Simone Jacobs/Sun Staff Photographer

Cornell Hillel previously placed flags on the Arts Quad for Jewish lives lost during the Holocaust, a period studied in the new antisemitism class.

January 28, 2024

New Course on Antisemitism Aims to Promote Civil Discourse Among Students

Print More

Amid international conflict in the Middle East and antisemitic threats on campus, Prof. Menachem Rosensaft, law, is turning to education to foster respectful discourse in a new antisemitism class. But some students are calling for balanced course offerings representing other Middle Eastern groups.  

This semester, Rosensaft is teaching LAW 4013: Antisemitism in the Courts and in Jurisprudence about the history of antisemitism in law and jurisprudence across 19th-century Europe, 20th-century America, Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union to the present.

Rosensaft said the course was originally set to run in the 2025 spring semester, but the deans of Cornell Law School urged him to move the course up to this semester due to the Israel-Hamas war and its impacts both on campus and the world

The course debuts after a semester of high tensions on campus surrounding the Israel-Hamas war, including Patrick Dai ’24 posting antisemitic threats and Prof. Rickford, history, who is now on a voluntary leave of absence, labeling Hamas’s initial invasion into Israel as “exciting” and “exhilarating.” Amid these tensions, Rosensaft hopes that his course will not only serve students academically but also emotionally. 

“What I want to provide in this course is a safe space,” Rosensaft said. “This is not your standard academic or law school course. This is a course where people have emotion and question and anxiety and fear and anger on both sides of the issue.” 

Talia Dror ’25, vice president of finance for Cornellians for Israel and a student in the class, said she appreciates the way the course connects the history of antisemitism to the present Israel-Hamas War.

“Being in this class highlights, from a historical perspective, what leads to modern-day antisemitism and how we can see that through the judicial system,” Dror said. “I’ve genuinely appreciated all the insight that the professor has given on both the Oct. 7 attacks and the subsequent American university response.”

The course initially focuses on critical definitions and concepts, which Dror said has been valuable in understanding antisemitic phrases and ideas. 

“We’ve addressed the concept of antisemitism being linked to anti-Zionism,” Dror said. “We’ve addressed the phrase ‘From the river to the sea, [Palestine will be free]’ that we’re seeing very often on this campus and have actually broken down why that is an inherently antisemitic phrase.”

Cornellians advocating for Palestine have previously chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” in demonstrations throughout the fall 2023 semester.

Many advocates for Palestine use the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as a call for Palestinian liberation.

But some advocates for Israel, including some Jewish Cornellians, interpret the phrase as a call for the destruction of a Jewish state. Some Jewish people connect discomfort with the phrase to Hamas, the Palestinian militant group that led the Oct. 7 invasion of Israel, utilizing the phrase while pursuing its claims to present-day Israel.

“There’s not a clear distinction between [what is] pro-Hamas and [what is] pro-Palestine when you use Hamas’s rhetoric,” a Jewish student told The Sun at a pro-Palestine die-in on Nov. 9.

Dror said that even if students disagree with the professor or among themselves, the class is productive because it provides a channel for civil discourse. 

“We always start from a point of fact,” Dror said. “And then, based on that fact, people can make arguments. Based on fact, we are able to have more academic and nuanced discussions that factor in the different perspectives and opinions.” 

Laila Salih ’25, president of the Muslim Educational and Cultural Association, also feels that fostering spaces in which people with different beliefs and backgrounds can come together is both valuable and feasible on Cornell’s campus. 

“I know these types of settings can work because I helped put together the community care dinner back in December,” Salih said. “It was a room full of Jewish people and Muslim people and non-affiliated people who sat down and had dinner together. They talked about how they were feeling about the situation. And it restored an essence of humanity to [discourse about the conflict].”

However, Salih said that while MECA stands against antisemitism and all forms of discrimination, she wished that the University addressed and responded to the Islamophobia on campus at a level matching its response to antisemitism.

“Our [MECA’s] reaction when we saw the class was understanding that the University has the capability to [address Islamophobia,] but they have not done so,” Salih said. “Lives have been lost on both sides [of the Israel-Hamas war], and it’s distressing for everyone involved, but the effort seems to be very unequal when it comes to addressing antisemitism and Islamophobia.”

Salih specified that she was disappointed that the University did not acknowledge that Greekrank contained posts with graphic, violent language towards Muslim students in October, in addition to antisemitic posts.

“It’s preposterous to me that in the same Sun article that published Dai’s antisemitic threats, it mentioned these threats against Muslim women, but the University made no acknowledgment of it,” Salih said. “Or that [Dai] disguising themselves as a Muslim and using stereotypes to make hateful threats is Islamophobic in itself.”

Salih said the University’s lack of support may discourage further speech and activity that supports Muslim students. President Martha Pollack did not include the words “Palestine” or “Palestinian” until her third email statement following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war on Oct. 7, prompting condemnation from Cornellians advocating for Palestine.

“When there is obviously an imbalance of which group is getting more support, people become afraid to disagree. It feels like the moment you say something [the University perceives as] wrong, you could be caught on camera,” Salih said. “What does this mean for the kind of discourse we can have?” 

One way Salih hopes to see the University devote more resources to combat Islamophobia is through expanded course offerings on subjects about Islamic history and culture, especially more accessible, lower-level courses.

This spring, the Department of Near Eastern Studies offers 65 courses, including courses titled “Palestine and the Palestinians;” “Jewish Law, State Law” and “Judeophobia, Islamophobia, Racism.”

“I feel like people don’t seem to understand what Islam is at its core,” Salih said. “There just needs to be an expansion of classes about historical Islam, modern Muslims [and] Arab ethnic groups that are lower-level and easier to access.”

Salih hopes the University ultimately expands its efforts to combat and educate against all forms of hate.

“The Jewish population on campus deserves the University recognition and response to antisemitism, but the Muslims on campus deserve equal attention and action in addressing Islamophobia,” Salih said. 

Altogether, Rosensaft stressed that fostering an environment of mutual respect and safety for all students is essential when providing a space to share perspectives on tense subjects.

“I don’t have to agree with you. You don’t have to agree with me,” Rosensaft said. “But the condition for me listening to you is that you must listen to me and that we must give each other mutual respect.”

Correction, Jan. 29, 12:19 p.m.: A previous version of this article misspelled Prof. Menachem Rosensaft’s name in some instances. The article has been corrected, and The Sun regrets this error.