(September 8, 2020 / JNS) The Middle East Studies Association (MESA), the largest academic organization for the field, has a long and ignominious record of defending apologists for Palestinian terrorism and BDS advocates, even as it opposes efforts to stem the rising tide of anti-Semitism on U.S. college campuses. To use a currently fashionable word, it evinces systemic anti-Israel bias. Even in light of this intolerant record, however, its latest effort to whitewash anti-Semitism at the University of Southern California stands out for its cynicism and deceitfulness.
A recent letter from MESA’s Committee on Academic Freedom purports to defend freedom of speech from Zionists’ efforts to censor criticism of Israel on campus. In fact, it endorses the “right” of anti-Semitic bullies to drive Jewish students who support Israel from campus leadership. Under the pretense of defending freedom of speech, it seeks to cancel Zionists for their beliefs. In the end, by omitting key facts and attributing demonstrably false motives to others, it succeeds only in embarrassing its authors and further degrading their organization.
Signed by MESA president Dina Rizk Khoury of George Washington University and academic freedom committee chair Zachary Lockman of New York University, the letter attacks USC president Carol Folt’s Aug. 6 “Message to the USC Community.” The catalyst for Folt’s action was the Aug. 5 resignation of USC student government vice president Rose Ritch, a rising senior who was subjected to what she and Folt characterize as anti-Semitic smears on her character triggered by her pro-Zionist beliefs.
Folt’s opening sentences state this clearly: “As you may know, our Vice President of Undergraduate Student Government, Rose Ritch, resigned yesterday from her position in student government. In her heartbreaking resignation letter, Rose described the intense pressure and toxic conditions that led to her decision—specifically the anti-Semitic attacks on her character and the online harassment she endured because of her Jewish and Zionist identities.”
Ritch’s resignation letter details her experience: “Because I also openly identify as a Zionist, a supporter of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, I have been accused by a group of students of being unsuitable as a student leader. I have been told that my support for Israel has made me complicit in racism, and that, by association, I am racist.” Over the summer, “Students launched an aggressive social-media campaign to ‘impeach [my] Zionist a**.’ ” Resignation, she wrote, “is the only sustainable choice I can make to protect my physical safety on campus and my mental health.”
An op-ed Ritch wrote for Newsweek further elucidates: “Let’s be clear: This is anti-Semitism. … Nearly 96 percent of American Jews support Israel as the Jewish state, inherently connected to our religious history and communal peoplehood. An attack on my Zionist identity is an attack on my Jewish identity. The suggestion that my support for a Jewish homeland would make me unfit for office, or would justify my impeachment, plays into the oldest and most wretched stereotypes of Jews: accusations of dual loyalty and holding all Jews responsible for the actions of the Israeli government.”
Readers of Khoury and Lockman’s letter will learn none of this. Blatantly distorting the record, they mention neither Ritch, nor the vicious anti-Semitism to which she was exposed that led Folt to insist that “it is critically important to state explicitly and unequivocally that anti-Semitism in all of its forms is a profound betrayal of our principles and has no place at the university.” These facts are central to the story. By omitting them, Khoury and Lockman demonstrate their contempt for the truth and their readers.
In a rhetorical sleight of hand, they first insist—against all evidence—that the situation at USC is “complex” and “difficult.”
“We are aware that your message was issued in response to and against the background of a series of complex developments” concerning “some members of the USC student government and their critics,” they write. It “is not our intent here to weigh in on the many serious and difficult issues these developments raise … .” No, their “concern is that, in the one public document you have issued to date on these complex matters, you have conflated anti-Zionism—criticism of Israeli actions and policies, and of Zionism as a political ideology—with anti-Semitism [emphasis added].”
Khoury and Lockman never identify these complex, difficult matters for an obvious reason—because there aren’t any. The motivation for Ritch’s resignation, as she explained repeatedly and passionately, is simple: Anti-Semites cited her Zionism as justification for declaring her unfit for office and launching vicious cyberattacks that made her fear for her physical safety. Knowing an accurate description of Ritch’s ordeal would expose their lies, Khoury and Lockman omitted it.
