A new course aims to give students the tools to understand antisemitism and its history through the lens of the law.
Menachem Rosensaft, adjunct professor of law at Cornell Law School, will teach “Antisemitism in the Courts and in Jurisprudence” in two separate classes in the spring semester, one for law students and other graduate students, and the other for undergraduates.
“One of my principal goals is to give my students the tools to be able to both recognize manifestations of antisemitism as well as other forms of bigotry and confront and counter them effectively,” said Rosensaft, the son of two survivors of the Nazi death and concentration camps of Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen; he was born in the Displaced Persons camp of Bergen-Belsen.
Rosensaft has been teaching a Law School course about the law of genocide and war crimes since 2008.
The new course will focus on trials, judicial proceedings and legislation that had antisemitism at their core. They include the Dreyfus affair in France of the 1890s, when Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer in the French army, was wrongly convicted of espionage and treason and sentenced to life in prison. The course will also cover the trial of Leo Frank, Class of 1906, in Georgia in 1913; Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg Race Laws of 1935; contemporary cases, and more.
Antisemitism – a deep-seated prejudice and antagonism against Jews – has been experiencing a global revival for about a decade. The Israel-Hamas War “put it on steroids,” said Rosensaft, who recently retired as general counsel and associate executive vice president of the World Jewish Congress, an international Jewish human rights organization.
Antisemitism is just as serious, heinous and vicious as other forms of bigotry – but it is also fundamentally different, Rosensaft said. While other forms are binary, based on either race or color, religion, national origin or a political-social antagonism, “with antisemitism, it’s all of it, and one needs to be able to understand the roots in order to deal with it,” he said.
He hopes students in the class will see similarities between the ways bigotry against Jews resembles bigotry against other peoples.
For example, during the Middle Ages, Jewish people were wrongly blamed and killed for the outbreak of the bubonic plague pandemic, or Black Death, throughout Europe.
“You start by being able to say, wait a second. It was nonsense to blame Jews for the Black Death in the Middle Ages. It is nonsense to blame Asian Americans or Jews for the COVID-19 pandemic,” Rosensaft said.
He also hopes students will see similarities in the ways the law and courts have, and often have not, protected Jewish people against false accusations.
In the U.S., one the most notorious antisemitism cases of the 19th and early 20th centuries involved Frank, a Jewish factory superintendent in Atlanta who was falsely accused of murdering a 13-year-old female employee. He was found guilty and sentenced to death in 1913. After several unsuccessful appeals, his sentence was reduced to life imprisonment; in response, a lynch mob kidnapped Frank and hanged him.
“You say, ‘What was the failing in the judicial system? And what is it that we can learn from it? And, quite frankly, what are the landmines that we need to be aware of and make sure don’t get repeated?’” Rosensaft said.
He will also point out how antisemitic and bigoted laws have mirrored each other throughout history. One of the more notorious 1935 Nuremberg Race Laws that prohibited sexual relations between Jews and Germans was modeled on racial miscegenation laws in numerous U.S. states that prohibited interracial marriage until these laws were declared unconstitutional in 1967, Rosensaft said.
“What I’m hoping to accomplish with this course,” he said, “is if students come across antisemitism a year or two from now, they say, ‘Hey, wait a second. This sounds eerily like something that we’ve seen before.’”