A new article at The Washington Post by Molly Harris claims that liberal Jewish students are being “actively excluded” from social justice organizations. Jewish college students will find that those active in BDS are also active in other left-wing groups and “as a Zionist this can be extremely disheartening.” Her article goes to the heart of the intersection between Jewish students, Zionist students and types of antisemitism. In a similar vein Alan Dershowitz has claimed that progressive supporters of Israel are finding themselves unwelcome unless they “reject Israel.”
But the reality is more complex. We are presented with a picture of Jewish students attending University and being confronted with unremitting anti-Zionism paired with antisemitism. In fact what they are confronted with is a large number of Jewish voices who are vociferously anti-Israel. The anti-Israel Jewish debate is partly an internal Jewish debate among American Jews that goes to the heart of what they think it means to be Jewish and American. At the same time there is a much smaller group of antisemites on campus who are not being confronted vigorously because the antisemitism campaign is largely focused on fighting anti-Zionism. The result is that there is a deliberate unwillingness to not mention how many Jewish activists are active in anti-Zionism, supposedly excluding other Jewish students from organizations, while ignoring extreme antisemitism. This has left deeper displays of antisemitism unchallenged.
In 1999 when I was a student at University of Arizona there were several small clubs that did annual anti-Israel activities. One of them was briefly called the Union for Peace and Justice in the Middle East. One of its leaders was Jewish. He used to tell me how important it was to struggle against Israel’s policies. Later we had posters of Mohammed al-Dura put up on campus and calls to “divest” from a local pro-Israel group.
The most pro-Israel voices on campus were Jewish, but the loudest anti-Israel voices on campus were also Jewish. A decade and a half later the same is largely true. When The Jerusalem Post, which I write for, editorialized about African migrants to Israel it received a series of hate filled tweets from Daniel Sieradski. “If your paper burned down and you all got cancer it would be too good for you,” he wrote on January 7, 2014. Sieradski, a founder of Jewschool.com was described as a “major figure in the Jewish Internet world,” by The Forward and once worked for the JTA as a director of digital media.
The deeply hostile reaction to Israel and Zionism among fellow Jews goes back to the very origins of Zionism. It also has a long American pedigree that comes up to the present through social activism. When Black Lives Matter was accused of antisemitism because it includes in an umbrella platform condemnations of Israel, Haaretz reminded readers of the “Jewish activist behind the black lives matter platform.” Ally Little and Michelle Weiser wrote at The Forward “don’t like Black Lives Matter? Get ready to lose young Jews like us.”
When an Egyptian Judoka didn’t shake hands with an Israeli at the recent Olympics, Susan Shapiro at The New York Daily News said it indicated that “antisemitism taints the games.” But Lisa Goldman wrote at The Forward the “Jewish persecution complex warped our reactions” to the handshaking. She explained why “anti-Israel sentiment took root in Egypt,” and claimed that the Egyptian would have shaken the hands of a Jew from another country, just not Israel.
In a long article at Mosaic Ruth Wisse argued that “antisemitism on American college campuses is rising.” She referenced a Louis D. Brandeis Center survey that claimed more than half of students had experienced or witnessed antisemitism. The evidence she listed included a litany of examples: A student punched by a Pro-Palestinian activist, a student harassed for “defending Israel,” a student attacked for protesting anti-Israel activity, a student rally confronted by pro-Palestinian “mobs.” She termed “hate-the-Jews fest” as “Israel Apartheid Week.”
But we need to step back. An ADL press release noted that in the fall of 2015 there were “150 explicitly anti-Israel events” on campuses. The Reform Movement and Hillel keep different statistics on Jewish campus populations, but it appears there are at least 150,000 Jewish students on campus, with many campuses being ten percent Jewish and having thousands of students. A June press release by the ADL said they found 90 antisemitic incidents on 60 campuses. Some incidents on campus showed clearly how antisemitism and Anti-Zionism join forces. At Berkeley, home to 2,500 undergraduate Jewish students, “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber” was found in a restroom and at CUNY-Hunter (1,500 Jewish undergrads) protesters opposed the “Zionist administration” and shouted “Zionists out” while fighting for free tuition.
