Get Smart: A Review of Kenneth Stern’s “The Conflict over the Conflict”

Kenneth Stern, author of The Conflict over the Conflict, carries credentials. From 1989 to 2014, he served the American Jewish Committee as an expert on antisemitism. In 1999-2000, Stern helped defend Deborah Lipstadt when she was sued for libel by Holocaust denier David Irving. Amid an increase in antisemitic hate crimes in Europe after 2000, Stern took the lead in drafting the definition of antisemitism published in 2005 by the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, a definition since adopted in its essentials by the U.S. State Department and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. To Stern’s chagrin, the definition was also picked up in Donald Trump’s 2019 Executive Order on Combating Antisemitism.

We’ll come back to that chagrin. It remains to note that Stern has fought the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to turn Israel into a pariah state until, among other conditions, it ceases to occupy “all Arab lands.” It is a strength of The Conflict over the Conflict that Stern says what careless journalists skirt, namely that BDS is not primarily about the West Bank or Netanyahu, but about “Israel’s existence.” Getting to work even before the BDS movement fully took shape, Stern has been prominent in efforts, often successful, to persuade non-Israeli academics to reject boycotts of Israeli universities and scholars. When those efforts have failed, as in the case of Britain’s University and College Union, he has helped organize powerful responses from the wider academic community.

I rehearse this record to suggest we hear Kenneth Stern out when he writes that the Israel-Palestinian conflict “makes people nuts,” pro-Israel people not excepted.

In what does this nuttiness consist? It consists in part in denying the obvious. It’s obvious that the BDS movement is tainted with antisemitism. The “opening shot in a new international movement of anti-Israel organizing,” of which BDS is the main event, was fired in Durban, South Africa at the 2001 U.N. World Conference against Racism, which included a main conference and associated meetings. There, “antisemitic tracts were readily available.” “Cartoons showed Jews with large hooked noses, with fangs dripping blood.” Given the marriage of textbook antisemitism and “venomous anti-Israel pronouncements” at Durban, it is no surprise that a year later, at San Francisco State University, pro-Israel demonstrators found themselves surrounded by pro-Palestinian demonstrators shouting “Hitler didn’t finish the job” and “Get out or we’ll kill you.” But proponents of BDS, while they issue general denunciations of antisemitism, treat charges that their movement is tainted with antisemitism with righteous disdain.

It’s also obvious that not all adherents of BDS are antisemites. It’s true, as Stern reports, that BDS revives the “Zionism is racism” charge, advanced in the United Nations in 1975, denounced by Daniel Patrick Moynihan as antisemitic, and repealed by the U.N. in 1991. It’s true that this charge suggests the Jewish claim to national self-determination is alone blameworthy. It isn’t true that all, or even most, adherents of BDS have thought this through. Yet, Stern observes, an outfit called Canary Mission, which seeks to damage the employment prospects of those it deems antisemitic, enjoys considerable support in the pro-Israel community. It’s mad to seek to harm young people whose involvement in BDS may have extended no further than voting, as a student senator, to hold an Israel divestment vote by secret ballot. Yet Canary Mission profiles such people, displays their faces, and encourages us to punish them.

Even attacking students with thicker connections to BDS in this way is unlikely to advance Israel’s cause among non-aligned professors, who may notice that students who advocate for a bad cause can be thoughtful, decent, and wholly undeserving of having their job prospects dashed. It feels good to play dirty when the other side plays dirty, but, Stern argues, one shouldn’t “confuse feeling good with being smart.”

Let’s return to Stern’s chagrin concerning President Trump’s 2019 executive order, which reaffirms that Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, prohibiting “discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving Federal financial assistance,” can apply to antisemitism. That’s good. But the order also calls for the use, in guiding Title VI investigations, of a version of the definition of antisemitism Stern drafted. That definition gave examples of speech that might be antisemitic, including various kinds of anti-Israel speech. According to Stern, those examples were intended to aid those seeking to understand and respond to antisemitism. It’s quite another matter to use them in investigations, backed by a federal government empowered to cut off a college’s funding, into constitutionally protected speech.

Stern is chagrined, then, not because he hates Trump—his position on Title VI predates the Trump administration—but because he thinks the fight against antisemitism should respect First Amendment principles. Stern has been roundly criticized by people I admire for opposing the use of his definition in Title VI investigations. But I think he’s right that nervous college administrators, none-too-reliable on free speech issues, will, if the President’s order remains in effect, err toward sanctioning, or endlessly investigating, protected speech. It feels good to have another weapon against antisemitism. But it may not be smart, particularly for conservatives otherwise inclined to demand free speech, to pretend not to know how well-intentioned efforts to combat hate can do more harm than good.

Perhaps the most striking element of the nuttiness Stern describes is how easy it has been for activists to turn American campuses, where few know or care about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, into information war theaters. Stern “both sides” this element too much, attributing to “outside pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian groups” the impetus to substitute propaganda and counter-propaganda for worthy investigation into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In truth, on our left-liberal campuses, the call often comes from inside the house, placed by professors who consider free speech and academic freedom masks for oppression. It won’t do to exaggerate the influence of campus anti-Zionists and their allies, but it also won’t do to understate it. If outside groups are on the academy’s back, it’s in part because the academy is not a reliable steward of its own mission, cherished and articulated well by Stern, of free inquiry.

Yet Stern recognizes that colleges don’t do enough to support that mission. Many “campuses are helping students avoid intellectual stress, rather than cultivating an environment in which they relish being unsettled by ideas.” There are too many workshops that prescribe to students what words they can safely use and not enough that “help students enjoy learning how to create UNSAFE intellectual spaces safely.” Students, like non-students, are too prone to avoid hard thinking. The cognitive odds, Stern indicates, are stacked against addressing the complexities of charged subjects like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Overcoming those odds requires “a long term approach towards increasing teaching by faculty who are committed to addressing the complexities.” Colleges must not only resist those “trying to arm their students to be proxy warriors” but also cultivate a pride in being reasonable that can compete with the pleasures of partisanship.

The effects of this approach will be hard to discern in the short-term, and it may not produce pro-Israel partisans to do battle with anti-Israel partisans even in the long-term. What it might do is make our campuses less fertile grounds for propagandizers of all sorts. That may not feel as good as fighting fire with fire. But for forces often outnumbered on campus, it may be smart.


Image: Philafrenzy, Public Domain

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks

Jonathan Marks, author of "Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education," is professor of politics at Ursinus College.

One thought on “Get Smart: A Review of Kenneth Stern’s “The Conflict over the Conflict””

  1. “It’s obvious that the BDS movement is tainted with antisemitism.”

    It isn’t even that as much as it is illiberal and anti-western, it is an attack on all (small “l”) liberal values.

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