columnBoycott, Divestment & Sanctions (BDS)

Who will defend Jewish students against anti-Semites?

If the Biden administration reverses Trump’s policy penalizing Jew-hatred on college campuses, it may be open season on pro-Israel kids for BDS advocates.

A panel of experts from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) discuss anti-Semitism in the media, campus and public life. Photo by Kineret Rifkind.
A panel of experts from the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) discuss anti-Semitism in the media, campus and public life. Photo by Kineret Rifkind.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Following the U.S. Capitol riot, there has been a renewed emphasis on the threat from white-supremacist hate groups from the Biden administration, much of the media as well as the organized Jewish community. The anti-Semitic imagery seen at the rally organized by former President Donald Trump as well as in the mob storming Congress was frightening. No one should discount the fact that although their numbers are few, such violent right-wing extremists are dangerous. If there was any complacency about such threats, the deadly attacks on synagogues in Pittsburgh and Poway, Calif., in 2018 and 2019 should have dispelled that notion. Jewish institutions should remain on alert, as they have been for years, and law enforcement should also be better prepared to act to prevent criminal behavior from such persons and groups.

But it’s equally true that just as a riot by a despicable mob was rhetorically inflated into an “insurrection” more as a way of expressing revulsion against Trump and partisan fury against his supporters than anything else, building these extremists up as being more than a marginal sub-sector of American society is just as dubious.

While we obsess about what the far-right is up to on college campuses around the country, the ordinary work of fighting the example of anti-Semitism that has the most impact on Jews on a day-to-day level continues.

The BDS movement continues to lose ground internationally as the four normalization agreements with Arab and Muslim countries concluded last year further undermine a movement that was already a terrible flop with respect to its efforts to damage Israel’s economy. But the impact of the hate spread by groups promoting boycotts of Israel and its supporters within the academy continues to be felt even as most students are studying remotely during the pandemic.

In that context, the most important questions about fighting anti-Semitism aren’t solely focused on white supremacists. Instead, the key variable is whether the federal government will continue—as it did under Trump but hadn’t under his predecessor, President Barack Obama—to protect Jewish students on campuses where anti-Semitic incitement is encouraged or tolerated.

As a feature published in The New York Times last week detailed, Jewish kids are still being bombarded with anti-Zionist propaganda and either shunned or marginalized if they aren’t willing to bend to the intellectual fashion of the day. As even Columbia University Professor Todd Gitlin, himself a leftist stalwart, acknowledged, “Hatred of Israel became a bellwether for the orthodox left,” meaning that acceptance of the delegitimization of Israel has become a litmus test for social acceptability. We are not unreasonably focused on right-wing lunatics with guns, but it is on college campuses that the most frequent interactions with anti-Semites occur for most American Jews.

Yet as the Times article made clear, in much of the mainstream media, the narrative about the fight against campus anti-Semitism is often flipped to portray the victims as the victimizers and the hate groups as an oppressed minority. When Jews band together to respond to the anti-Semitic invective of the BDS movement, those preaching hate against Jews and Israel cry foul, saying their right to free speech is being impinged upon by Zionist bullies.

A lot of the debate on this issue now is focused on how the reliance on technology for remote learning forced upon schools by the coronavirus pandemic has altered the playing field. Hosting veteran terrorists like Palestinian Leila Khaled at university symposiums on panels alongside others who promote hatred for Israel and Jews has become more difficult. Platforms like Zoom have found themselves in the cross-hairs of both outraged Jewish activists and the potential for being prosecuted for violating federal laws against facilitating terrorists.

The same people who complain are equally furious about activism from groups that seek to expose anti-Semites in academic settings. As the Times reports, the ability of groups like Canary Mission or cell-phone apps like Act.IL are especially frustrating because they have allowed the general public to better understand the anti-Jewish hate that has flourished at some universities. That’s a shock to elites who have heretofore felt invulnerable to public criticism for their attacks on Jewish targets.

In this same context, the pushback from left-wingers against the International Holocaust Remembrance Association’s definition of anti-Semitism, which has been accepted by the U.S. government and that of many other countries, is especially telling. The definition rightly declares that, among other things, judging Israel by a double standard and demonizing the one Jewish state on the planet and its backers is anti-Semitic. That means the BDS movement can’t continue to disingenuously claim to be merely expressing support for Palestinian or human rights when they engage in such conduct.

The key to this discussion isn’t so much whether some university administrations will wink at violations of the IHRA definition by BDS advocates or condemn them. Rather, it is whether the U.S. Department of Education will continue to enforce the law in such a way as to threaten schools where hate is tolerated with penalties involving cuts in federal funds.

That’s what happened while Trump appointees Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and department civil-rights chief Kenneth Marcus were in charge. It remains to be seen whether Biden’s appointees will be just as vigilant about policing anti-Semitism on campuses as they might be if it were African-Americans, Hispanics or other protected minority groups whose rights were being violated the way BDS threatens Jews. While liberal Jews routinely denounce Trump as an anti-Semite, they ignore the fact that whatever his other faults, this was an issue that he took a particular interest in, as even the recent Times feature conceded.

There are many within the Democrats’ left-wing base that have embraced intersectionality, critical race theory and its myths about Israel being an “apartheid state,” or the Palestinian war on its existence as akin to the U.S. civil-rights movement. But other mainstream liberals have also accepted the false arguments that ignore the evidence that BDS groups are anti-Semitic by virtue of their ideology and also engage in regular acts of Jew-hatred.

The government must not only understand that anti-Semitism exists on the left as well as the right. It must also realize that the former operates under respectable academic titles instead of being part of easily exposed and marginalized extremist groups as is the case with right-wingers. It is imperative that Biden’s Department of Education continue Trump’s policies of fighting anti-Semitism and enforcing the law in such a manner as to ensure that Jew-hatred is neither legitimized nor tolerated on college campuses. If not, all of the hot air we have been hearing from Biden’s supporters about fighting hate will be exposed as empty partisan rhetoric.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS—Jewish News Syndicate. Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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