Podcast / On The Nose
On the Nose is our biweekly podcast. The editorial staff discusses the politics, culture, and questions that animate today’s Jewish left.
Campus Wars
0:00 / 54:10
May 5, 2022

Since the launch of the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel and the collapse of the Oslo Peace Process in the early aughts, the college campus has been a locus of American political conflict over Israel/Palestine. As student Palestine solidarity activists have attempted to introduce BDS resolutions across the country, Israel advocacy organizations have responded by building a vast organizing infrastructure to intervene in student debates about Israel, painting campuses as threatening and hostile places for Jewish students and pushing for greater restrictions on pro-Palestine student speech. In only the latest example, members of the NYU law school’s Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapter—half of them Jewish—are facing media defamation for a statement the group sent to the law school listserv. How does it transform campus activism and the experience of individual students when outside organizations and media commentators get involved? Is it misleading to frame these conflicts as simply a fight between two opposing camps? What do you do when your mom forwards you Bari Weiss’s substack? Jewish Currents Editor-in-Chief Arielle Angel, Assistant Editor Mari Cohen, and Contributing Editor Joshua Leifer discuss these questions and the recent NYU events with Dylan Saba, Jewish Currents fellow and Palestine Legal staff attorney.

Books and Articles Mentioned:

To the Antisemites Who Sit Next to Me in School” by Tal Fortgang

NYU Law Erupts In Controversy Over Alleged Anti-Semitism” by David Lat

Who’s Trying to Kill BDS on Campus? An Interview with Josh Nathan-Kazis” by Rachel Cohen

How Israel Advocates Shut Down a Union’s Motion to Endorse BDS” by Isaac Scher

Twitter exchange between Yehuda Kurtzer and Joshua Leifer

AJC’s Survey on American Jewish Millennials

Everybody Hates the Jews” by Bari Weiss

Does Everybody Really Hate the Jews?” by Mari Cohen

Princeton Students Voted to Boycott Machinery Used by Israel. Proponents of Israel Are Countering with Misinformation.” by Isaac Scher

Maccabee Games” by Jess Schwalb

Deborah Lipstadt vs. ‘The Oldest Hatred’” by Mari Cohen

American University Muslim student group withdraws from interfaith seder with Hillel over its Israel support” by Andrew Lapin

Donor yanks Israel Studies endowment at U of Washington over professor’s Israel criticism” by Andrew Lapin

US Media Talks A Lot About Palestinians—Just Without Palestinians” by Maha Nassar

Waging Lawfare” by Natasha Roth-Rowland

Thanks to Jesse Brenneman for producing and to Nathan Salsburg for the use of his song “VIII (All That Were Calculated Have Passed).”


Arielle Angel: Hi listeners. A quick note that since we recorded this conversation last week, a few things have happened. For one, the editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, the university student newspaper, published an unsigned editorial endorsing the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions Movement—BDS. The editorial board had previously resisted the BDS call, saying that it lacked nuance. But now they say that they were convinced by, quote, “The weight of this moment, of Israel’s human rights and international law violations, and of Palestine’s cry for freedom,” end quote. One of the editorial chairs, Orlee Marini-Rapoport, made explicit reference to her Jewish identity in a tweet sharing the editorial, and is facing harsh backlash online. Over the weekend, Anti-Defamation League CEO Jonathan Greenblatt gave a speech at the organization’s annual National Leadership Summit, condemning Palestine Solidarity organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace and the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine as, quote, “Extremists, akin to white-nationalist groups on the right.” We taped this episode early last week and so didn’t have the chance to comment on these events directly. But we think our discussion of the broader dynamics of Israel/Palestine activism on campus still applies. We hope you enjoy this episode.

AA: Welcome back to On the Nose, Jewish Currents’s podcast. I’m your host today, Arielle Angel, I’m Editor in Chief of Jewish Currents, and I’m joined by Mari Cohen, our Assistant Editor, Josh Leifer, our Contributing Editor, and Dylan Saba, our JC Fellow, but who is kind of wearing two hats today on this particular podcast, as he also works part time at Palestine Legal and is the lawyer in some of the cases that we’re going to talk about today. So if that didn’t give it away, we are talking about campuses today.

