Understanding Antisemitism: Interview with Brendan Murphy

Brendan Murphy is a history teacher at the Marist School in Atlanta, GA. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in history and education from Notre Dame University and obtained his master’s in theology from Spring Hill College. He has won several awards for his work on educating people about the Holocaust and antisemitism, including the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) Abe Goldstein Human Relations Award in 2017, the Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect Outstanding Educator Award in 2019, and the Georgia Commission on the Holocaust Distinguished Educator of the Year in 2009 and 2016. He has a presentation titled Why the Jews? Understanding the Long and Tragic History of Antisemitism and the Future of Jewish-Christian Relations to exemplify the dangers of prejudice and highlight the importance of Holocaust education to prevent it from happening again.

The Israel-Hamas war has caused significant tension between Jews and non-Jews alike, with many public displays of antisemitism occurring in cities and college campuses, along with online attacks on social media with their frequent targets being Jews and Israelis. In cases like these, it is important to remind each other of the calamities that have occurred when antisemitism has reached its peak, and this is what Brendan Murphy has been doing while lecturing about its dangers since he became an advocate for fighting against it many years ago.

What first got you interested in the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust?

As an undergraduate at the University of Notre Dame with only a week left before graduation, the rector in my dorm and history professor at the University, Fr. Thomas King, handed me his well-worn copy of Elie Wiesel’s Night after a long conversation on the nature of prejudice and hatred. I read the book the following afternoon in one sitting underneath one of the old oak trees that line the South Quad (unusual for me as I’m a laborious reader). As it does, the book raised far more questions than it answered.  

What was your inspiration for the founding of the Marist School’s Holocaust education “Bearing Witness Program” in 2009?

Upon graduation from college in 1994, I was hired to teach World History at Marist School in Atlanta. I was eager to bring to my students all the questions Night raised for me during a lesson on the Holocaust, but teaching world history meant I had 11 minutes to cover the Holocaust. As a result, I took the bold step that summer after my first year to draft and submit to the administration an official proposal to teach a seminar class on the Holocaust. It took some convincing, but they saw fit to approve, and the subject has become the heart of my work in education.  

How important do you think it is to break stereotypes, especially now that Israel and Hamas are at war? Do you think it is essential for the Christian community to learn more about the Jewish community to make a bridge for the future of Jewish-Christian relations?

As an oversimplified image or idea of a particular person or thing, stereotypes are easy to debunk. What is more important is reversing prejudice as such unfounded but deeply rooted judgment and bias often leads to real harm. As a way of organizing the world, we are prone to prejudgment. But while prejudice is natural, it is not inevitable. Prejudice is never inevitable. It is always the result of a collection of choices, and those choices can always be different. 

As prevalent as prejudice is, we can take heart that history has proven that prejudice can be reversed, defeated, and overcome. The war between Israel and Hamas, even as it has inflamed hatred, has not made it more urgent to defeat prejudice. Defeating prejudice should always be urgent. We must remain ever vigilant. What it has done, given the prejudice it has unleashed, shows how naive we have been in assuming prejudice in society was not as prevalent as we now see it to be.  

The long and tragic history of antisemitism makes it urgent that the Christian community learn more about Jewish faith, life, community, and culture.  The fastest way to overcome any prejudice is to get to know someone who is the object of your preconceived judgment.  

What would you tell someone who is Christian, who has never met a Jewish person in their life, about what to expect from Jews and the Jewish community? What would be your recommendation for supporting the Jewish community at this time?

Friendships are made of shared experiences that are enjoyed freely without expectation. I would tell Christians meeting Jews for the first time not to expect anything from them—such expectation only invites judgment—but instead to bring an open heart and mind.  

My recommendation would be to reach out and listen to what members of our Jewish community are feeling and experiencing. To ask what it is they hope for, what they need, and how we can help.