind these examples. 

“Accordingly, I reject all forms of hate and dehumanization and am inspired by the great James Baldwin’s perspective on racism and its insidious effects,” Brann said. 

Brann quoted Baldwin, a 20th century civil rights activist — “‘All racist positions baffle and appall me. None of us are different from one another, neither that much better nor that much worse.’”

Aryaman Thareja ’25 attended the talk and expressed in an interview with The Sun shortly after the event the importance of contextualizing the prejudices Brann discussed.

“At these times, it’s crucial to resist generalizations and encourage an exploration of identity, belief and perspective in an open, discursive manner,” Thareja said. “Talks like this one foster a sense of community, acknowledging our shared humanity as well as our diverse differences.”

Brann told The Sun that he is working with the Office of the Provost to plan a series of talks and events during the spring semester to further educate students about the connections between Islamophobia and antisemitism. 

“We’re hoping this will get enough attention to give people some of the analytical tools to understand the importance of language and how people should express themselves on controversial topics,” Brann told The Sun.

Brann emphasized the importance of freedom of expression at Cornell.

“Let us cherish our freedom to think for ourselves, our freedom to speak at Cornell — to speak up and to speak out. To converse, to debate, to argue and to organize,” Brann said. “But, let us do all of those things. Let us speak without hate. Let us frame our positions without recourse to hateful rhetoric.”

Brann ended his lecture with a repeated line — “Cornell University is no place for hate. Cornell University is no place for hate. Cornell University is no place for hate.”

Olivia Holloway ’25 is a Sun contributor and can be reached at [email protected].