I wanted to do this podcast because, when we were brainstorming what to do for the podcast this week, I had just received a forward from my mother. And in the body–this is something that all Jewish millennials dread, which is the forward of Bari Weiss’s Substack in your inbox, that has been forwarded like to hundreds of boomers so far, and you’re the most recent recipient–and with my mom, it’s usually half a line that’s kind of like, “Thoughts?” or, “What do you think about this?” or, you know, kind of implicitly asking me to defend against everything that Bari Weiss is accusing. So the most recent Substack was not written by Bari Weiss. It was written by a student named Tal Fortgang about a recent kerfuffle at New York University. And I will let Dylan tell us a little bit about what happened there.

Dylan Saba: Thanks. Sorry, I’ll just say that, as a lawyer, it’s also something you don’t want to receive in your in your email inbox, is Bari Weiss’s Substack. So I can talk about what’s going on at NYU, but first, I think, it might be helpful for me just to share more of a bird’s-eye view of what I see happening on campuses, from my position as a Staff Attorney of Palestine Legal, because we’re a legal nonprofit that represents Palestine solidarity activists and Palestinians in the United States, who are facing repression for their political expression, generally. And a large percentage–most of what we cover–are these campus issues. And I think that the reason why there are so many campus issues is because you have, basically, a population of young, college-aged people in the US who are generally pretty open to the idea of Palestinian Liberation, and open to organizing in support of that. It’s not quite so controversial for a lot of these students, which makes sense given this sort of larger zeitgeist–movement connections within the two recent waves of BLM and whatnot.

But the other thing that you have on campus are well-financed and politically powerful Jewish institutions that are, for the most part, Zionist. So you know, I’m thinking of the Brandeis Center and and Hillel. There is, of course, tension between organized Zionists on campus and pro-Palestinian activists. These spill over, basically, beyond the individual campus when outside organizations, in coordination with some of the Zionist groups on campus, put a spotlight on student activism. There’s the sense that like, you’ve got the pro-Palestine national orgs and the pro-Israel national orgs and they’re duking it out over things that are happening on campus. That’s generally not what’s going on. What’s going on is some students take some action, and some people get offended and basically start making public demands for repression. They start making public demands that the university itself come down hard on those students. And then organizations, like Palestine Legal and a couple of other groups, get involved in a defensive posture. We’re trying to basically prevent administrations from repressing the political speech of these groups. The ability of Zionists to express themselves on campuses is very rarely an issue. Almost never.

So those are the dynamics that we see playing out in the situation at NYU. I can briefly recount what happened, factually, which is that in response to some attacks in Tel Aviv a couple of weeks ago, some Zionists on campus put out a message to a school-wide discussion forum, kind of blanketly condemning Palestinian terror and talking about how Israel faces more violence, more hatred, more delegitimization, than almost anyone else. So, unsurprisingly, the SJP on campuses–this is at NYU Law School, so it’s an LSJP, Law Students for Justice in Palestine–put out a statement, also in the discussion forum, basically saying, “We reject this framing,” and reframing it along the lines that they believe. Opposing the occupation, supporting Palestinians’ right to resist their their illegal occupation, and what have you.

DAnd then Zionists at the school started saying like, “Oh, these students are supporting terrorism,” blah, blah, blah, and demanding that they retract the statement or apologize. And people leaked it to press outlets. So you immediately started having articles running in “Reason” and some other right-wing press outfits, basically saying the school needs to punish these students. Some of the outlets immediately surface this settlement that NYU had entered into–the University, not the Law School–with the Office of Civil Rights, relating to a civil-rights claim that was filed by a Zionist student a couple of years ago. In the settlement, New York University agreed to adopt the text of the IHRA definition, although they didn’t adopt the examples.

AA: Of course, we’re talking about the the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism, which is a controversial definition because some of the examples conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism. Just as an aside.

DS: That’s right. So someone who’s pitching these outlets basically was saying, “Hey, there was the settlement–use it to say that the school needs to come down hard on on these students.” Also, these students–a number of them have named scholarships. And some of these articles were saying, like, “How could you give this scholarship to these students? We need to ensure that people who say things like this should never get the scholarship again.” Which is a classic tactic, basically, something that we see across Zionist organizations. Canary Mission does this all the time, StopAntisemitism.org does this all the time. They basically try and leverage whatever they can in these individuals lives, to try and basically raise the stakes and just raise the price of pro-Palestine expression.

