Bard Protest Was Not Antisemitic

The following is my response to Batya Ungar-Sargon’s original article in The Forward; my piece was published as a letter to the editor:

Forty-eight years ago, as a first-year student at Bard College, I saw graffito in a bathroom stall: “If I didn’t believe it with my own mind, I never would have seen it.”

I saw affirmations of that quip last week at Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center conference on racism and anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism and racism are serious subjects. They are also grenade-like charges to make against students or panelists, but that happened too. Such accusations were conversation stoppers.

I have spent more than three decades combating anti-Semitism, 25 of them while working at the American Jewish Committee. I reserved the charge of anti-Semitism for those most deserving – the David Dukes of the world – in order not to cheapen the term. I believe Batya Ungar-Sargon’s take on the student protest at the conference cheapens the term; I was there, and I disagree with both her description and interpretation of what happened.

I was in all the rooms she describes – the panel she was on Thursday with Ruth Wisse that was the subject of the protest by Students for Justice in Palestine; the reception for speakers afterward at the home of the conference organizer, Roger Berkowitz; and the panel discussion where Friday morning Ungar-Sargon read her statement and walked out. The first and last are available on video [click on panels listed at left of screen entitled “Who Needs Antisemitism” and “Racism and Zionism: Black and Jewish Relations”].

In full disclosure, I work at Bard College as the director of the Center for the Study of Hate, and also moderated a session on anti-Semitism at the conference. Berkowitz, the director of the Arendt Center, is a friend.I have written extensively about the campus debate over Israel.

When Berkowitz told me beforehand that Bard’s Students for Justice in Palestine chapter was planning to protest during Wisse’s panel, I said they had the right to protest, but not to disrupt.

If they had stopped Wisse from speaking, as the students years ago at the University of California at Irvine had with Ambassador Michael Oren, that would have been a violation of academic freedom and free speech. A silent protest with signs that do not obstruct is not a violation of academic freedom or free speech. Indeed, years ago, I told Jewish students who wanted to protest the Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan that such silent protests were O.K.

At the Bard conference on Thursday, the students marched to the front and held signs. When one was asked to lower her sign so people could see, she did. When a couple of them interrupted the talk, security officers and deans were right there to ask them to leave, and they did without incident.

As Cary Nelson, a former president of the American Association of University Professors, said years ago, “an interruption that signals extreme objection to a speaker’s views is part of the acceptable intellectual life of a campus, but you have to let the speech go on.” That’s exactly what happened here, and what the deans demanded. Ungar-Sargon’s statement that “we couldn’t proceed” because of the protest is not what I experienced, or what I see on the video.

Ungar-Sargon was right to note that the panel the students chose to protest was all Jewish, but her leap to the conclusion that it was protested because it was all Jewish, or that perhaps there should have been some special dispensation from protest because it was all Jewish, is misplaced. It was exceptionally clear to me as an audience member that these students protested because they strongly disagreed with Wisse’s views. not because of her Jewishness. Indeed, some of the banners they held contained quotes from Wisse drawn in large letters.

I did not personally hear the students say anything specific about Ungar-Sargon, who is often criticized by such pro-Palestinian groups, or of the third panelist, Shani Mor, who is Israeli, though I am told there was literature criticizing them as well as Wisse. It’s worth noting that some of the protesters are themselves Jewish, and one of them responded to Ungar-Sargon’s article with a denunciation of both her and Mor.

I suspect that if the panel had been Wisse with two Jews who largely agreed with the SJP position — such as Ilan Pappe or someone from the group Jewish Voice for Peace — that the students would not have protested. If there had been a Palestinian on the panel who was an Israel supporter, I believe the protest would have been even more vigorous. In other words, I believe the protest was about ideas, not the ethnicity of the speakers. In some ways, the core disagreement was over whether being a Jew requires one to be a Zionist.

Ungar-Sargon wrote that Wisse’s talk was only about anti-Semitism, not Israel. But Wisse did speak about Israel, and of course she has written about it extensively. Ungar-Sargon’s assertion that bringing Israel into a discussion of anti-Semitism is inherently racist is mind-boggling. I speak regularly to Jewish audiences and on college campuses about anti-Semitism, and generally say little about Israel up front, but Israel is the topic audience members — frequently from the right, politically — most often focus on in the question-and-answer period.

I have seen and written about anti-Semitism from pro-Palestinian activists, and testified in front of Congress about it. But it does little good to make that charge, as here, when there is no evidence of it. There was no chant shouted or banner quoted that struck me as anti-Semitic (although one sign did say Zionism is Racism, and one can debate the intent behind that assertion). It was the mere existence of the protest that underpinned Ungar-Sargon’s charge, not what was expressed.

I would have strongly preferred that the students put their energy into questioning Wisse’s views in discussion, not placards. I know they were capable. Last spring, some of those same students and I participated in two days of deep discussions about Israel and Palestine. They didn’t agree with me, but they were able to engage my Zionism and opposition to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement in a thoughtful way.

Many of these students see the conflict as simple, a matter of right and wrong, justice and injustice (much as Wisse does from the other direction). The reality is the conflict is complex and there are reasonable assertions of justice and injustice on both sides. Each side wants the other to be condemned.

But as much as I disagree with SJP’s point of view, I did not think their actions at Bard warranted condemnation. I was hoping that Ungar-Sargon would start a conversation about anti-Semitism and Zionism in her panel the next day. Instead, she walked out.

She had the right to make that decision. But it would have been useful if she had stayed and engaged in discussion.

P.S. My forthcoming book is entitled “Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate.” Bearson Lee