Brandeis Professor encourages community to identify and call out “dogwhistles”

June 7, 2024
A tall grey-haired man wearing a polo and jeans stands at the front of the synagogue. A laptop sits on a table next to him, and Hebrew text is on the wall behind him.
Professor Daniel Breen addressing community members at Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton on May 22. Photo: Greg Jarboe

You may have heard unusual expressions or terms in the news or on social media and were wondering what “dogwhistles” meant. On May 22, Brandeis professor Daniel Breen educated and engaged community members at Congregation Beth Elohim in a spirited discussion about this kind of coded political speech. The presentation – called “Dogwhistles and Antisemitism” – was organized by the Kulanu Initiative at Congregation Beth Elohim for the broader community.

Antisemitism has increased dramatically in the US, including Massachusetts, according to the Anti-Defamation League, which reports incidents annually. The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), has also reported an increase in anti-Muslim bias complaints. Acton, unfortunately, has also experienced antisemitism, including several incidents in our schools.

In addition to in-person incidents, hate speech is commonly found on social media. With the political season upon us, it is hard to avoid hearing distasteful language that is condemned by most of the public. But partisans and politicians still engage in this kind of speech, to communicate to their followers or to unfairly impugn an opponent, using codes or dogwhistles.

As Dr. Breen explained, dogwhistles are a kind of coded shorthand speech that communicates messages to supporters, or to the public in general, without seeming too hateful, or that can be “plausibly denied”. There are many famous examples of coded language or dogwhistles, from the George H.W. Bush “Willie Horton ad” during the 1988 Presidential campaign, and Newt Gingrich’s statement that Barack Obama is the “Food Stamp President”. Recent dogwhistles include antisemitic language and imagery, often conjuring up conspiracy theories about, for instance, international businessman George Soros, or even describing Jews as “gnomes with hats”. After the presentation, attendees engaged in a spirited discussion about other current examples, including flags flying at Supreme Court Justice Alito vacation house supporting the January 6 insurrection. Dr. Breen helped the attendees better understand the typology of coded language and encouraged attendees to identify and call out this kind of language in public.

The Congregation Beth Elohim Na’Aseh committee’s Kulanu Initiative focuses on combating antisemitism through advocacy, community engagement and, education. Congregation Beth Elohim has partnered with the Anti-Defamation League and other area synagogues to combat antisemitism.

Dr. Daniel Breen is Senior Lecturer in Legal Studies in the American Studies Department at Brandeis. He is an expert on American law and the history of the early Republic. He is on the Board of the Somerville Museum, where he educates the community about the lead-up to the Revolutionary War.

Matthew Liebman is the Acton Exchange correspondent for Congregation Beth Elohim and a member of Congregation Beth Elohim.

Editors’ Note: The Acton Exchange would welcome correspondents from other faith-based organizations in Acton. Acton Exchange correspondents are active and knowledgeable members of non-governmental community organizations, who write about the programs and events of their organization. If you are interested, please email


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