So you know, because of the dynamics I was talking about before, you end up in these kind of bizarre situations where the university is not even really responding to what could be perceived as a live conflict on campus, but they’re responding to press attention. So you’ll see in the NYU case, immediately, a couple of days later, the President of the University issues this statement condemning the antisemitism of the students. By the way, of the six people who basically wrote this letter on this forum, three of them are Jewish. I don’t think the President of NYU is Jewish. But it doesn’t matter for these organizations, because they’re just hammering this line that any kind of pro-Palestine expression that, in their words, crosses over–where this line that is crossed over is just totally mysterious, like, it seems like it’s just whatever is beyond their criticism of Israel or something. But yeah, you get these bizarre situations where the administration is just totally responding to outside pressures, and is not actually adjudicating issues on campus and is not responding to real campus concerns. They’re responding to PR concerns that are drummed up by these organizations.

AA: Well, so I want to break it down a little bit even further. A few years ago, a reporter for The Forward, who is no longer the forward, Josh Nathan-Kazis, did a lot of reporting related to outside, pro-Israel groups on campus, and the enormous amount of resources that were pouring into these groups. And also the tactics that they were using, like you mentioned. Canary Mission, which is a site that creates profiles on activists–pro-Palestinian activists–that essentially functions as a blacklist to get students fired from future jobs, or get them kind of out of the running for scholarships, or one thing or another. We did an interview with Josh Nathan-Kazis at the time on some of that reporting, and a lot of what he was really struck by is is exactly what you were talking about–the idea that it’s not like students, necessarily, were asking for this kind of support from the Jewish establishment.

It really does seem like there’s a kind of opposite motion here, where pro-Israel groups have basically realized that the campus is a site of this debate, and a really potent one, and have really invested a ton of resources into making sure that the spotlight is there. That they can, on one hand, that they can bring these cases, which often don’t go through–although slowly, with the adoption of IHRA, they have more teeth than they did in the past. I think they used to be more toothless on the whole. And then on the other hand, to sort of whip up this sentiment among Jewish students that might otherwise have fallen by the wayside.

So the reason I wanted to put that out there is that we report on this a lot. And we report on this dynamic, on campus and off campus. Isaac Scher wrote a piece for us last year about the LA Teachers Union and the way in which outside, pro-Israel groups came in to the LA Teachers Union, and sort of organized them in a particular way to defeat a pro-BDS measure within the Union. And often, the criticism of a piece that we are reporting on this sort of thing–like I think, reliably, Yehuda Kurtzer from the Shalom Hartman Institute will jump in on Twitter and basically say, “What is the big deal here? You are complaining, essentially, about a group that is just more organized and has more money. What is the big deal about that?” And so I wanted to pose that question to the group. I know, Josh, you’ve been thinking about this a bit, as the only one of us who is now currently on a campus.

Joshua Leifer: Yeah. I mean, Yehuda and I got into this argument on Twitter–and, full disclosure, I’m in a Hartman-affiliated workshop right now. And I know, Yehuda as a teacher, and I value his teaching–we have fundamental, axiomatic disagreements about politics, which sometimes, we express in public. I think what I was trying to get at in that conversation was that specifically on campus, as Dylan said, for the most part, Jewish students are not paying that much attention to what the politics of this issue happen to be. I think that’s borne out, sort of ironically, in that AJC poll that came out, which is like most Jewish students seem to basically not be affected by the like, quote, unquote, alleged rampant, anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses. And some campuses are different. You know, there are some campuses that are highly politicized, where political strife is a day-to-day element of campus life. But I think that’s not true for most students. I mean, they go to class, they get drunk, they go to parties, they live their lives, they try to get jobs in finance and consulting. Like, we have to think a little bit more about the median Jewish student on this campus, who’s not someone inclined towards activism. And I think that’s just born out in the survey data.

AA: Sorry, I just want to back up so you could say what this survey is, really quickly.

JL: Yeah. So I guess this was published very recently, but AJC put out a survey. It’s a survey of millennial Jews. It’s pretty interesting because like–whatever, I don’t know the methodology–but let’s just assume, as a heuristic, that the AJC has a certain predisposition towards certain kinds of results. And so that the survey revealed what it did, I think, is very striking. Which is, in some sense, empirical proof that the narrative that they’ve tried to put forward is not actually true.

AA: They asked a lot of questions about the campus, in particular, and whether campus activism around Palestine was changing the way that people thought about themselves as Jews. Or making them feel less safe, or making them feel less eager to be Jewish in public, or any of these things. And the answers, overall, were basically no.

