In a speech delivered to a joint session of Congress fewer than two weeks after September 11th, the much maligned President Bush repeatedly distinguished between the radical Muslims who had attacked us and Muslims in general. Toward the end of the speech, he reminded Americans not to single out Arabs or Muslims for the actions of a fringe: “We’re in a fight for our principles, and our first responsibility is to live by them. No one should be singled out for unfair treatment or unkind words because of their ethnic background or religious faith.”
I was reminded of this statement as I read an account of an attack on a Jewish student at Temple yesterday. Almost everything about this incident is in dispute, and we’ll have to wait and see what an investigation reveals. What is not in dispute is this: in front of a table run by Students for Justice in Palestine, during an argument about Israel, one “pro-Palestinian” student, hit another, Jewish “pro-Israel” student.
In response to this incident, Students for Justice in Palestine has denied “right wing” charges of antisemitism and insisted that their “opposition to all forms of structural racism” includes antisemitism. Although Vassar College’s SJP clearly crossed the line into antisemitism last year, I see no reason not to believe that the vast majority of SJP student members reject antisemitism sincerely and vigorously. I just wish this acknowledgement were not always uttered from a defensive crouch, coupled with the charge, or at least the implication, that antisemitism is largely the invention of a hysterical or calculating pro-Israel right wing.
As Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt reminded us yesterday, antisemitism is on the rise in Europe and was on the rise before the most recent Gaza conflict. In Germany, we actually have demonstrators chanting “Hamas! Hamas! Jews to the gas!” Lipsdadt says that “instead of explaining away these actions, cultural, religious and academic leaders in all the countries where these events have occurred should be shaken to the core, not just about the safety of their Jewish neighbors, but about the future of the seemingly liberal, enlightened societies they belong to.”
In making its denunciation of antisemitism an afterthought in a statement directly responding to accusations of antisemitism, the SJP students merely follow the lead of movement leaders whose college days are long behind them. So, although large numbers of Jews have considered leaving Europe, and although there is no question that synagogues have been targeted by anti-Israel forces, anti-Zionist outlets like Mondoweiss have concentrated almost entirely on looking for holes in whatever stories of antisemitism they can question. Another strategy is to concede the existence of antisemitism but blame it on Israel’s defenders. As Steven Salaita, the professor who may have lost his University of Illinois job offer over the stridency of his anti-Israel comments tweeted: “by eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror.”
William Jacobson, whose story on the Temple incident I have linked to, predicts that anti-Israel sentiment on campus will be much more intense this year and that some of it will lead to violence. And although being anti-Israel is analytically distinct from being anti-Jewish, experience tells us that anti-Israel activism will sometimes cross the line into antisemitism. It would be nice, and might even help, if leaders of the anti-Israel movement on our campuses were to take the lead in conceding the threats of violence and antisemitism and get out in front of those threats, rather than mentioning antisemitism only when they are in damage control mode. It is time they learned a lesson from President Bush.