At a time when there are probably more Jewish students at campuses than ever in history, the actual number of clearly antisemitic incidents is relatively small. The number of anti-Israel events is also relatively small. Even if one assumes they occur once a year across 150 campuses, the stories like that of Alexis Sherman at University of Arizona (3,000 Jews) create the wrong impression. “I am a Jew,” she writes, “the reality of the situation is that antisemitism and antisemitism masked as anti-Zionism have become the new reality of many college campuses throughout the country.” An example of this situation and reality might be the BDS event scheduled to be held at Columbia (1,800 Jewish students) in February of 2016, at which 96 registered to attend.
No one has done a survey of these BDS events or attendees but the fact is that some, if not many of those attending are Jewish, just like the Jewish students who feel threatened by them. A picture travelling the internet shows one student attending an Open Hillel event at Harvard in October of 2014 wearing a shirt that says “another Jew supporting Divestment.” According to Jewish Voice for Peace of the Bay Area, the founding chapter, there are more than 60 chapters. According to the Israel on Campus Coalition, by 2015 there were 14 on campus chapters of JVP, there are probably more today.
The debate that takes place tends to be like this. In December of 2015 a meme was circulated against St. Louis Rabbi Susan Talve calling her a “terrorist” who “supports genocide” by a group called Hands Up United. In response JVP wrote that the “provocative meme” was not the “conversation we wish to have.” They noted that Israel exists on top of the “forced removal of the indigenous Palestinian population and the ongoing perpetual killing, ghettoization, incarceration and deportation of that non-Jewish population.” These may sound like toxic anti-Israel views, but they are Jewish anti-Israel views.
They are similar to Matthew Abraham’s views of the University of Arizona, one of the speakers at an event that Alexis Sherman referenced. In a review of a book by Norman Finkelstein, he writes that “the historical record has been so polluted by Holocaust propaganda, propaganda meant to highlight Jewish suffering to the exclusion of the suffering of other ethnic groups, that any critical discussion of Israel has been a near impossibility.” The text contains other problematic language, describing antisemitism as a “context-specific form of ethnic discrimination.” There is a lot of pushing of views like this under the veneer of intellectual endeavor. Some of the most virulent anti-Israel voices are in Israel, including numerous academics who compare Israel to Nazi Germany. Daniel Blatman, an academic at Hebrew University compared Israeli soldiers to the Wehrmacht killing unarmed Frenchman in an oped on August 16.
So what are we to make of all this? Within the Jewish community there is a deeply anti-Israel and anti-Zionist movement. Those who claim that comparing Israel to Nazi Germany is antisemitic have a problem when they look at how common this is among Jewish anti-Israel activists for which the Holocaust is the central reference for many things. Norman Finkelstein in 1982 protested holding a sign reading “this son of survivors of the Ghetto Uprising, Auschwitz, Maijdenek will not be silent: Israeli Nazis – Stop the Holocaust in Lebanon!” Naz Shah, a British MP was called an antisemite in early 2016 for reposting a meme from Finkelstein had posted on his website that he had posted in 2014, showing Israel ‘relocated’ to the US.
Does the meme become antisemitic simply because a non-Jewish anti-Israel activist posts it? Was it antisemitic to begin with? Or is it just anti-Zionism? There may not be a clear answer to this. But it seemed to be clear that Oberlin academic Joy Karega’s Facebook posts were antisemitic. She posted a meme of the Rothschilds that claimed they “own the news, the media, your oil and your government.” She linked to another article that claimed the Rothchilds “interfere with depopulation agenda – of which AIDS is a component.” Her posts were outed by the Tower. Clear antisemitism. Anti-racism activists, including the 850 Jewish students who make up 30% of its student body would surely protest?
But no. Instead of being offended by views claiming the Rothschilds created AIDS, Oberlin College president Marvin Krislov, who is Jewish, defended her by claiming Oberlin “respects the right of its faculty, students, staff and alumni to express their personal views.”
The right to express extreme antisemitism? No safe space for Jewish students from such faculty? In this case what happened was clearly offensive hateful social media posts, and no response from students or faculty condemning them immediately. Why didn’t Jewish students protest? Why didn’t they hold a sit-in? Why didn’t they picket at Karega’s house?