Mari Cohen: Yeah, I think if you look, for example, at some of these questions–like whether people said that they rethought their commitment to Israel because of the anti-Israel climate, or whether it damaged their relationships–the result was maybe one-in-four or one-in-five thought that it did so. And then, you would get even like 10%, around that for each question, saying they don’t even think there’s an anti-Israel climate on campus, and then a vast plurality, around 40%, saying no, this hasn’t been an issue for them. Apparently, it’s like relatively sound sampling methodology that they used. I think that there has been conversation about the fact that these questions were pretty leading. I mean, they’re not questions that are like, “What do you think of the Israel climate?” They’re like, “Has the anti-Israel climate made you hide your identity?” And so they are questions about sort of push people in a certain direction.

MC: And so I do think it’s true that, as Josh says, that sense of alarm didn’t take for most of the students in the survey. And you know, we could say, obviously, like if one-in-four or one-in-five Jewish students have strong feelings about this, like maybe that’s something that’s something to think about. And maybe, a little bit later, we can talk about what we do about the Jewish students who do feel mobilized around this, in that way. But I do think that if we just think about all the resources, all the time, all the alarm from these huge organizations that goes into college campuses–you know, “anti-Zionism on college campuses,” “the students, they’re facing constant antisemitism,” you know, Bari Weiss titles, like “Everyone Hates the Jews” and then referring to the campus–it really is striking to think about how that contrasts with the actual data and what people are feeling.

JL: Yeah. Obviously, there are clearly Jewish students who feel challenged by pro-Palestine activism. I mean, I know people from where I grew up who are uncomfortable with the word Palestine. That does not mean that the grievance is necessarily legitimate. But I think–and Dylan was getting at this too–I think it needs to be reiterated, the extent to which the campus is a site of intensive Israel-advocacy organizing, with a huge range of groups. I mean, it’s not even just Hillel. I mean, Hillel’s houses have, within them, usually a Jewish Agency Fellow, who is sent by the Israeli government to organize Israel advocacy programming. AEPi, a Jewish fraternity, is part of one of the Israel advocacy networks. I think the Maccabee Task Force receives funding through that.

AA: There’s Mosaic, there’s StandWithUs.

JL: Exactly. I mean, there’s a huge plethora of groups.

AA: I’ll just say that Isaac Scher reported on something that happened at Princeton, where they were trying to get the campus to stop using Caterpillar machinery in their campus renovations and construction because of their involvement in home demolitions and stuff like that in in Palestine. And he found, in the course of doing this, another group that turned out to just be a shell group for StandWithUs. We encounter this in our reporting all the time, where there’s just like another group with another name, but if you just look into it for 10 seconds, it’s actually another pro-Israel group that you know about, but they’re, for some reason, trying to kind of make it seem like there are more grassroots groups than there actually are.

MC: And sometimes, if you get far enough under those groups, you get money from the Israeli government and the Ministry of Strategic Affairs.

JL: Right, certainly more so when the Ministry was functioning. I think it’s probably less now. I think what I was trying to get at the Twitter argument with Yehuda was that there is no comparable infrastructure for Palestine groups or BDS-supporting groups. And the contrast is also striking, even more so, in that sometimes the SJP chapters are affiliated with some nominal, national organization–maybe it’s SJP, maybe it’s JVP–oftentimes, they’re not. In the Princeton case, the Princeton Committee on Palestine is its own thing. I, full disclosure, was a member of that as an undergrad, and when we ran a divestment resolution in 2015 it narrowly failed. But the same dynamic happened, where all of a sudden, what was an argument between different small groups of activist students, basically independent of the rest of the campus, ended up–overnight, basically–becoming a national media issue.

JL: And the last thing I was trying to get at, when I was talking with Yehuda, was that I think this is bad for Jewish students. Because most Jewish students who are not paying attention are like, “Whatever, this has nothing to do with me, I’m focused on other things.” Then they’re told that they should interpret this referendum, that their friends maybe are involved with, as a direct direct attack on them. They’re not experiencing it as an attack on them, usually–some are obviously. It’s going over their heads, it’s not part of their general day-to-day. And then the Hillel puts out a statement, saying “All Jewish students are under attack by this.” And once that rhetoric of threat gets raised, then you do begin to have an uncomfortable campus climate.

