Anti-Semitism, just like other forms of discrimination, evolves in meaning in ways that Jews and non-Jews alike should recognize.
“No one should have to turn down the #1 dream school in America out of fear,” declared a speaker at Stanford’s recent rally against anti-semitism. I applauded with the rest of the audience but also remembered the police officers standing behind me. Even back home in ‘friendly Canada,’ I used to see those uniforms every time I went to my synagogue and Jewish elementary school.This rally and other recent events on campus make us question our conceptions of anti-semitism. History is littered with attempts to cast Jews as overwhelmingly powerful, centrally important and responsible for society’s problems. While the Nazis scapegoated the Jews as Bolsheviks, the Soviets vilified Jews as capitalists, and the forged Protocols of the Elders of Zion from the late eighteenth century claimed to reveal the Jews’ plan for world domination. These outrageous lies and the violence that they prompted, clearly constitute ‘old anti-semitism.’
However, Israel’s creation and the old anti-semitism’s decline has forced conceptions of anti-semitism to evolve. As Professor Estelle Freedman explained at a recent campus event, old feelings toward the ‘Jewish other’ have not disappeared, but instead have been layered by more modern racial and political categorizations. Since 1948, accusations of Jewish ‘allegiance’ to Israel or ‘dual loyalty’ have emerged; these are sometimes harmless recognitions of fact, but often marginalize Jews. Of course, most Jews have some loyalty to Israel, whose existence fulfills the struggle of thousands of years. Yet Jews become uneasy when prominent groups, like The Center for American Progress, now use the white supremacist term “Israel-firsters” to discredit American Jewish commentators. These types of charges of disloyalty have been levelled at Jews for centuries.
When UCLA’s student government accused a Jewish student of being too “biased” to serve on a student judicial committee because she might have to vote on divestment, some saw it as part of an evolution in anti-semitism – the same accusations under the cover of loyalty to Israel, instead of the international Jewish conspiracy. This same effect explains many Jews’ reactions during the Molly Horwitz-SOCC controversy. Whatever question SOCC actually asked, many saw Judaism conflated with support for Israel, thus providing grounds for the exclusion and isolation of Jews.
While many students did not find the alleged question (“Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?”) problematic, it struck a paradox in the modern Jewish identity. We want to consider Israel as a homeland for Jews and a part of our identities, but, if opposition to Israel is a relevant criterion for Jewish candidates running for ASSU senator, a simple campus political position with little to do with Israel, it could become a criterion for a whole host of other positions. The fear is that, just as Brandon Eich was forced to resign as CEO of Mozilla for opposing gay marriage, other Jews could be excluded from high profile positions for their support of Israel. This fear may be hyperbolic, but it is not illogical; there will be the same impetus for the profiling of Jews every time Israel does something unpopular.
Charges of dual loyalty may also cover more sinister views. In Canada, Ukrainian-Canadian members of Parliament do not face extra-scrutiny of their motives or charges of “dual loyalties” when they lead Canada’s criticism of Russia. Likewise, Palestinian victims’ experiences are not dismissed on campus because of their supposed bias – nor should they be. A pluralistic society demands that we not begrudge minorities for retaining parts of their ethnic heritage that ties them to other nations.
But Jews are not treated like other minority groups. The New York Times recently published an article titled “Campus Debates on Israel Drive a Wedge Between Jews and Minorities” (emphasis added). Though I did not know Jews were no longer a minority, this distinction contains a certain logic. Jews sometimes claim to be a marginalized minority, expecting the support of the Left, but often find themselves spurned, even though 70% of American Jews vote Democrat. Instead, the Right, which often lambastes other minority groups’ claims of victimhood, embraces our cause. The Left vitriolically defends female, black, and Latino college students from the smallest microaggressions, ensuring that no one feels appropriated, excluded, or unsafe, but Jews are not given the same benefit of the doubt in similar circumstances. When allegations involve ‘anti-semitism’ instead of ‘racism,’ the Left suddenly rejects students’ subjective experiences. Maybe the Left, like the New York Times reporter, subconsciously does not identify Jews as minorities but instead as paragons of privilege who do not need protection. In the eyes of the Left, Jews became a part of the dominant power structure, and thus forfeited their status as a victimized class.
The other quandary of anti-semitism is how to treat Israel itself. Criticism of Israeli policy is not anti-semitic. However, during the divestment vote, Jewish students characterized the singling-out of Israel for divestment as anti-semitic while frustrated pro-divestment students claimed innocence. The standard argument was that anti-semitism accusations silence necessary criticism of Israel. However, this claim is false: most American newspapers have been harshly critical of Netanyahu, but did not call for divestment, and were not called anti-semitic.
