After the presidential election in the United States, Noam Zadoff, assistant professor of Jewish studies and history at Indiana University, felt it was time to have a conversation.
From his perspective, Donald Trump’s surprise win made many people realize in one historic moment that the reality they believed to be true was far removed from the reality that other people were experiencing in the country.
The gap between the perceived reality and true reality offered a moment for reflection, and Zadoff recognized parallels between the current political landscape in the U.S. and periods in Germany and Israel’s history.
Zadoff and his wife, Mirjam Zadoff, associate professor of Jewish studies and history and the Alvin H. Rosenfeld Chair in Jewish Studies, wanted to explore those parallels and better understand what was happening in the U.S.
The Zadoffs connected with the IU Europe Gateway in Berlin and with colleagues Stefanie Schüler-Springorum, director at Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung, the Center for Research on Antisemitism at Technische Universität Berlin, Technical University Berlin; and Marcus Funck, a research associate and the center’s graduate program coordinator. Founded in 1982, the center is one of the world’s most important institutions of its kind. The core of its work is basic interdisciplinary research on antisemitism in all its various causes, manifestations and effects, past and present.
“Given our close ties, professor Noam Zadoff and I started talking about a workshop or conference on this topic when we met in December in Berlin,” Schüler-Springorum said. “Given the grave transatlantic impact of the election, its outcome, and antisemitic as well as racist incidents on both sides of the Atlantic, we saw the necessity to organize an event that not only takes a further look into the United States’ internal affairs but also on the transatlantic repercussions and reciprocities.”
“You could say that this conference originated in a shock that took place immediately after the election and was felt from both sides of the ocean,” Zadoff said. “Our role as universities and intellectuals and scholars is to try to act in this gap and understand it to help to reduce it.”
The IU Europe Gateway
The IU Europe Gateway in Berlin was the perfect venue for such reflection.
“It was important to get out geographically, so you can have a look back,” Zadoff said. “It’s in a sense an American-neutral space. You have the infrastructure, you have great help in organizing a conference, and you have a place where you can feel like you’re in the United States but still have enough distance to look back in a comparative way.”
The IU Europe Gateway office hosted nearly 100 speakers and attendees from London, Poland, Israel, Germany and all over the U.S. for the conference.
The gateway in Berlin is one of three in IU’s Global Gateway Network, which support IU faculty, staff, students, alumni and partners as they advance their academic and professional interests in the country or region. The gateway in Europe opened in 2015 and offers space for hosting academic events, study abroad programs or personal research. Its staff are also a resource providing advice, connections and logistical support as well as expert knowledge in the region.
Andrea Adam Moore, IU Europe Gateway director, worked with the Zadoffs to draw up a budget, organize conference meals and catering, and promote the event with specific interest groups and local media. While the gateway worked with Technische Universität Berlin, the Europe Gateway hosted the main part of the conference and was responsible for making sure the event ran smoothly.
“This encompassed everything from video recording the event and communication with local vendors to taking care of the special needs of some of our guests,” Moore said. “It was a great pleasure to work with Noam and Mirjam to plan and organize this event.”
Conversation, reflection and the future
The conference included more than a dozen speakers who shared their scholarship and engaged attendees in thoughtful discussions.
Among the speakers were Roger Cohen, IU Poynter Chair and internationally acclaimed journalist for The New York Times; Isabel V. Hull, the John Stambaugh Professor of History at Cornell University; and Khalil Muhammad, professor of history, race and public policy at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
In Cohen’s keynote lecture, he referred to his experiences growing up and living outside the United States before becoming a naturalized American and taking an oath to uphold the Constitution.
“How we have fallen by electing a president who has not read the Constitution,” Cohen said. “In my view, Trump has parted company with the American idea.”
Cohen said the law, the press, popular protests and more are blocking what he believes are radical elements of Trump’s agenda, including efforts to implement travel restrictions against citizens of other countries.
“The press has been reborn,” he said. “The New York Times has 600,000 more digital subscribers in the last six months.”
While his perspective on the first few months of Trump’s presidency was not positive, Cohen felt the voters who elected Trump should be heard. “Many Americans think Trump is the most honest president,” he said. “However troubling, it’s important to hear people out.”
Hull not only focused on Trump but looked at recent events in American history through the lens of German history, finding the most striking similarities between the two countries in civil society and the use of racism and antisemitism as a political tool.
“I’m speaking to a room of people who are experts,” Hull said before she gave the conference’s opening lecture. “I’m hoping to throw out ways of looking at things that might spur conversation.”
Muhammad was also hoping to move the conversation forward, specifically as it relates to teaching history in the U.S.
He argued that America needs a “new origin story” and needs to do a better job of teaching the nation’s history and not ignore its chapters of racial domination.
“Our current origin story is mostly a story of heroic founding fathers who created a system of government that protected individual liberty,” he said in an interview before his talk. “They are men without contradiction, without flaws who created a government to empower individuals with the power to do whatever they please, even the right to oppress people.”
Throughout the conference, the discussion topics ranged widely and included analysis of the media, memorialization of past events, empathy’s influence on racism and antisemitism, and the role of scholars and academics. The conference speakers also examined antisemitism and racism beyond the U.S. and Germany.
Ultimately, they looked toward the future. In the closing panel discussion, Mirjam Zadoff suggested the younger generation was a place to find hope, a sentiment echoed by the panelists and audience.
“There’s a growing politicization, even of students in the Midwest,” Mirjam Zadoff said.