MC: Yeah, I think what I see there–and maybe it sort of resonates with my experience, you know, I’m five years out from graduation now, from undergrad–but when I was on a college campus and watching a lot of these types of dynamics, also in the social justice world, it seems like there’s a population of Jewish students that might feel, maybe, a little bit uncomfortable. Because they grew up in a Zionist background, some of the stuff that’s being talked about is stuff that maybe their parents believe, or was espoused at synagogues or programs they went to growing up, and so they’re not totally sure what to make of Palestinian solidarity advocacy. Some of them are, some of them are involved in it, some of them are doing the resolutions, some of them might not be sure what to make of it, feel a little bit uncomfortable, but like not really care that much, just sort of register a sense of discomfort.

Which, to me, discomfort is kind of part of life. It can be very challenging. It’s not the same thing is oppression. And sometime,s if you’re a person from a privileged background,who starts to get involved in a lot of social justice work, you are going to experience discomfort and that is part of the experience. But maybe the students are a little bit uncomfortable, and then something comes out from an organization that says, “You know, what you’re experiencing is antisemitism, and this isn’t okay.” And I imagine that probably feels validating, because suddenly it’s not like “This discomfort is something that I need to root around in.” It’s more like, “Oh, this discomfort is because I was wronged, and I don’t have to worry that I need to think about it differently.” And so I can imagine that things feed off each other.

And the other thing I’ll just note–and I found it very striking that in your exchange with Yehuda, Josh, that he was expressing this idea that there was this equal, pro-Palestine infrastructure on the other side, just because the situation is, in fact, so different. But that does kind of resonate with the type of rhetoric and propaganda that goes around, this alarmism around college campuses, which is that there’s this idea that there’s this major, organized threat to Jewish students. I don’t know, maybe they say it’s from SJP or JVP, which are talked about as these major, really powerful groups. Or like, the Middle East Studies Association is a frequent antagonist. And so it really reflects the way this discourse has been shaped, with power dynamics never really being appropriately registered in the conversation. Which is similar to the way that Israel/Palestine in general is talked about, a lot of the time.

DS: Yeah. I just want to say that I’m flattered that anyone would suggest that like, Palestine Legal and the handful of other basically-defensive nonprofits are operating at the level of some of these massive, incredibly well-funded organizations. I mean, even at the level of SJP, like SJP national is not the command center for these student organizations. They’re basically a group of volunteer people who help SJPs problem-solve. These are basically all independent, nonhierarchical student groups who are volunteering their time to do this kind of political organizing. It’s pretty absurd, it’s basically just a fantasy, this idea that like, somehow, Big Palestine is out here pulling the strings behind these actions.

The other thing is that the idea that it’s simply a question of like, “One side is better organized. So what?” That framing is totally missing what’s going on here. Every Palestinian knows that the other side is better organized, better financed, has more institutional connections–that’s not the basis of the complaint here. It’s that when these issues come up, it’s because some group of pro-Palestine students has taken some action, and then the other side here is not putting on some counter program, or putting on a barbecue, or whatever it is that these groups do. That all is fine. It’s that they’re going to the media and running to the administration, and saying, “This group of students who is organizing around some kind of political goal is a threat to our existence, and basically needs to be handled,” and they’re able to get away with it because of how minimal the pro-Palestine infrastructure is. Because we just don’t have the capacity to speak to the same audiences and pull at the same levers of power.

And so what you have, then, is university administrators faced with this imbalance. And here’s something that I really perceive from the inside, which is that the vast majority of times, it’s not university administrators making a political decision against the anti-Zionists. It’s university administrators making rational decisions about what is best for the university, and what is best for the university on a public relations front. This happened in NYU, this happened in Tufts, which we can talk about as well. The university will get a bunch of public criticism, or calls for them to punish some students, or condemn some student action, or condemn some student organizing, or disavow some student statement, or something. And the university turns immediately to the press, and then releases a statement without ever addressing it with the students. Not even to have a conversation and say, “What did you mean by this?” And certainly not to say, “Hey, it looks like you guys are getting a lot of hate here. Are you all okay? Have you received any kind of harassment or something? What can we do to make sure that you all are protected?” The reason why the power imbalance is relevant is because it makes it such an easy choice for school administrators on who to side with, when it comes to facing the public.

