University of Redlands faculty, students, and community members examined two issues—antisemitism in the United States and the Russia-Ukraine conflict—during Public Square conversations in February.
With support from Campus Diversity and Inclusion, the event series was organized by Professor of Race and Ethnic Studies Jennifer Tilton and Professor of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Jennifer Nelson with the intent of encouraging difficult but relevant conversations about social justice.
“We wanted to explore how academic knowledge is connected to the real-world struggles for social justice,” Tilton said. “Our programs try to combine insights from scholarship and opportunities to explore how we can bring knowledge into action to build a more just world.”
On February 7, the first forum, which drew an audience of over one hundred people from the campus community and surrounding area, began with a conversation about confronting antisemitism in relation to racism, Islamophobia, xenophobia, white nationalism, and hate crimes. Four panelists, including Professor of English Sharon Oster who organized the panel, Professor of Sociology and Anthropology Sharon Lang, Professor of Religious Studies Sana Tayyen, and Congregation Emanu El Rabbi Lindy Reznick, contributed to the discussion. During the event, they shared their thoughts and experiences as they probed a bigger topic: how the manifestation of hatred towards Jewish communities persists into the present day.
“[Antisemitism] is both always the same yet ever-changing,” Oster quoted historian Doris Bergen when the discussion began. She linked the history of antisemitism to its prevalence in today’s society, as illustrated by the Charlottesville protests in 2017; the mass shooting at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue in 2018; and McKinney County’s Tennessee school board’s recent banning of Art Spiegelman’s graphic narrative Maus.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, 2020 saw heightened levels of antisemitic incidents in the United States. Reznick explained what contributed to this rise: “The pandemic itself has revived a historic mythology that this is a Jewish sponsored event, as, over the centuries, Jews were identified with causing pandemics or, in turn, benefiting from such conditions.”
The rise of white nationalism is also a factor: “Whiteness becomes a new measure of power,” she said. “This rise of American nationalism … has created a political environment rife with anger and hate.”
Lang and Tayyen also noted the impact white nationalist behavior can have on Jewish and Muslim communities. “They use differences … to hate on entire groups of people that they do not know much about nor understand,” Lang explained. “It’s easier to demonize and dehumanize the “other” than to become informed and look for nuances to understand or empathize with other people’s humanity.”
Tayyen added, “Acts of antisemitism and Islamophobia have exacted on their targets not only physical but psychological trauma. An attack on the Jewish community, the Sikh community, and a historically Black church or college is an attack on a mosque because it’s the same system—a system that allows for these attacks to happen towards any community.”
“An attack on one religious group is an attack on all religious groups,” Tayyen concluded.
Understanding the Russia-Ukraine conflict
A subsequent event on February 16 explored the Russia-Ukraine conflict, sponsored by Pi Sigma Alpha and the Public Policy and Political Science Departments. Near the end of 2021, Russia had stationed their troops along the Ukrainian border, alarming the United States and their North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) allies. At the time of the event, Russia had added 7,000 more troops to the Ukrainian border and the White House announced the possibility that Russia would attack Ukraine in the days to follow. (On February 24, Russia launched a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.)
Professor of Political Science Graeme Auton, a NATO Research Fellow, led the discussion. Professor of Political Science Renee Van Vechten stated that it was important to discuss the conflict during the public square series.
“The possible invasion of a country that possesses national sovereignty raises issues that implicate social justice,” she said. “What does it mean, for example, for a superpower to invade an adjacent country that purports to self-rule, no matter its size? What rights belong to those who inhabit lands that are reclaimed by another? We hoped that the information and discussion would prompt participants to consider these international security issues within a broader social justice realm.”
Known for his meticulous PowerPoint lectures, Auton delivered a succinct summary of Russia’s relationship with Ukraine—a sovereign state—to help the audience understand the motive of the conflict. Part of the presentation included an analysis of Ukraine’s geopolitical background that informed President Vladimir Putin’s decisions, including the country’s continued engagement with the European Union and NATO.
In light of the information provided, an important question was posed about the role of the United States both as a member of NATO and as an individual world power. “Our biggest concern is reassuring [our] European allies of the alliance,” Auton noted. “[They will], in fact, if Putin moves against Ukraine, be very, very rattled. For [Biden’s] administration, it is a major priority to support NATO.”
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