Everyone should care about anti-Semitism.
This is why I re-posted a powerful piece by Batya Ungar-Sargon entitled “I Was Protested at Bard College for Being a Jew” (Forward, October 12 2019) on Facebook. In the piece Ungar-Sargon reported that she was protested “for being a Jew” because a panel discussion on anti-Semitism featuring her and two other Jewish speakers was disrupted by protesters demanding that the panelists offer criticisms of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. Her basic point was this: while criticism of Israel is legitimate, it is not legitimate to demand that Jews talking about anti-Semitism must offer explanations or criticisms of Israel when doing so.
Upon reading her account—which anyone interested in engaging ought to read—I then offered this comment:
I am appalled by the story reported in this piece. Batya Ungar-Sargon, the editor of the Forward–which publishes a wide range of pieces on every topic, including Israel and Palestine–recounts how she was ‘protested for being Jewish.’ It sure SOUNDS like she was, whether or not the protestors were fully aware of what they were doing, or whether or not they cared–they apparently did not. If there is another ‘interpretation’ of this event, I’d love to hear it. But on its face, an effort to shout down or no-platform a discussion of anti-Semitism because it did not include critics of Israel seems kind of anti-Semitic to me, for the reasons Ungar-Sargon rather carefully explains.
I then was treated to some other interpretations of the event. One was from event organizer Roger Berkowitz, who I know to be a serious and honorable intellectual; and a letter by Kenneth Stern, a Bard faculty member in attendance, entitled “I Was At the Bard Anti-Semitism Panel, and Saw Deep Disagreement, Not Singling Out of Jews.” These pieces caused me to delve further into the matter, and to actually watch the entire panel, which has been posted by Bard here.
Having done due diligence, I feel the need to substantially revise my assessment.
It is true that protesters sought to disrupt the panel, perhaps even obnoxiously. It is also true that the protesters demanded that this panel on ant-Semitism address Israeli treatment of Palestinians, and that, as Ungar-Sargon stated, such a protest might in some sense have made more sense at one of the other Bard panels. Finally, as Stern reports, the activists were asked to leave and did so. The protest itself was disruptive, but also within the bounds of a limited protest. The panel, in other words, proceeded more or less unhindered.
But it is also true that the panel was not a roundtable discussion of anti-Semitism. It was a long lecture featuring Ruth Wisse, a distinguished Professor of Yiddish and Comparative Literature at Harvard well known for her neo-conservative views. The other two panelists spoke for no more than a couple of minutes each responding to Wisse’s talk. Moreover, while Ungar-Sargon seemed to imply that the protesters were illicitly bringing up the topic of Israel, Wisse’s entire talk centered on the tendentious claim that criticism of Israel is THE contemporary form of anti-Semitism—a rather disturbing claim that she also made in response to Charlottesville in 2017 and the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting in 2018. While there may be a few nasty Nazis around, Wisse argues, fascism was defeated in 1945, and now the real enemies of Jews are on the left. Here Wisse linked together Palestinian nationalists and BDS supporters with liberals Jewish and not, the so-called liberal media, the academy in general, and segments of the Democratic party. And here Wisse singled out Democrats who were supposedly “elected” on the basis of anti-Semitic positions—a clear allusion to Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib, both of whom, it must be noted, have been the targets of death threats (and neither of which, I have argued repeatedly, is anti-Semitic).
Wisse is entitled to her opinions, even if they are incredibly ideological, historically questionable, and polemical. But it is simply false to state that she merely wished to talk about anti-Semitism, and not about Israel. Her entire account rested on two claims–the claim that Israel was the “historic homeland” of Jews, that had for thousands of years been occupied by others, and that had only in 1948 been reclaimed, and the claim that criticism of Israeli governing structures, policies, or treatment of Palestinians anywhere, is not simply anti-Semitic, but the most important and dangerous form of anti-Semitism.
I find Wisse’s position on these matters both problematic and offensive, as a thinking and feeling being who is a Jew, a U.S citizen, and a human. It is a shame that she was selected to be a featured lecturer at a panel on anti-Semitism, and that a respondent was not given equal time. Be that as it may, she has a right to speak, and she did. But it is simply false to claim that the protesters were raising irrelevant questions or that anything about their brief protest was anti-Semitic.
And after watching the video, I find it particularly strange that Ungar-Sargon would have published the piece as she did, with that title. She herself was not a featured speaker, only a brief commentator; she was not protested or shouted down at all (Wisse was); and if you watch the video of the entire proceeding, I think you will agree that from beginning to end she seemed relaxed, in good spirits, and neither besieged nor indignant. Furthermore, in her brief service as a commentator after Wisse’s talk, she asked excellent, skeptical questions of Wisse that seemed very close to the kinds of concerns being expressed by the protestors.
First she asked Wisse to explain her controversial Wall Street Journal article in which she stated that critics of Israel were more dangerous than neo-Nazis. Ungar-Sargon asked:
In casting the BDS movement to boycott Israel—an explicitly non-violent movement than many West Bank Palestinians credit with the radical drop in terror attacks against Israelis–in casting this non-violent movement as more dangerous than actual murder, aren’t you in a way, with all due respect, devaluing human life? In suggesting that a political movement that you don’t like or that offends you is worse than murder, doesn’t that erase the difference between politics and violence, isn’t that something of an insult to the dead?
And when Wisse more or less evaded this question, Ungar-Sargon followed up:
It seems to me that there is a difference between a politics organized around Jews qua Jews, and a politics that is organized around a sovereign state that happens to be made up of Jews. I can see why it is tempting to see those as one and the same . . . but the fact is that Israel is a sovereign state that is committing civil and human rights abuses . . . isn’t there a danger in treating that as the same as anti-Semitism that targets Jews who don’t have an army specifically to protect them?
These are excellent questions, and they speak to Ungar-Sargon’s intellectual integrity as a commentator. And it is worth noting that Wisse did not treat these questions with the seriousness they deserved. But my point is this: it is hard to see how any aspect of the event supports Ungar-Sargon’s claim that Israel was forced onto the agenda. Indeed, while Wisse was being challenged for her views on this topic, one of the challengers was Ungar-Sargon herself!
There is a lot going on here.
But upon further investigation and reflection, it is clear to me that if the Bard panel on anti-Semitism was diverted from a serious discussion of the topic, this was due to its featured speaker, Ruth Wisse, not the protesters. No one was being denounced for being Jewish. But one featured speaker who proudly articulated her Jewishness and her Zionism waschallenged for her essentialist linkage of the two, and for her very tendentious statements about Israel, Palestine, BDS, and everyone on the left who does not share her perspective on Israel.
Anti-Semitism is a very serious and dangerous form of racism that must be engaged and opposed by all who believe in human rights and dignity. However, being serious about it does not require suspension of moral judgments on a range of other topics. Palestinian rights are also important. So too are the rights of Kurds in Turkey and Syria. And Ughurs in China. And Central American refugees being incarcerated by ICE at the southern border of the U.S. It would be a good thing if everyone concerned took a deep breath and then thought hard about this.
Writing in 1953, Albert Camus observed that “the characteristic of the world in which we live in is just that cynical dialectic which sets up injustice against enslavement while strengthening one by the other . . . In such a disgusting attempt at outbidding, one thing only does not change—the victim, who is always the same.”
We can do better.
Jeffrey C. Isaac is James H. Rudy Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington. He is a Senior Editor at Public Seminar.