JL: There’s the PR element, and then there’s also the free speech element, especially at public universities where this is happening. And it’s about the Israel-advocacy world’s attempt to make Palestine-solidarity activism on campus beyond the pale of legality, not just acceptability. The other thing I just wanted to say is like, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what Yehuda was saying in the thread. I wanted to take seriously what he meant when he said that there is another side, and I think what was occurring to me there is–and this strikes me as the way in which the anti-BDS campaigns have ended up being structurally similar to the anti-CRT campaigns that are happening in schools and on campuses as well–which is that you have a shifting hegemony. And then hegemony is intangible. There’s no one singular cause. Young people, generally, are becoming more ready to hear about Palestinian liberation .That’s as a multi-causal factor.

And so Israel-advocacy groups are now faced with that shift, and they are basically deciding to turn the campus into a battlefield, because they can’t accept this shifting hegemony. And one of the questions that I imagine they are trying to figure out themselves is: How far are they willing to go to shut things down? What degree of intervention on the campus? What degree of legal wrangling? I think the Trump administration’s executive order about antisemitism–and what Ken Marcus was doing when he was part of the Civil Rights Department of the Education Department–that was sort of the cutting edge of trying to bring down the force of the state to stop what is a shift in public opinion. And that’s where like the liberalism of it comes from. And that’s why I think we’ll only see, going forward, more of a coordination between some of the anti-CRT organizing and the anti-BDS organizing on Princeton’s campus.

I will say, one of the things that struck me is that the conservative group that’s quoted in Isaac’s amazing reporting, the Open Campus Coalition, was not formed as an anti-BDS group. It was formed in 2015 or ’14, during the protests against Woodrow Wilson. It’s a conservative, anti-Black Lives Matter organization that’s now wrapped up in the Israel-advocacy, anti-BDS campus ecosystem. And I think that’s emblematic of a shift that’s happening across other places, too.

AA: Yeah, I want to I want to give, Dylan, you a chance to also say in what ways these different attempts have been, more or less, successful legally. Or to what extent they’ve become more enforceable on that level. But first, I just want to underline the point that you just made, Josh. I mean, look, I do think that the Jewish establishment does believe that this is existential for them. I mean, I think they’re hysterical. But they do actually think, on some level, that this changing hegemony threatens Israel, which threatens Jews, period. I mean, that’s why they’re doing this, right? And I feel like if you are starting from that position, then it’s sort of like, “Well, why wouldn’t we use the resources available to us to do that?” Like, if this is our position to start with? Aren’t we justified in using everything that we can to go at it? And wouldn’t the other side avail themselves of that, if they had the opportunity?

And I think, on the one hand, they’re sort of right about that. I mean, if you believe that something is right, then politically, you kind of have a responsibility to advocate for it in the most effective way that you can. No one can say that they are not effective, on some level, at what they are trying to do. I think that where it becomes strange is that–not all of these people, but I think a lot of the people, certainly the people who are like, forwarding the Bari Weiss Substack or whatever. Like the people of my mother’s network, or whatever, are people who I think are relatively politically sophisticated about the question that money in politics presents, and the question about democracy when certain, very well-resourced groups come in to change a conversation in a way that is–what is the word that I’m looking for?

JL: It’s like distorting.

AA: Yean. I mean, a lot of the people who send this are basically dyed-in-the-wool liberals who are concerned about free speech. They’re concerned about democracy, they want a level playing field on some level. And I’m not hopeful about the ability to stop, like, a StandWithUs, or whatever, but I wish it was easier to talk to the people who are giving this oxygen, and particularly people who haven’t been on campuses in 30, 40 years, who seemed the most agitated around this, to recognize the ways in which they are falling prey to a very anti-democratic and anti-free speech apparatus here.

MC: Yeah. Well, one thing I think is interesting about this theoretical pushback that those supporting these pro-Israel organizations could make, saying, “Well, of course, this is what you think is right. And if you had the money and power, wouldn’t you do that, too?” The thing is, if the other side had the money in power, we wouldn’t be in this situation. I think that’s sort of what gets lost in this, is that this is like a question of power, all the way down. And the reason that these tactics are being used, and that these campaigns are being run, is in response to this lack of material power. Both in Israel, in terms of the dynamics of who has state power and control and sovereignty, and in the US, in terms of who can control political ability to influence US policy on Israel. And it’s something I think about a lot.

