Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon got a shock last week when she discovered while taking part in a conference at Bard College that it is impossible to separate the discussion of anti-Semitism from one that focuses on Israel and Zionism. But while her experience was surprising on one level, it really should have been a given.
Ungar-Sargon was asked to speak at the conference hosted by Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center, where she was to be part of a discussion on “Racism and Zionism: Black-Jewish Relations.” Prior to that, she was slated to take part in another panel that was to discuss anti-Semitism along with Harvard University scholar Ruth Wisse and a Holocaust survivor. Students for Justice for Palestine, a group that actively promotes the BDS movement and which engages in anti-Semitic incitement, planned to protest at the conference. But what threw Ungar-Sargon for a loop was that these opponents of Israel weren’t going to be satisfied with protesting at the session about Zionism but would first seek to disrupt the one about anti-Semitism.
That session was the only one at the conference where the entire panel would be composed of Jews—and it was also the one that Israel haters planned to target. But what really shocked Ungar-Sargon was that members of the Bard faculty, as well as some of the other scholars and writers participating in the conference, supported this effort to challenge the presentation on anti-Semitism.
Not unreasonably, Ungar-Sargon understood this effort essentially to silence a discussion about Jew-hatred and to single out three Jewish speakers for opprobrium as itself an act of anti-Semitism.
But the conference organizers, along with many of the intellectuals present for the show, disagreed. As far as they were concerned, any talk about anti-Semitism was fair game for being hooted down because part of that discussion would inevitably focus on how Israel and its supporters are targeted in ways that are indistinguishable from classic hatred aimed at Jews. As Ungar-Sargon tried to point out, protesting Jews because of anger about Israel even when they are speaking about Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic. As she later wrote: “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.” The mere raising of the issue is unacceptable since it makes those who hate Israel feel “unsafe.”
The conference’s panel on anti-Semitism was disrupted. Protesters interrupted Wisse, and the question and answer session, until some were eventually removed. But not one of the scholars present in the audience sought to speak up against this effort to “cancel” and “de-platform” Jews who had the temerity to talk about Jew-hatred. Indeed, as Sargon-Ungar later heard, some of them thought it was wrong that a Palestinian hadn’t been added to the panel to create some “balance.”
At that point, she pulled out of the conference and angrily pointed out that had a panel of three African-Americans or three Muslims been treated in this fashion, neither the school nor the scholars present would have stood by, let alone cheered. The willingness of the Bard conference to tolerate attacks on these women because some people don’t like Israel was unacceptable, and she rightly called out their “cowardice” and “self-justifications.” Understandably, she walked saying she didn’t wish to hear from any of these “luminaries” again.
What makes this story important is that the Forward editor is a loud critic of Israel’s government and its policies.
As Ungar-Sargon tried to tell the protesters, she had looked forward to hearing their complaints about Israel in the session about Zionism. The opinion section she edits is one that has welcomed attacks on the right of the Jewish state to exist that would not appear in any mainstream Jewish publication. Nor does she share Wisse’s views—not only about Israeli politics but about the BDS movement, even if she doesn’t share its goal of eliminating the Jewish state.
Ungar-Sargon had hoped to be able to discuss the way extremists target Jews without bringing Israel into the discussion. But that is impossible because anti-Zionism is indistinguishable from anti-Semitism. Those who want to attack Israel aren’t willing to exempt other Jews—even those who are critics of the Jewish state, like Ungar-Sargon—from the same efforts to strip them of their humanity and dignity.
The dismay at the events that took place at Bard should not be confused with seeking to suppress criticism of Israel. In fact, the efforts to silence a discussion of anti-Semitism made it plain that hatred of Israel can’t be separated from the anti-Semitism and racism, which are integral to the anti-Zionist movement. Its premise is the attempt to deny to Jews that which no one seeks to deny to other people and, as such, is an expression of prejudice.
Anti-Zionists like Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.) often pose as victims of right-wing hate or Islamophobia, but their use of anti-Semitic rhetoric gives the lie to this masquerade. The same is true of those scholars at Bard who pretend to be advocates of free speech and free inquiry, except when it is a matter of Jews speaking about hatred of their fellow Jews.
This ought to be a wake-up call for those who still think that the war on Israel is about borders or settlements, and not anti-Semitism. As a recent study conducted by the Amcha initiative showed, anti-Semitic harassment of Jewish students on American college campuses jumped by 70 percent in the last year. Those who persist in believing that this alarming trend can be dealt with without confronting the essentially anti-Semitic nature of the BDS movement or by efforts to conciliate or legitimize these anti-Zionists are simply out of touch with reality.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.