The 2021 Speaker Series began January 14 with an all-school presentation by Eric Ward, a longtime civil rights strategist, who spoke via Zoom about the history of anti-Semitism and its resurgence.
“Our commitment as The Frederick School is to be a place that equips students to be hope-filled, to be love-oriented citizens, active citizens, and really a force for good in the world. This is a topic of longstanding import for students, for teachers, and for our entire community,” Head of School Peter Becker said in his introduction.
Ward is the Executive Director of the Western States Center, and Chair of the Board of Directors of the Proteus Fund, which partners with foundations, individual donors, activists, and other allies to advance justice, equity, and an inclusive, representative democracy. He is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and a former Program Officer for Advancing Racial Justice and Minority Rights at the Ford Foundation. An author and expert who is widely quoted in the national media, he has worked with community groups, government and business leaders, and human rights advocates throughout the country to identify and counter white nationalist hate groups, protect vulnerable communities, and make American democracy more inclusive.
Anti-Semitism, Ward said, is one of the oldest forms of bigotry in the world. “What’s unique about anti-Semitism is that it’s not a religious form of anti-Jewish bigotry. It is one which makes Jews a racialized other, where they are seen as another race, similar to the racism that African Americans, Latinos, and others experience. I often liken it, too, to the growing Islamophobia and anti muslim bigotry in the United Sates and elsewhere.”
Ward asserted that one reason this happens is rooted in some of the newest research on the unconscious brain. “One of the things we understand about prejudice and bigotry and the human brain, is that it taps into something all of us do, which is sorting and categorization,” Ward said, using as an example the red-and-blue plastic sorting ball toy that parents gave to their young children, to help them learn how to sort different shapes. “We were learning to sort in our world, and it is through that sorting that we bring a kind of order to our world. Imagine if we didn’t learn how to sort. It means every day that we woke up, we would have to learn how to understand our world all over again. So I’m not here to say today that sorting is bad. What we know is that sorting can lead to prejudice, that it can lead to discrimination and stereotypes.”
As humans, we also tend to fill in gaps in our knowledge with stereotypes and myths. “Sometimes we think we know more than we actually do, and we don’t spend the time getting to know other people who can give us actual experience and perspective. We cling to our stereotypes. When we cling to those stereotypes, it puts us in danger. What it means is that we can all be manipulated when we refuse to let go of our prejudices,” he said, leading the community through an exercise using a pen and paper, a little math, and maybe a little magic, to demonstrate how easy it is to manipulate people and guess their stereotypes and myths. Typically 70 to 90 percent of the 70,000 people he speaks to every year come up with the same answers in the exercise, despite the fact that there are more than one million possible answers.
“That has to do with ways that we are socialized in society. It is the way that we reinforce narratives with one another through entertainment, through education, and through the ways that we see the world. It is through that socialization that we limit possibilities each and every day. It is at the basis of that socialization that stereotypes and myths come into play. It is why diversity is so critically important in the worlds that we walk in. By having multiple experiences and understanding, we are less likely to become rigid, landing on a single answer and missing the millions of possibilities to answers in our lives.”
Anti-Semitism is a threat to all of us, Ward said, asserting: that anti-Semitism is at the core of the White Nationalist movement. “It is so central to that hate group, that I believe as a racial justice activist that Black people and other communities of color who are often marginalized will never win our equality if we are not also active in the struggle to uproot this form of anti-Jewish hate.”
Opening up hard questions about anti-Semitism does not lessen the conversations we have around other forms of racism. It creates space for us to be brave and courageous enough to talk about it, to think about it, and to think about how to push back, Ward said. Leaning into anti-Semitism will help us “build our muscles, so we don’t get manipulated” by myths and stereotypes.
“It is our job to build a moral line against that bigotry, and we do so by being brave and courageous , opening up the space to talk about anti-Semitism,” Ward said. “Anti-semitism is a global phenomenon. It has an impact on Jews and non-Jews. It’s all of our responsibilities to tackle it.”
The tradition of the FGS Speaker Series goes back to Frederick Gunn, who presided over town debates on political issues on Friday nights. Additional events in this winter’s series will feature: Justin Dunn ’13 of the Seattle Mariners, and Jeremy Cohen ’87, Vice President at Major League Baseball, on the upcoming baseball season and life in COVID (January 28); Laura Tierney, founder and CEO of The Social Institute, on social-emotional health, social media, and technology (February 3); John Dickerson, CBS News Senior Political Analyst and author of The Hardest Job In The World, on the American presidency (February 11); and Edward Conard, author and businessman, on definitions of conservatism, conservative economic policy and the Republican Party after the Trump presidency (February 25). Events are open to FGS students, faculty, current parents and alumni and will be held via Zoom webinar.