And then I think we’ve all talked about–which is something I also noticed in a lot of the anti-wokeism discourse–is that there’s this misapprehension or misunderstanding of the division between cultural power and changing hegemony, as Josh mentioned, versus actual state, material power. In which a lot of people, including maybe liberals, who feel a little bit caught between multiple sides, they say, “Oh, well, suddenly these really far-left, and pro-Palestine, and defund-the-police people are taking over, and they have all this power. and antisemitism is not being recognized in the same way.” But the thing that they’re pointing to is a certain type of cultural recognition, especially maybe under the young left, but it’s not a material recognition or actual controls on the levers of power, most of the time.

DS: I think that’s right. And I also, in a kind of cheeky way, think that that framing is–Arielle, as you were describing it–is correct. It is not the target of Palestine organizing to persuade the Zionist organizations not to do what they’re doing. The target is everyone else. It’s to convince everyone else that this is worth opposing, and that there are actions of solidarity to build on, and that is what the movement is trying to do. And I actually think that that’s mutually recognized. Something that becomes apparent, seeing how these things play out, is as soon as the bilateral framework is transcended–as soon as this is no longer a conversation between a group of very powerful and institutionally-backed Zionist groups and a small set of groups who are agitating for Palestine–that’s when things go nuclear, basically. For example, in NYU, a precipitating thing that happened, as this played out, was it wasn’t just that some pro-Palestine students issued a statement. It said their statement was co-signed by all of these solidarity–all these affinity groups on campus. So all of these groups representing people of different identities with, broadly, social justice framings, sign the statement, and that’s really what set people off. And that’s what broke the frame of this power imbalance.

And on Tufts’s campus, there has been a huge spur of activity–full disclosure here, I attended Tufts as an undergraduate–the SJP there was formed in the year before I attended and grew massively in the time that I was there. And it’s basically been a hot conflict ever since. It was in 2020, the Tufts SJP organized this campaign around Stop the Deadly Exchange, which targets police exchanges with Israeli military. Tufts University Police was involved in one of these exchanges. And basically, a number of people have organized around trying to oppose this, principally JVP. And in their organizing, the Tufts SJP formed a massive coalition with climate groups, with affinity groups, and it was so successful that they actually won an award from their Office of Campus Life, for how well they coalition-built around this. And that’s the event that set everything off. There were calls for the University to condemn this award. And that’s when you started seeing all of this heightened scrutiny. So I think there’s actual real insight in this observation, of like, “Look, what are we supposed to do? We are playing our role here, as advocates on this side. And you better play your role as advocates on that side, and not break that frame, and not doing anything to try and get around the power imbalances that are baked in here.” Because those power imbalances are what cement the status quo, that maintains Zionist hegemony and keeps Palestinians in perpetual persecution.

JL: I will say, among the major changes that have happened in campus political culture over the last, let’s say, five-to-seven years, one of them is that Palestine solidarity has been incorporated much more fully into the broad-spectrum, social-justice world, under the banner, sometimes, of intersectionality. In 2015, it was certainly not a given. And in fact, one of the things that some of the Zionist advocacy groups were doing quite well, at least on the campus that I was at, was having an ongoing dialogue with the leaders of some of the minority groups. They would go on trips to Israel, I mean, I think those trips still happen.

AA: Yeah, the Maccabee Task Force does a trip aimed particularly at campus leaders from minority groups.

JL: I think that work is clearly becoming less effective. Like those trips, people–I’ve spoken to some of them who feel uncomfortable when they’re asked to go on them and things like that. So that, I think, is a major change. And obviously, the George Floyd protests, and then the war last May, I think, has catalyzed a really major narrative shift in how young people are thinking about this. So it’s not surprising that some of the Israel-advocacy groups on campus are pretty freaked out.

AA: I want to think about the Zionists for a second. God knows nobody thinks about them.

MC: We have to do it.

AA: We have to do it.

JL: Look, some of us were once Zionists, so we can think to our past selves.

AA: I have Bari Weiss’s Substack open in front of me. And, just thinking again about my mom, who sent this to me, my mom–actually, it’s interesting. I’ve talked before about the fact that my mom has actually really moved on Israel over the past couple of years. So in this situation, I was being a little disingenuous, because she sent this because it was being sent to her, and she was like, “Tell me how to tell me how to respond. Give me the talking points to disprove this.” But she knows enough to know, at this point, that it’s off. But she is rattled by some of the things that appear here.

