The controversy at CUNY over a recent vote by the Doctoral Students’ Council to boycott Israeli academic institutions and support Students for Justice in Palestine, which has fielded accusations of anti-Semitic activities, is just the latest skirmish in the campus wars over anti-Semitism.
When do legitimate but contentious opinions cross the line into bigotry, or speech and activism into harassment? The questions have arisen on college campuses recently, certainly not just in debates on Israel. But progressive students acutely sensitive to other forms of bias are often disturbingly blind to anti-Jewish hate.
For some, anti-Zionism is itself anti-Semitic, because it denies Jews national self-determination. The University of California Board of Regents’ recent statement condemning anti-Semitism on campus was originally going to include a condemnation of anti-Zionism, but that language was amended after criticism from students and others. UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, himself pro-Israel, wrote on his blog that such a condemnation would “chill debate” and that “whether the Jewish people should have an independent state in Israel is a perfectly legitimate question to discuss,” just as it’s legitimate to debate statehood for Kurds, Basques or Tibetans. (Or, many would say, for Palestinians.)
Yet in practice, as the regents’ final statement noted, “opposition to Zionism is often expressed in ways that are . . . also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people.” Examples from the University of California include bathroom graffiti saying, “Zionists should be sent to the gas chamber.” At Stanford, where the student senate debated its own anti-Semitism resolution earlier this month, an anonymous poster on one of the school’s online forums derided the “hypocrisy” of supporting speech against Israel but not against Jews.
Meanwhile, Oberlin assistant professor Joy Karega, a proponent of boycotting Israel, has drawn attention with Facebook posts that not only blamed Israeli secret operations for most Islamist terrorism but recycled anti-Semitic caricatures. One featured a graphic with a purported quote from Jewish banker Jacob Rothschild: “We own your news, the media, your oil, and your government.”
Today, campus social justice activists often argue that even speech that addresses legitimate topics of discussion, such as same-sex marriage and rape law, should be curbed if it makes “marginalized people” feel “unsafe.” Yet they often ignore or condone manifestations of anti-Semitism. On the website Minding the Campus, Southern Connecticut State University associate professor Corinne Blackmer writes that at a recent Faculty Senate meeting, a report of a Muslim student receiving a negative remark about her hijab sparked outraged calls for action against Islamophobia — while a mention of swastikas painted in a bathroom got little reaction.
Worse, during the debate about the resolution at Stanford, student senator Gabriel Knight objected to the statement that talk of “Jews controlling the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions” is anti-Semitic. Knight asserted that “questioning these potential power dynamics” is a “valid discussion.”
The reasoning is telling. For many on the left, Jews in America are too successful for prejudice against them to count as bigotry. One can encounter the argument that Holocaust survivors were still beneficiaries of “white privilege.” The preoccupation with “power dynamics” and “privilege” is causing some progressives to fall for reactionary clichés about Jewish power.
Concern with anti-Semitism on campus should not turn into another demand for “safe spaces” protected from insensitive debates. But bigotry exists, and while its expression is protected by the First Amendment, it must be recognized for what it is.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.