Westenley Alcenat, Lesley East, and Magda Teter
Antisemitism and anti-Black racism have often been viewed as separate issues. The exhibit “Confronting Hate: Racism, Antisemitism, and The Resistance,” a fruit of the work of students in HIST 4312: Antisemitism and Racism taught by Professors Westenley Alcenat and Magda Teter in 2021-2022, seeks to open a conversation about historical and phenomenological connections between racism and antisemitism. The exhibit highlights the way popular culture, scholarly works, and art have served to construct ideas about race and racial identity. It explores how racist ideas became entrenched in European and American cultures and how Jews, Black people, and their allies strove to push back. Premodern works displayed here illustrate the process of construction of racist and antisemitic ideas through rhetoric and imagery. More recent works, in turn, show how these ideas have left residual ramifications, continuously influencing future generations.
These anti-Black and anti-Jewish imagery and ideas were meant to promote hierarchical frameworks to reinforce Black and Jewish inferiority and the idea that the presence of Jews and Black people presents a danger to the dominant Christian—in case of Jews—and white—in case of Black people—society. Dehumanization and demonization became a function of social subjugation and exclusion. With relentless dissemination of these ideas, these anti-Jewish and anti-Black stereotypes and prejudices have been normalized and naturalized, influencing the conscious and subconscious perceptions of Jews and Black people, especially in Europe and in the United States.
This normalization and naturalization of racist and antisemitic rhetoric have not gone unchallenged. The main voices seeking to combat the anti-Black and anti-Jewish narratives in society came from the Jewish and Black communities—that is those most affected by their harmful effects. But there were some allies within the dominant society who used their more privileged platforms to push back against antisemitism, racism, or polices that were constructed by anti-Jewish and anti-Black ideologies. Alongside the historical sources demonstrating how these pernicious ideas became part of the cultural mainstream, the exhibit spotlights those men and women who spoke up against them. From the seventeenth-century Jewish and Christian writers defending Jews from deadly libels, to voices challenging Enlightenment scholars producing racist and antisemitic literatures under the guise of rationalism and science, to modern Black and Jewish scholars who turned to historical scholarship to offer new perspectives on dominant history, to ordinary Jews and Black Americans who, in spite of the odds, created spaces of luxury and travel that affirmed their dignity as citizens. The exhibit also highlights the ways in which Black and Jewish writers of children’s books harnessed the power of early education to push back against antisemitism and racism.
By exploring why racist and antisemitic ideas exist and how they continue to persist in modern ideologies and cultures, this exhibit hopes to open up a conversation toward mitigating their pernicious effects today.
The curators of the exhibit–Westenley Alcenat, Lesley East, and Magda Teter–are grateful to Fordham University’s Walsh Family Library and especially the O’Hare Special Collections for their support. We are especially grateful to Linda Loschiavo, the Director of the Walsh Family Library, and Gabriella DiMeglio and Vivian Shen at the O’Hare Special Collection. Vivian Shen set up the exhibit with great care and attention to detail.
The catalogue of the exhibit is available here.
Westenley Alcenat is Assistant Professor of History and of African American Studies; Lesley East is a junior at Fordham College at Rose Hill, majoring in International Studies and minoring in Peace and Justice Studies; Magda Teter is Professor of History and the Shvidler Chair in Judaic Studies.