Anti-Semitism is sometimes referred to as the oldest hatred, but its intensity ebbs and flows throughout history and in America it is surging.

That was according to journalism pioneer and award-winning editorial writer Jane Eisner, who was the featured speaker at the Fourth Annual Rabbi Hillel Cohn Endowed Lecture on the Contemporary Jewish Experience held virtually on Feb. 18 by Cal State San Bernardino’s College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.

The theme of Eisner’s talk was “From the Holocaust To Hate Groups: How American Media Covers Anti-Semitism.” The lecture is available for viewing at Rabbi Hillel Cohn Lecture with Jane Eisner.

“Beginning in 2016, the numbers (of hate crimes) jumped and remained at record highs correlated to the toxic political discourse encouraged by (former President Donald) Trump in his praise for white nationalist and xenophobic attitudes towards immigrants and other minorities,” said Eisner of her experiences as editor-in-chief of the influential Jewish national news organization, the Forward.

“My (editorial) staff withstood a dramatic, and at times frightening, uptick in harassment of email and social media largely from the newly emboldened alt-right.”

She said the Anti-Defamation League codified this phenomenon in October 2016 in the report, Anti-Semitic Targeting of Journalists During the 2016 Presidential Campaign, “detailing the significant uptick in online anti-Semitic harassment of journalists. The aggressors were disproportionately Trump supporters. Nonetheless journalists cannot allow a simplistic politicized characterization to shape their reporting.”

Eisner started her talk about anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany in the 1930s and 1940s, and how American media played down or ignored the atrocities, mass shootings of Jews and the death camps. She said it was in part because of the stubborn anti-Semitism awash in the United States at the time, and also skepticism from Americans and the press.

“They thought it was German propaganda. They couldn’t believe that Germans could do this,” said Eisner, who added that Edward R. Murrow, the most respected broadcast journalist at the time and the first reporter on the scene at the liberation of the Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald, “had to beg listeners to trust the horrific scenes he described as the truth.”

Eisner also talked about mass shootings, including the deadly attack in October 2018 at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, where 11 people were murdered and six more were injured. She said the news media’s coverage was “dramatically more comprehensive and compassionate.”

“The deadliest attack against Jews in United States history occurred in America’s heart land. Not some distant terrain, committed by a man with a perverted extreme vision of nationalism. This was homegrown terror. The shooter had once worked in a local bakery,” Eisner said. “Now, more than two years later, it is clear that Pittsburgh marked an inflection point after which journalists paid more attention to anti-Semitism and were more understanding of its place and presence in America.” 

Eisner’s lecture was postponed from last April due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced the university to suspend all large gatherings, events and face-to-face classes on campus.

An accomplished journalist, educator, nonprofit leader and public speaker, Eisner is currently director of academic affairs at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University, overseeing the Master of Arts program.

For more than a decade, she was the Forward’s editor-in-chief, the first woman to hold the position at America’s foremost national Jewish news organization.

Since Eisner joined the Forward in 2008, the publication dramatically expanded its digital reach, becoming the authoritative source of news, opinion, arts and culture in the Jewish world. The publication won numerous regional and national awards, and her editorials were repeatedly honored by the Society of Professional Journalists and other media organizations. She is known for her interviews of notable figures such as President Barack Obama, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, and many others.

Prior to her work at the Forward, Eisner held executive editorial and news positions at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years, including stints as editorial page editor, syndicated columnist, City Hall bureau chief and foreign correspondent. From 2006 to 2008, she served as vice president of the National Constitution Center. She has taught at Wesleyan University as the first Koeppel Fellow and at the University of Pennsylvania, where she is a senior fellow at Penn’s Program for Research and Religion in Urban Civil Society.

Eisner is the author of “Taking Back the Vote: Getting American Youth Involved in Our Democracy,” published in 2004 by Beacon Press. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post’s Book World, and has written for Columbia Journalism Review, The Los Angeles Times, TIME, NPR, and other major news outlets.

She is chair of the board of the Student Press Law Center and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and the Refugee Employment Project.

Eisner is a graduate of Wesleyan University and Columbia Journalism School. She was a fellow of the Katharine Houghton Hepburn Center at Bryn Mawr College in its inaugural year and participated in the Sulzberger Executive Leadership Program in 2009. She is a frequent public speaker and moderator, and lives in New York City with her husband, Dr. Mark Berger.

The Rabbi Hillel Cohn Endowed Lecture on the Contemporary Jewish Experience was established at California State University, San Bernardino in 2017 in recognition of Rabbi Cohn’s many achievements as a religious and community leader. This is the first time in the history of the entire California State University system that a rabbi has been so honored.

Cohn has been active in many community organizations in the San Bernardino area, including the Institutional Review Board at Arrowhead Regional Medical Center and the Diocesan Health Care Committee of the Roman Catholic Diocese of San Bernardino. He was the founding chairperson of the City of San Bernardino Human Relations Commission, and currently serves as a member of that commission.

Cohn also has produced and hosted “The Many Faces of San Bernardino: Dialogues on Diversity,” a regular half-hour program on KCSB (Channel 3). He was one of the founders of Inland Congregations United for Change and currently serves as a board member of The Community Foundation of Riverside and San Bernardino, Planned Parenthood of Orange and San Bernardino Counties, The Unforgettables Foundation and The Brightest Star.

In 2014, Cohn was one of six inductees selected for the CSUSB College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Hall of Fame.

A native of Germany, Cohn was brought to the United States as an infant by his parents who were refugees from Nazism. Cohn grew up in the Pacific Northwest and Southern California and received a B.A. in political science from UCLA in 1959. He received rabbinical training at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles and Cincinnati, where he was ordained as a rabbi in 1963 and received a master’s degree. He earned a doctor of ministry degree from the Claremont School of Theology in 1984, specializing in ethics and communication. In 1988 he was awarded an honorary doctor of divinity degree by the Hebrew Union College.

For more information on the Rabbi Hillel Cohn Endowed Lecture on the Contemporary Jewish Experience, contact the CSUSB Office of Strategic Communication at (909) 537-5007.