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Imagine if a group of white nationalists marched through the campus of any major university in the United States calling for the lynching of African-Americans. Much like the neo-Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, the incident would have been on the front page of every newspaper in the country. From coast to coast, politicians would have denounced it as evidence of the irredeemably racist nature of American society. And if any students were involved, they would have been quickly suspended and likely expelled.
Yet when a group of pro-Palestinian students marched through the University of Michigan earlier this month chanting calls for “intifada”—terrorist attacks on Jews—the nation yawned. Some conservative publications reported it and a few politicians, like Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), denounced it. But it rated nary a mention in The New York Times and The Washington Post or on CNN.
While many Jewish groups angrily denounced the incident, liberal Jewish opinion was unimpressed. Forward columnist Rob Eshman not only dismissed it as a meaningless kerfuffle. He also wrote that the anger on the part of Zionist Jews and their concerns about the impact of calls for Jewish blood to be spilled would have on Jewish students was an example of how American Jews were nothing but a bunch of “snowflakes” who were afraid of debating the actions of an Israeli government that wasn’t really in sync with liberal values.
And that is why this year, like every other year, I’m not terribly impressed by the fuss made over International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
While Israel and much of the Jewish community remember the 6 million slain during the Holocaust on Yom Hashoah, which falls between Passover, and Israel’s Memorial and Independence Day commemorations (this year it falls on April 18), the United Nations and most of the world prefer Jan. 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz in 1945.
The solemn speeches and ceremonies held on this date may in many cases be well-intended. They may help keep alive the memory of the slaughter of European Jews by the German Nazis and their collaborators. But if there’s anything we should have learned about Holocaust education and commemoration, it’s that it does little to fight contemporary antisemitism.
The relentless efforts to universalize the Shoah strips the event of its uniqueness and waters any concern down to a meaningless desire to combat intolerance. That misunderstands the nature of antisemitism, which while able to morph into different shapes to adapt to its being co-opted by fascists, Nazis, Communists, Islamists and today, woke intersectional ideologues, is essentially a political virus. Its purpose is not an example of “man’s inhumanity to man.” It seeks to achieve political goals by directing hate at Judaism, Jews and the Jewish state.
More to the point, most of the pious speechifying and expressions of sorrow about the Holocaust are pointedly detached from any concern about threats to the State of Israel and the right of the Jews who live there to defend themselves against those who would like to perpetrate another Holocaust against them.
As the title of Dara Horn’s book taught us, “people love dead Jews.” It’s the live ones, especially those who seek to assert their rights and defend themselves, that much of the world either can’t stand or couldn’t care less about.
And that brings us back to the incident at the University of Michigan.
It is telling that much of supposedly enlightened liberal opinion has a problem with the definition of antisemitism provided by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA). They don’t like it because it specifically cites calls for the destruction of the Jewish state, and comparisons between Israel and the Nazis, as evidence of antisemitism. Left-wingers want to create a separation wall between hatred for living Jews and the crocodile tears they shed for those murdered by the Nazis.
Those who are persuaded by such specious arguments are ignoring the fact that for contemporary antisemites, Israel is the stand-in for traditional tropes of hatred that are directed at Jews. As the IHRA definition makes clear, the attempts to judge Israel’s conduct in the course of defending itself against efforts to destroy it by double standards that are not applied to any other democracy aren’t merely hypocritical. They are evidence of a virulent form of prejudice against Jews.
But the point about the “intifada” march at the Ann Arbor campus of the University of Michigan is that those who defend it—or, as in the case of Eshman, rationalize or excuse it—aren’t just confusing the notion of “criticism” of Israel with an antisemitic BDS campaign or advocacy for violence. Millions of Israelis get up every day and criticize their government in much the same way as hundreds of millions of Americans do about theirs. The point of anti-Zionist activism is to eliminate the one Jewish state on the planet—not to seek to modify its policies or adjust its borders. Since anti-Zionism seeks to deny to Jews that which no one would dare deny to anyone else, the claim that it should not be categorized as merely one more variant of antisemitism is a big lie.
Moreover, Jews who complain about calls for their deaths are not weak-kneed “snowflakes” who run for cover at the first sign of dissent against their beliefs or seek to suppress opposing views. That’s not just because no one would dare say the same about African-Americans who challenged racist attacks on their community in the way that they question the right of Jews to be outraged over antisemitic advocacy.
The atmosphere on many, if not most, U.S. campuses is one in which pro-Israel voices are often intimidated into silence. As the recent controversy over the offer of a fellowship to Kenneth Roth, the Israel-hating and antisemitic former head of Human Rights Watch at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government illustrated, anti-Zionism has become normalized in American higher education. Pro-Israel academics must either keep quiet or seek another way to make a living while those who spread toxic myths about the Jewish state are celebrated.
That has a profound impact on Jewish students. They know that speaking up for their people puts them at odds with fashionable liberal opinion, which has embraced the toxic myths of intersectionality in which Jews and Israel are falsely labeled as beneficiaries of “white privilege.” Those who seek Israel’s destruction are wrongly treated as victims, rather than supporters of terrorism and genocide against Jews. Those who think Jews should be willing to debate the merits of arguments for their slaughter are either confused about the nature of Palestinian nationalism and terrorism or morally bankrupt. In some cases, the obvious answer is that both judgments apply to their advocacy.
The liberal willingness to tolerate calls for the death of Jews in the name of free speech isn’t merely hypocritical. It’s also disingenuous. It’s a reflection of a desire to normalize that which no one would think of normalizing when it came to hatred directed at any other ethnic or religious group.
Those who are prepared to label calls for the shedding of Jewish blood as simply an argument about which reasonable people can disagree are not only engaging in a disreputable type of advocacy. They are also reminding us just how meaningless so much of the commemoration of the Holocaust has become. The only true or meaningful monument to the 6 million is the Jewish state that was created too late to save them, but which can prevent future attempts to slaughter the Jews. Anyone—whether Jewish or non-Jewish—who doesn’t understand this has no business commenting on the subject.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.
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