Yet not all criticisms of Israel are fair, and some may be anti-semitic. For example, Egyptian media outlets engaged in anti-semitic scapegoating when blaming Israeli intelligence for a shark attack near an Egyptian beach. There is no clear line, but the State Department claims that criticism of Israel becomes anti-semitic when it engages in demonization, delegitimization, and/or double standards. The double standards clause is too broad, as double standards are applied to many nations, but the framework reasonably deconstructs obsessive criticism of Israel, such as in the UN, which condemned Israel 22 times between 2006 and 2007 but did not mention the Sudanese genocide in Darfur, for example.
The most important question for Stanford is whether divestment is a form of legitimate criticism of Israel, distinct from anti-semitism. The divestment movement on campus has claimed, somewhat believably, to be separate from the BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) movement against Israel. On May 12, The Economist wrote that, in light of “…the [BDS] campaign’s demand that Israel submit to an unconditional right of return for descendants of Palestinian refugees” from Israel’s 1948 War of Independence,
“Supporters must know that an influx of 5m Palestinians into pre-1967 Israel would…end…any possibility of Israel continuing to be a Jewish and democratic state…To sanction Israeli companies and universities until Israel agrees to implode is not quite kosher…[BDS] can only inspire resentment and retrenchment, not constructive dialogue, among students on college campuses.”
While The Economist does not call BDS anti-semitic, many prominent BDS leaders have made anti-Semitic claims, perhaps unsurprising for a movement calling for a full economic, cultural, and academic boycott of Israel. However, as current President of the ASSU, John-Lancaster Finley, memorably suggested, “Let’s forget the B and the S and just focus on that D.”
Divestment proposals, while often hyperbolic, bring up specific human rights abuses. Some of these are real and denying that fact is facile. However, it seems impossible for Israel not to have committed some wrongs during an ongoing 70-year war with an enemy that both uses human shields and suicide bombers and desires Israel’s extermination. Indeed, human rights abuses would justify divestment from most nations on earth, including America. It just seems that only the Jewish State is targeted for divestment. The argument for calling divestment anti-semitic is not that every divestment supporter personally hates Jews, but rather that the divestment unfairly singles out Israel for disassociation, one of the most intense of criticisms.
One reply is that Israel’s actions are particularly reprehensible, justifying divestment, yet Stanford invests in companies working in China, Russia, Saudi Arabia and Nigeria. Israel has a liberal democracy, gender equality, and a legal system better than most European countries’. Arabs serve as parliamentarians, diplomats, and judges on Israel’s Supreme Court. Israel has offered the Palestinians statehood three times in the last 15 years and unilaterally returned Gaza to Palestinian rule, only to see its peace offers rejected and the Gazan people elect a terrorist group. Moreover, many of the companies targeted merely sell technology and weapons to Israel. Divestment calls for these sales to stop, which would unjustly deprive Israel of the means to defend itself.
Others justify the outsized attention on Israel either because it is a democracy or because America gives Israel financial assistance. However, as a functioning democracy, Israel does not need drastic measures of isolation; its internal mechanisms allow it to improve its own human rights record, unlike Saudi Arabia and Egypt – nations which also receive significant American aid. The claim that we must divest on behalf of a particular group of Palestinian students is emotionally powerful, but would justify divestment from hordes of other countries, and completely ignores divestment’s effects on Jewish students.
Ultimately, the most effective response to charges of anti-semitism is that fighting one injustice does not require fighting every injustice, or even greater injustices. The obvious truth of this statement makes it crude to label the type of limited divestment that the ASSU has requested as automatically anti-semitic. That is not, however, to grant divestment advocates carte blanche. Someone with a more expansive definition of the new anti-semitism might very well disagree with me, and not without cause. In targeting only Israel, divestment perpetuates the myth of Jewish centrality, scapegoating Israel as among the most pressing of the world’s’ problems, labelling Israelis as inhuman and unfeeling child-killers, and offering only one solution: marginalization, the goal of the anti-semites of the ages.
Apparently only the actual rogue states of the world require engagement, cooperation and inclusion in the global community.
As David Brooks writes in the New York Times, “The United States is also seeing a rise in the number of anti-Semitic incidents. But this country remains an astonishingly non-anti-Semitic place. America’s problem is the number of people who can’t fathom what anti-Semitism is or who think Jews are being paranoid or excessively playing the victim.” Ironically, American college students are so blessed to be unfamiliar with anti-semitism that they risk dismissing it altogether, even when its strains re-emerge in non-obvious forms.
My conclusions may seem to cast Jews as perpetual victims of anti-semitism or near anti-semitism, but I disagree. Although the ‘new anti-semitism’ – the obsessive criticisms of Israel and accusations of dual loyalty – echoes old tropes, it does not justify self-pity. Jews are strong in America, and 7 in 10 Americans claimed to view Israel favorably in both 2014 and 2015. Jews do not have to fear anti-semitism in America anymore. Instead, we can fight it.