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The Politics of Antisemitic Flyers at UIC

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By Robert Jennings

In the days leading up to March 16, 2017, a series of antisemitic flyers were posted at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC). Internal discussion on the TTN listserv –and the differences in perception between those who are actually at UIC and those who are not — illustrate the necessity of including progressive Zionists in social justice coalitions in order to avoid potentially disastrous failures of communication.

Who made these flyers? They were interesting for the fact they used social justice and anti-Zionist language traditionally associated with the far left, but also contained certain blatantly antisemitic statements usually avoided by the left, and traditionally associated with the racist right. 

Our TTN colleague Rebecca Lesses, writing from New York State (where she teaches at Ithaca College), concludes that these posters were probably produced by neo-Nazis attempting to appropriate social justice language in order to recruit anti-Zionists to their cause:

“Notice that there is an ideological contradiction between posters #4 and #5. Number #4 complains that Holocaust deniers aren’t allowed to ‘ask their questions’ about the Holocaust (implying that it didn’t occur), while Number #5 admits that the Holocaust (or at least the killings at Auschwitz) happened.

#4

Poster #4: Referring sympathetically to Holocaust-denier David Irving.

poster #1

Poster #1: “Ending White Privilege … Starts with Ending Jewish Privilege”

#5

Poster #5: Equating the Gaza Strip to Auschwitz — “The largest Concentration Camp in the world today is owned and operated by Zionists”

“So who created these posters? People from the far left (#3 and #5) or from the far right (#1, #2, and #4)? My guess is the posters were created by a person or people on the far right who used left-wing themes in two of the posters in an attempt to co-opt left-wing pro-Palestinian supporters whom they think would also be open to antisemitic ideas.”

Antisemitic poster #2

Poster #2: “Ending White Privilege … Intersects Ending Jewish Privilege”

Poster #3: Referring to "Jewish 'donations'" as causing the firing of Steven Salaita.
Poster #3: Referring to Jewish money as causing the firing of controversial professor Steven Salaita.

This is also the conclusion of our TTN colleagues from UIC itself, Sam Fleischacker and Robert Johnston, who were involved in discussions with other campus minority representatives regarding a statement condemning the flyers. Drs. Fleischacker and Johnston are both members of UIC’s Jewish Studies Program, and Dr. Fleischacker signed the statement as its chair. A joint statement reads as follows:

On March 16, a series of flyers were posted on University of Illinois at Chicago’s (UIC) campus that exploit social justice issues to spread anti-Semitic views. First and foremost, as units on campus that work at the forefront of UIC’s commitment to diversity and social justice, we condemn all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness or any forms of hatred, phobia, or dehumanization.

Secondly, the damaging and hurtful nature of these posters is that they seek to malign and divide some of the very groups that are fighting injustice and xenophobia in the first place. They erroneously depict the groups “Black Lives Matter” and “We are Muslims” as authors of the anti-Semitic hateful flyers. No specific group takes credit but hashtags are added to suggest authorship of the incendiary flyers by Black and Muslim/Arab organizations. If real groups authored these flyers, why not take credit? If they did not want to be associated, why incriminate their movements? It makes no sense. Moreover, the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag is not even the # most commonly used by either the national or Chicago chapter, neither of which know anything about the origin of these flyers. 

Many of us either work with or have students involved with Chicago’s Black Lives Matter, Palestine solidarity and Muslim organizations on campus and in the city. These groups would never circulate anti-semitic or hateful literature like this. It is antithetical to their mission and work. These fake posters are consistent with a long history whereby hate groups have cited marginalized communities as authors of hate speech to smear them and incite mistrust between them. They serve the goals of both provoking anti-Semitic hatred and justifying the targeting of Palestine solidarity and Black Lives Matter movements, wrongly indicting them as purveyors of hate. 

We stand united against hatred and discrimination against all communities. 

We condemn these anti-Semitic assaults as well as the divisive suggestion that Black and Muslim students are the source of this racism. 

We disavow any attempt to use the painful realities of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict or the Holocaust as fodder for anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and anti-Blackness. 

We will not allow this or any incident to pit one of our communities against the other.

Before members of the TTN community were able to communicate with Drs. Fleischacker and Johnston, who had first-hand knowledge of the situation at UIC, this statement gave the impression — to us as outside observers who nonetheless have a stake in how campus antisemitism is addressed — as being self-serving and intellectually dishonest. Dr. Lesses writes:

“In my opinion, this statement is mostly intended to prove how pure the authors of the statement are of antisemitism – even though there is antisemitism in the pro-Palestinian movement, which its leaders hardly ever acknowledge (and sometimes spread themselves), and both the pro-Palestinian movement and some parts of the Black Lives Matter movement make statements calling for the dismantling of the state of Israel, which I regard as antisemitic. It’s also intended to portray themselves as equal victims of these posters — even the headline to the article grabs the attention away from the explicitly anti-Jewish nature of the posters.

“It’s also remarkable that the statement says nothing about supporting Jewish students or faculty at UIC, or Jews in the city of Chicago. This also says to me that the main interest is to distance themselves from the flyers, rather than stand in actual solidarity with Jews.”

Also of concern is the fact that the only off-campus location where the statement has appeared, as far we can tell, is on Mondoweiss, an extreme-left anti-Zionist website — run by Jews, to be sure, but run by Jews who, as pointed out by Yair Rosenberg in Tablet, make a career out of blurring the line between anti-Zionism and antisemitism.

