As Jews were protested for trying to talk about anti-Semitism

Disagreement, dissent, protest – how do we do it, how do we do it fairly and reasonably, can we avoid doing it unfairly and unreasonably? Batya Ungar-Sargon writes about being protested at Bard College for being a Jew:

When I was asked to speak at last week’s conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center, I think my heart actually skipped a beat.

Arendt, the German-born political philosopher who fled the Nazis in the 1930s and eventually settled in New York, is the thinker who has most deeply influenced me, and racism and anti-Semitism are two topics I think about constantly, the most pressing issues of our time. It was the perfect combination of topic and venue, and the list of confirmed speakers included luminaries whose work I had read, whose writing and thinking I deeply admired.

I was invited to host a breakout session of my choosing, and I proposed a workshop on navigating other people’s opinions in the age of Trump – a topic of deep importance to my work as Opinion Editor of The Forward, where we insist on representing the full gamut of legitimate opinion. Ten days before the conference started on Thursday, I found out I would also be one of three people on a panel called “Racism and Zionism: Black-Jewish relations,” and moderator of another session, with Ruth Wisse, a Harvard professor of Yiddish literature and scholar of Jewish history and culture, and Shany Mor, an Israeli thinker who is affiliated with the Hannah Arendt Center.

She read up, she formulated questions, she made big plans. It was mostly wasted effort.

When the conference began Thursday morning, I was warned that protesters from the Bard chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine planned to interrupt my panel with Wisse and Mor. I was surprised they were not targeting the one on Zionism, but the one on anti-Semitism, the only panel of about 20 over the course of the two-day program where three Jews would be discussing the topic.

“But we’re not even talking about Israel,” I said to the conference organizers. “How does that make sense?”

It makes sense only if it makes sense to think all Jews, Jews as such, are implicated in what Israel does. That seems to make about as much sense as thinking all black people are implicated in what Robert Mugabe did, which is to say, zero sense.

“The conversation about anti-Semitism is already inherently about Israel,” one of the students archly explained, repeating a deeply anti-Semitic trope that has been voiced across the spectrum from David Duke to Louis Farrakhan to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters. Right-wing anti-Semites see any accusation of anti-Semitism as a Jewish conspiracy to take away the rights of whites, while left-wing anti-Semites sees the same accusation as an attempt to silence Palestinians.

It’s Trump-level “thinking.”

When the protesters proceeded to interrupt Wisse, they were applauded by several of our fellow conference speakers in the audience. These vaunted intellectuals, flown in from across the country to discuss racism, were commending a display of racism against Jews.

This was much more horrifying than the students’ chanting and leafletting, which failed to stop the indomitable Wisse from having her say, defining anti-Semitism as any political organizing against Jews (I have been told since that two students were removed, something I didn’t see from the stage, but the rest stayed). Not one of our fellow conference speakers got up and exercised their free speech rights to call the protest what it was. Not one came over to us after to express shock and horror that three Jews would be denounced for Israel’s actions while attempting to discuss anti-Semitism in America.

She threw out her preparations for the next day and made new ones.

So when I was introduced the next morning, I pulled out a new set of remarks. I directly addressed these academics and writers and intellectuals who were brought to Bard to speak about how to fight racism and anti-Semitism. I told them I was appalled that not one of them had called out this blatantly racist act, the way they surely would have if it had been three Muslims on the dais, or three black speakers — or at least, the way I would have in that scenario.

“I’m horrified by your cowardice. By your self-justifications,” I read from the new set of remarks I had written the night before. “You, who I called luminaries! Whose books I’ve read! There’s nothing more I want to say to you or hear from you.

“The next time someone says, ‘What have you done to help Jews as anti-Semitism has spiked across the nation, as Jews have been murdered at their place of worship and Orthodox Jews get beaten to a pulp day after day in Brooklyn,’ you can say, ‘I sat idly by as Jews were protested for trying to talk about anti-Semitism. I allowed a Jewish woman to be held accountable — because of her ethnicity — for the actions of a country halfway around the world where she can’t even vote. I egged the protest on, in fact. And then I went to a party.’”

There is no debate possible when people think that your very humanity is up for debate, something my fellow conference goers no doubt accept as obviously true when it comes to anti-Black racism or anti-Muslim racism. And yet somehow, when it comes to anti-Jewish racism — holding one Jew accountable for the actions of another simply because they are Jewish — no one bats an eye.

It occurs to me that Jews have a special status in lefty thinking that’s quite similar to that of women. Both of us turn out to be dispensable, problematic, “privileged,” spoiled, not really all that oppressed after all. Both of us turn out to be the ones who can be tossed overboard when the water rises. Both of us turn out to be implicated in whatever any of us do “wrong” when that doesn’t apply to the truly oppressed. Both of us turn out to be just pretending to be an oppressed group who were actually the oppressors all along.

How did we get here?

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