Shaul Kelner

Shaul Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., addresses Jewish-American issues Feb. 3 via Zoom 

Shaul Kelner offered a viewpoint on the Tree of Life synagogue attack in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh, Pa. on Oct. 27, 2018, which many people had not considered, in that it was more of a political crime than a hate crime.

“The perpetrators had a vision of America as a white nation,” Kelner said. “They see Jews as not white. They see Jews as threats to their political vision of America as a white nation. They march, saying ‘Jews will not replace us.’”

Kelner, associate professor of sociology and Jewish studies at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., spoke about the rise in anti-Semitic hate crimes around the country and the world during a lecture hosted by Case Western Reserve University’s Siegal Lifelong Learning program in Cleveland.

Kelner said those political views are espoused in 2021 as well, even during events and riots where Jewish people are not physically harmed.

“When people were storming the Capitol, the neo-Nazis in the group were wearing shirts that said Camp Auschwitz,” he said. “This is political violence, and is premised on the assumption that this is a white society. Jews are not white, and Jews do not belong.”

The notion that Jewish-Americans are not white has been a confusing idea for the Jewish community since the 1800s, he said. When Jewish people first immigrated to the United States, they were not considered to be ‘white’ in this country. But they also were not considered ‘Black.’ Jim Crow laws did not apply to Jewish people, but there were other ways in which they were oppressed. There were quotas against Jewish people at certain universities, as well as ‘No Dogs, No Jews’ signs at certain businesses. It was this in-betweenness that Kelner said causes confusion with one’s identity.

“(Jewish people) were somewhere in the middle,” Kelner said. “And how do they make it into society? By becoming white. But if America is white supremacist at its root, then becoming white means becoming an oppressor. So what this means for Jews, is that it’s not only institutions now that they have used for empowerment that are being threatened, but the narrative the Jews have relied on to understand their own sense of what it means to be American in America is now undercut from them.”

It is because of this perceived role of “oppressor” Kelner said the political left also displays anti-Semitism at times. Kelner said that the far left tries to marginalize the Anti-Defamation League because they see Jewish people as ‘white oppressors.’

“So add to this that political polarization is making life in America even more difficult for Jews,” Kelner said. “If you agreed with half of what I said and were offended by the other half, in a sense, that’s part of the problem. The left can see anti-Semitism on the right, but it doesn’t really see it on the left. The right sees anti-Semitism on the left, but doesn’t really see it on the right.”

While he condemned anti-Semitic attacks of all kinds, Kelner offered a unique view on the matter.

“I assume that you know the old adage ‘a little anti-Semitism is a good thing,’” Kelner said. “That’s to say, it keeps Jews aware of their Jewishness enough that they care about it. So, it will certainly propel some Jews into greater exploration of their Jewish identity. It may turn some of them into activists as well to fight back.”

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