Our TTN colleagues at UIC, Sam Fleischacker and Robert Johnston, both point out that the statement was not originally intended for Mondoweiss, and that Jewish Studies was not consulted on the wording. Unity between minority communities and the need to build coalitions in the shadow of the Trump administration were the #1 consideration for Jewish Studies in signing on to the statement. Dr. Fleischacker writes:

“Jewish Studies signed this statement out of appreciation for the fact that faculty across the University were speaking out against anti-Semitism, and recognition of the need for the campus to be unified in our rejection both of the anti-Semitism of the posters and of their attempt to imply that major Arab, Muslim and Black groups were promoting such anti-Semitism.  We were not consulted in the wording of the statement, and were not entirely comfortable with that wording.  Nor were we consulted in the way the statement was publicized and would have objected, had we been asked, to its being placed on Mondoweiss.  Nevertheless, we continue to feel that having our faculty stand in solidarity at this point is important, and hope that nuanced discussions of the relationship between Jews and Zionism can follow at a future date.”

Dr. Johnston notes that many Jewish faculty uncomfortable with the statement agreed that it was, on the whole, positive, as it provided an opportunity for coalition-building with other minority groups with whom relations can be tense.  On a campus with a heavy representation of undocumented and Muslim students, non-engagement is not an option, even if coalition-building will understandably be fraught.

Evidence of what this coalition-building might look like exists in the statement released by UIC’s Arab American Cultural Center (ARABAMCC), which issued a much more straightforward and to-the-point statement of solidarity with Jewish students — with no conditioning of solidarity on any Jewish commitment to anti-Zionism.  Such an expression of solidarity with Jews as Jews, without mentioning Israel/Palestine politics, nor putting any political conditions upon it, is a good sign:

“THE ARAB AMERICAN CULTURAL CENTER AT UIC STANDS IN UNITY WITH OUR CAMPUS’ JEWISH STUDENTS, FACULTY, AND STAFF

“March 16, 2017

“Yesterday, fliers were distributed around campus targeting the Jewish population on our campus. This incident, coupled with the proliferation of anti-Semitic statements and attacks on Jewish community centers, graveyards, and synagogues is a reminder that white supremacy remains a powerful force and impacts our campus.

“We fear that the unleashing of racist and fascist projects on a national scale has helped to legitimize such attacks against the Jewish population, as well as those against Black, Latinx, Native American, Asian, Arab, and Muslim people. These realities make it more urgent than ever to boldly condemn anti-Semitism and to affirm, in speech and practice, a safe and welcoming campus free of anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, and all forms of racism and dehumanization.

“We believe that our well-being as a campus community depends on refusing to tolerate violence and hatred, reclaiming safety, and building mutually supportive communities.”

So things are tense yet hopeful. One thing is certain, however: some element, probably neo-Nazis, is trying to exploit already-existing tensions between Jewish and other minority students in order to further turn us against each other. The difficult work of coalition-building must begin. Because the white supremacy that the Trump regime has promoted — and that the Netanyahu government in Israel has sold out both American Jews and the Israeli Opposition to ignore, for the sake of good relations with the Trump regime — is a threat to all of us.

Traditional postcolonial and intersectional alliances which treat Jews (or at least Ashkenazi Jews) as straightforwardly “white,” and Israel as a straightforwardly “settler-colonial state” are too simplistic to truly address the problem of antisemitism. While there is truth in these analyses, in that most American Jews have white privilege by virtue of our physical appearance, it also is true that this white privilege is precarious — always subject to being taken away by virtue of our Jewishness because (and this is important), within the American concept of whiteness lies an often unspoken presumption of Christianity. To white supremacists like David Duke and Richard Spencer, Jews ain’t white.

Likewise with Israel. It is certainly a settler-colonial state in some respects. European Zionists were colonial settlers relative to Palestinian Arabs. Likewise in current times, Israel certainly acts as a colonial power relative to the Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

But this is only part of the story, since it ignores the subjectivity of the Israelis themselves. While from Day 1 the Palestinians experienced, and continue to experience, Israel as a Western, colonial, foreign entity with no indigenous history in Palestine, Zionists — activists in a national liberation project for a persecuted and disempowered Jewish Diaspora — viewed a national return to, and political independence in, the Land of Israel as the solution to Jewish disempowerment.

The conflict arose from the fact that Palestine and the Land of Israel are one and the same. The solution is to divide governance of the land in such a way so that both Jews and Palestinians can have political self-determination. The solution is not for one side of the conflict to exclude the other from social justice circles, as that is a surefire way to chase Jews away from those circles.

Don’t fool yourselves — Mondoweiss, Jewish Voice for Peace, and other anti-Zionists do not represent the mainstream of American Jewish political opinion on Israel.  Groups like J Street, IfNotNow, and well…the Democratic Party do. If you truly want to express solidarity with Jews faced with antisemitism, you need to accept this. Just as I accept that, though I may not like Hamas, it is a legitimate representative of a significant segment of the Palestinian people — legitimate enough to win a plurality in the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary elections.

Palestinian support for an antisemitic terrorist group like Hamas does not in any way make Palestinians less entitled to freedom and self-determination — because they are a people, and all peoples are entitled to freedom and self-determination. This is a statement of solidarity.

If you want to take antisemitism seriously, you need to express solidarity with Jews as we are — including our overwhelming support for Israel’s existence (although not necessarily its policies).

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