Meet Alvin Rosenfeld—Holocaust scholar turned antisemitism warrior

“Curtailing, restraining, and putting the clamps on antisemitism” is the order of the day

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Professor Alvin Rosenfeld founded the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at Indiana University.

"Curtailing, restraining, and putting the clamps on antisemitism" is the order of the day for Alvin H. Rosenfeld. "What we can't do is put up with mainstreaming or normalizing anti-Jewish activities."  

That's a daunting order, but one that energizes Rosenfeld, who recently spoke with Jewish Chicago about the current climate for Jews on campus and beyond.  

Rosenfeld is Professor of English and Jewish Studies, the Irving M. Glazer Chair of Jewish Studies, founder and former director of the Borns Jewish Studies Program, and founder and Director of the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism (ISCA) at Indiana University (IU), in Bloomington.  

In his 80s, his focus, acuity, and commitment, along with his vast knowledge and long-term experience, are renowned. He developed ISCA in 2011, including funding a chaired professorship, "largely because I was alert to antisemitism being in the ascendancy," he said. "As a scholar of the Shoah (Holocaust), I know the painful history of Jewish victimization. 

"We're living in a new age of victimology, of identity politics based on grievance, of an institutionalization of grievance," he said. "Ironically, along with all that comes the erosion of goodwill and understanding towards Jews. It's too soon to know if it's a fatal blow, but it might be."  

A distinguished scholar, lauded teacher, and author and editor of some 20 books and collections, Rosenfeld also is an activist-a role that is impacting an institution with 42,000 alumni and thousands of students and family members in the Chicago area.  

To date ISCA has produced 82 webinars, produced numerous podcasts, hosted five major conferences in Bloomington and New York, and cohosted conferences in Berlin. It has provided a point of reference for IU administrators and trustees as they navigate the fraught waters of campus expression following the Hamas anti-Jewish pogrom on October 7.  

Although IU had been "relatively calm" in preceding years, Rosenfeld says, for the first time (as Jewish Chicago went to press) the highly ranked state university held an Israel Apartheid Week, in the wake of the formulation by 20 faculty members of Indiana University Academics for Justice in Palestine. 

Rosenfeld and a cadre of some 60 Jews and non-Jewish allies beat that group to the punch, having organized Indiana Faculty and Staff for Israel immediately following October 7. The pro-Israel group, along with IU Hillel and Chabad, convened an Antisemitism Prevention Week, with speakers and events concurrent with, and intended to counter, the anti-Israel protests.  

"We've come into existence at a time when antisemitism has become a threat, not just on campuses but all over the place," Rosenfeld told WTIU television in February. "A university is a place where students and faculty really should be devoted to advancing knowledge, helping students think critically [and] deeply, and encouraging everybody to be decent people." 

"Antisemitism is a passion before it's an ideology, and the country is in a frenzy," Rosenfeld says. "Don't sit back and take it as if there's nothing we can do. We need proudly and intelligently to speak out against anything remotely like a return of the 30's. We need to speak out with allies about preserving civil liberties. We need to speak out about who we are and proclaim that America is ours as much as anyone else's. We want America to thrive." 

Learn more about the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism at isca.indiana.edu .  

Aaron B. Cohen is a writer based in Evanston and the former Executive Editor of JUF News and JUF's former Vice President of Marketing and Communications.  

"A university is a place where students and faculty really should be devoted to advancing knowledge, helping students think critically [and] deeply, and encouraging everybody to be decent people"


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