On the one hand there are claims of antisemitism running wild on campus, of Jewish students hounded and unable to participate in progressive groups. Many of the examples of this antisemitism turns out to be forms of anti-Israel activism by other Jewish students. However when there are clear antisemitic incidents, Jewish students are largely quiet in the face of them. If someone had claimed black leaders are responsible for AIDs, there would have been marches by Black Lives Matter.
So why won’t the 150,000 US Jewish college students confront antisemitism? Partly because there has been an attempt to confuse them. With large numbers of progressive students embracing anti-Zionism, they refuse to accept the view that antisemitism exists on campus and accept the view that antisemitism is used by the “Zionists” to “silence” debate. At every turn they defend everything that borders on antisemitism, so long as it has to do with Israel. Black Lives Matter and the Egyptian athlete single out Israel alone among the world’s nations for opprobrium, but that’s acceptable because it’s in the name of attacking Israel. If an athlete refused to shake the hand of a Syrian athlete due to Bashar al-Assad’s brutality the same voices would say its bad sportsmanship, “how can you blame a Judoka for Assad, he just wants to compete.” They’d never boycott a film from the Iranian regime, it’s “artistic freedom,” but Israel, that’s fine. But what happens when the Holocaust is deemed “propaganda.” Well, it’s in the name of anti-Zionism, and the Holocaust is used to perpetuate Israeli crimes, so therefore the Holocaust must be called into question. It’s not a unique event, they say. But then the same voices claim Israel is a Nazi state.
This is all confusing and Jewish students who are pro-Israel feel under siege, and they are encouraged to make the easy choice and define every anti-Israel event, no matter how small, as antisemitism.
Yet when antisemitism in the form of faculty claiming Rothschilds control the world and created AIDs is spread around, the Jewish students are left disarmed in its face. They are tired from the Israel debate, and unable and unwilling to fight against such virulent hatred. Jewish groups who have also exhausted themselves discussing Israel and dividing themselves over Israel, as Hillel has, do not stand up and fight.
This points to a failed policy among Jewish leaders and Jewish student groups. They should be protesting antisemitism and they should be trying to gauge its presence. They should be educating Jews about where the line exists between hatred of Israel and hatred of Jews. When faculty speak about Holocaust as “propaganda”, such statements should be challenged. When every reference to Israel is then used to compare it to the Nazis, while at the same time claiming actual Nazi crimes are not unique or “banal”, then such views should be challenged. When faculty post on social media about Rothschilds creating AIDs, Jews must take to the streets and when other faculty excuse such views as “free speech,” then those universities need to be targeted for mass sit-ins. Racism may be free speech, but one does not have a right to hold a position as an academic. Social media is not private when all students can see it and a hostile environment is created. Can faculty post swastikas on their Facebook home page and support the KKK? No. And if they do they need to be subjected to unremitting protest, like any racist would be.
Standing up with direct-action protest against antisemitism will help educate Jewish students. Instead of sitting back and writing letters and talking about “controversy”, Jewish organizations such as Hillel should take a stand and encourage full-throated activism against clear examples of antisemitism. No more swastikas on Jewish fraternity houses or “go to Auschwitz” in the restroom. If a campus won’t tolerate a KKK rally, it must not tolerate swastikas. And other anti-racism groups should be partners as well. If they won’t partner over antisemitism and Nazism, then it would indeed be evidence that “progressive” groups have become fully antisemitic. It is important to get those groups espousing anti-racism to partner with Jewish groups over antisemitism, rather than conflating every anti-Israel event with antisemitism and distancing them.
In labeling all anti-Israel activity as “antisemitism”, Jewish students have been made to feel threatened, while other Jewish students who are anti-Israel have tended to dismiss real examples of antisemitism, having been inured to “stories” of antisemitism. By diluting antisemitism, rather than trying to measure it through surveys (i.e “do you dislike Jews”), organizations think they are defending Israel, but they are also sacrificing the fight against antisemitism and losing a rational and healthy debate about the way Israel should be debated. Along the way anti-racism groups have been sent the message that antisemitism is different than racism, that it is tied to anti-Zionism, and since most of them won’t protest all anti-Zionism, they have opted out of protesting antisemitism as well, leaving Jewish students disarmed in the face of real antisemitism that should be confronted.