Prof. Ross Brann, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Jewish and Near East Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences (front row, far right) organized a tour of the White House for students in the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy's Cornell in Washington program in February.

Students in DC examine antisemitism, Islamophobia

Twenty-two students from the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy’s Cornell in Washington program will have an opportunity to observe in person how policymakers contend with Islamophobia and antisemitism at a White House briefing on March 14.

The experiential learning opportunity is part of the two classes ­– “The United States and the Middle East” and “Judeophobia, Islamophobia, Racism”– taught by the Cornell in Washington program’s professor in residence, Ross Brann.

“I can provide the students with experiences here in Washington that I can’t in Ithaca,” said Brann, the Milton R. Konvitz Professor of Jewish and Near East Studies in the College of Arts and Sciences. “We get them out of their student bubbles, and then the coursework and related opportunities in Washington, D.C., put them into a position where they can feel what it would mean to be working in the real world on the issues we study.”

At the core of Brann’s approach: teaching students the premodern, historical context for these forms of racism, and engaging students in how history speaks in very complex ways to their own cultural, social, political and religious experiences. Connecting that coursework with hands-on experiences helps transfer those ideas into a deeper understanding.

“It’s not antique or medieval studies without bearing; we’re the cultural heirs to ways of thinking that are deeply embedded in our culture but often we don’t know where they came from,” he said. “Hate is even embedded in our language. For me, teaching these subjects constitute a pedagogical opportunity.”

At the White House, the students will be greeted by Herbie Ziskend ’07, who is President Joe Biden’s deputy communications director. Ziskend is responsible for White House messaging and overseeing the media strategy for the president’s events and interviews, in addition to leading the communications strategy for key issues including climate, AI and combating hate and extremism. He is also both an alumnus of the Cornell in Washington program and a former student of Brann’s.

Last month, Ziskend hosted students from the program to talk about his journey from Cornell to the White House and from student to policymaker.

“To come to Washington and hear from practitioners who are trying to confront these challenges in real time is a chance for them to transfer what they’re learning in academia into how to tangibly make progress on these issues in a real way,” Ziskend said. “And I think that’s what, ultimately, the Cornell in Washington program is all about.”

In his course “Judeophobia, Islamophobia, Racism,” Brann has been leading his students through a deep dive into the history and inflections of Islamophobia and antisemitism to help them build the body of knowledge and the vocabulary required to contend with the problem of race-based hatred.

“In virtually all of the courses I teach, I interrogate cultural differences and historical context, and I want to give students the tools to be able to critically analyze the social and political choices people and groups make,” Brann said. “One of the goals I have for the class, and it seems to be going fairly well, is to show the nexus between racism, Islamophobia and Judeophobia. These things, more often than not, are interconnected with each other and with other forms of hate.”

Economics major Sahida Amadou Djibo ’24 was studying abroad in Paris last semester and following the events playing out on campus in Ithaca when she began to ask deeper questions about the nature of Islamophobia, which made taking Brann’s course attractive. Djibo said she enjoyed the combination of coursework and access to policymakers.

“Besides what is accessible in the media, it is also interesting to get the perspectives of the people who are doing the work behind the scenes,” Djibo said.

Jacob Weinstein ’26, who is minoring in public policy, said he was drawn to Brann’s course because he knew “more than average about antisemitism” but not much about Islamophobia. Weinstein, who is Jewish, said the perspectives of his fellow students have made the class even more impactful.

“The most interesting thing about the class is how astonishingly diverse it is, because you have people who have firsthand experience with antisemitism, with Islamophobia, with racism and all of those perspectives,” Weinstein said. “It’s such a wide array of background knowledge, of viewpoints, of life experiences.”

Giles Morris is assistant dean of communications at the Cornell Jeb E. Brooks School of Public Policy.

Media Contact

Damien Sharp