Having buried one inconvenient truth, Khoury and Lockman drag out one of MESA’s favorite canards: that Zionists necessarily conflate/equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism in a conspiracy to silence all criticism of the Jewish state. Lest their readers miss the point, they use the terms “conflate,” “conflated,” “conflation,” “equate” (twice) and “Israel” (three times). Through such trickery, they mendaciously claim that Folt “conflated anti-Zionism—criticism of Israeli actions and policies, and of Zionism as a political ideology—with anti-Semitism.” Her message’s “conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism”—not the relentless anti-Semitic attacks on Ritch they refuse to acknowledge—have “caused significant consternation and distress among USC student activists as well as faculty.” Hence, it is Folt’s letter that poses “the real threat to academic freedom and to the constitutionally protected right of free speech.”
These are boldfaced lies. Folt never mentions Israel at all, and uses “Zionism” only once when condemning “the online harassment [Ritch] endured because of her Jewish and Zionist identities.” In ascribing to USC’s president a desire to silence criticism of Israel, MESA reveals its implacable hostility to the Jewish state and its supporters, not a Zionist plot for campus domination. Declaring students like Rose Ritch unfit to serve in student government because of their support as Jews for Israel is why Folt wrote her letter to the USC community, a fact driven home by her use of “anti-Semitism” five times.
In what they intend as a coup de grace, Khoury and Lockman conclude by citing an unimpeachable authority, American Jewish Committee veteran and Bard Center for the Study of Hate director Kenneth Stern, whose webpage describes him as the “lead drafter of the ‘working definition’ of anti-Semitism now adopted by the U.S. Department of State.” One can almost sense the satisfaction with which MESA’s leaders must have written, “even Kenneth Stern, the lead author of the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, has, in testimony before Congress and elsewhere, opposed legislation or policies that conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.”
Not quite. Inconveniently for MESA, Stern is co-author of “Are You Now or Have You Ever Been a Zionist?”—an impassioned apologia for none other than USC undergraduate Rose Ritch. Let that sink in. The student whose existence and travails MESA refuses to acknowledge enjoys the unqualified support of Khoury and Lockman’s ringer, who turns out to be playing for the other team.
Don’t you just hate it when that happens?
Stern co-authored the piece, which appeared two weeks after MESA’s letter to Folt, with former AAUP president Cary Nelson and other executive committee members of the Alliance for Academic Freedom (AAF), which describes itself as “progressive scholars and academics who reject the notion that one has to be either pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian.”
Its first sentence leaves little doubt as to where its authors stand: “The Alliance for Academic Freedom condemns the treatment of Rose Ritch, a Jewish undergraduate at University of Southern California who resigned under pressure as vice president of the Undergraduate Student Government following a campaign that featured denunciations of her support for Israel, including some with anti-Semitic overtones.” So strongly does it support Ritch that it scolds Folt and other USC administrators and faculty for not speaking out earlier on her behalf. Its concluding paragraph contains words so pointed one wonders if some of its authors had MESA’s response in mind: “The convergence of hostility to the state of Israel, rising campus intolerance, and social media harassment campaigns has created a toxic environment on some campuses—leading, as they did here, to violations of academic freedom and fair treatment.”
Khoury and Lockman, speaking for the largest academic association for Middle East studies, omitted the heart of this sordid tale and twisted a university president’s words in their quest to delegitimize Israel and its supporters by stigmatizing them as threats to academic freedom. In practice, as Ritch’s cancelation demonstrates, MESA’s lies seek to legitimize anti-Semitism, stigmatize Zionism as a form of bigotry and declare open season on pro-Israel students. Scholars who respect truth and value common human decency should turn their backs on this disgraced organization.
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