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May 2, 2018, Washington D.C. — Education Secretary Betsy Devos at the Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House.
May 2, 2018, Washington D.C. — Education Secretary Betsy Devos at the Teacher of the Year ceremony at the White House. Credit: Alex Edelman/CNP via ZUMA Wire.

I regularly offer a course at my university called Teaching the Holocaust: History and Memory. I begin this class by asking my students how they would define Judaism. Most of the students aren’t Jewish. Responses usually include: a religion, a race, an ethnicity, a culture and a country.

I then share with my class that Judaism is a religion, a people, a shared memory and a code of ethics. This definition explains that Judaism is first and foremost a religion.

As I opened my annual discussion about Judaism this term, the question of what it is to be Jewish was making its way into the national news as The Department of Education reopened a case brought by a Zionist group (a Zionist, most simply defined, is a person who believes in the creation and protection of the Jewish state of Israel) against Rutgers University.

The case considered whether allowing anti-Israel comments on the Rutgers campus created a hostile environment for Jewish students. The Obama administration closed the case, ruling that the Rutgers campus was not a hostile environment. Assistant Secretary of Education Kenneth Marcus said the department was reopening the case “on the basis of actual or perceived shared ancestry or ethnic characteristics” that would constitute a violation of federal discrimination laws, and thus fall under the agency’s description.

That is particularly alarming because it means the reopening of the case fundamentally challenges the definition of Judaism. And anti-Semitism too.

First, the Education Department suggests that Judaism is a religion and also an ethnicity. This is extremely dangerous. There is a thin, porous boundary between ethnicity and race. Judaism is not a race. Of all the responses my students give to the question “what is Judaism?” this is the answer I reject.

The last time Judaism was deemed a race was in the years between WWI and WWII as Hitler emerged in Germany. The Nazis adopted pseudoscientific racial laws. They used these laws to justify genocide, and to include as many people as possible in the racial definition of “Jew.” Judaism, however, has always been a religion, never a race.

Judaism isn’t the only term the Education Department wants to change.

They are also redefining what anti-Semitism means. They are suggesting that the definition of an anti-Semite would include anyone who denies Jews the right to their own country. With that, statements that are anti-Zionist would be considered as hateful and offensive as the more traditional tropes and stereotypes that have plagued Jews and Judaism for millennia.

For some, Judaism and Israel are the same issue, knotted together for thousands of years. Others separate out Israel as a legal issue or a human rights issue. Some Jews believe in a two-state solution, others do not; the same can be said for non-Jews.

By reopening the Rutgers case, the Department of Education has raised a series of red flags.

“The ways in which these questions are eventually answered by the Department of Education will have implications for how history is taught in schools”

Anti-Semitic language is prohibited in schools. What about anti-Israel statements? Do arguments that Palestinians were/are poorly treated by Israelis fall into the same category of offensive language as other, more traditional antisemitic statements?

Any way you look at this issue, it’s politically charged.

The ways in which these questions are eventually answered by the Department of Education will have implications for how history is taught in schools.

The lines between historical fact and open classroom discussion have always been tricky. Good teachers, however, know how to manage fraught conversations by grounding them in facts, allowing students to debate and teaching students to disagree respectfully. Fundamentally, these points of disagreement give teachers the opportunity to prepare students to fully participate in a democratic society.

Any changes in the meaning of the term anti-Semitism will cloud the lens through which history is viewed, leaving those who may merely disagree with Israeli policies labeled anti-Semitic. A potential change in the definition of Judaism will spark fears of new levels racial discrimination.

This should not be the way we educate students in the United States of America, either inside or outside of our schools.

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Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of research and education for the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.

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