JL: I mean, I’ll be frank. Some of those statements made me uncomfortable. I have the ideological, front-loaded equipment, I understand why a student who’s maybe Palestinian would say things that are offensive to me, as a Jew. I think that’s some of the relational work that has to be done. I think some of this gets to the legitimacy of armed resistance to the occupation as kind of an underlying issue at the bottom of this. That’s where, often, the most difficult kinds of conversations are happening, which is that, broadly speaking, the Palestine solidarity groups will say it is totally legitimate for a people under occupation to resist, militarily, the military occupation that they’re subjected to. In America–and certainly in American Jewish communities–the norm is that there is no form of Palestinian violence that’s acceptable. Israeli state violence is justified as defensive, but there is no form of armed Palestinian resistance that is legitimate. The expectation–the demand–put on Palestinians by Anglophone common sense is that they must be Gandhians in order to deserve rights.

AA: So for example, I’m just going to read some of the things that Mr. Fortgang pulled out. So they talk about the “Zionist grip on the media,” for example, or a classmate apparently tweeted, quote, “My love language is marg bar Israel, death to Israel.” Or, here’s a good one, “Zionism is a racist, imperialist, white-supremacist ideology, not a religious movement. And Israelis’, sense of victimhood is delusional, because Israel colonized Palestinian land.” So some of these hit differently, and I’m trying to put myself in the shoes of a student who really hears these things, feels uncomfortable, and feels attacked. And I wonder if we could think about what is to be done there, right? Like, I think my orientation is to look at these students and think like, “We’re not going to get anywhere just by being like, fucking babies, or whatever, you know?” Although we could go that route. And I certainly don’t expect Palestinians to be the ones to do that emotional labor. But I do wonder what you do with these students.

JL: And no matter the Gandhians among them, and the fact that they’re languishing in prisons and administrative detention or whatever. That doesn’t matter either.

MC: Or no matter the worldwide, nonviolent resistance campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions.

JL: But that’s a very difficult conversation to have.

AA: Let’s just remind ourselves, too, that these are conversations that are happening between students. I think students are wonderful, but they’re also steeped in internet culture. They’re not necessarily expressing themselves, thinking like, “I’m writing an article” or whatever. Putting a tweet on the same level as a written statement or anything like that is, in itself, disingenuous, but it does feel like they’re really talking about two different things. Mari, you just wrote a great piece on Deborah Lipstadt, and thinking about how she thinks that talking about the right of return is antisemitic, because you’re calling for the end of Israel as a Jewish state or whatever, and a Jewish state in itself–like Israel’s right to exist, it cannot be challenged on antisemitic lines.

I mean, basically, we know–I feel like this is so obvious, I say it all the time–but it really is worth remembering that these are students who came up in an environment where there is no separation between Zionist identity and Jewishness. Zionism is the primary identity, even within Jewishness, for many of them. The question is, where’s the way out of that for them? Do you know what I mean? It’s like, do I think “death to Israel” is the best political rallying cry, strategically and otherwise? No, but I think that, emotionally, you have to give these kids an off-ramp, because you know that what they’re hearing is “death to Jews.” There’s no separation. And then I just feel like the marginalization that they feel–like Mari, what did you mention? Where was this that happened–the Hillel?

MC: Yeah, at American University, for example, the Muslim Students Association was co-sponsoring a Seder. I think it started between a Muslim and Jewish student doing it together, like an interfaith Seder. And then they found out that Hillel was co-sponsoring it, or funding it. And so the MSA cut ties, because they were like, “Hillel has policies that involve supporting Israel.”

AA: Yeah. And Hillel takes money from pro-Israel groups. They have very clear red lines around who they partner with. They don’t allow JVP students and they don’t partner with anti-Zionists, very openly. But I think there is a way in which, for a student who is not very politically sophisticated, they just feel marginalized.

AA: Yeah.

JL: I would add an element to it. And this gets back to actually, I think, what we’ve also spoken about on a podcast, maybe even a year ago, about the engagement gap between Jewish students. On the one hand, yeah, you have these students who who are feeling very attacked by pro-Palestine rhetoric, because they feel like their identities are coupled to Zionism. You also have an also-sizable population of Jewish students who are involved in Palestine solidarity activism, or were involved. So in some ways, the campus fight is also an intra-Jewish fight.

And, at the same time, still, most Jewish students on campus are not engaged. They’re not members of either of these groups, and they don’t even–you know, if you talk to Hillel directors at universities, they’ll be like, a very small fraction of the large Jewish population on these campuses attend things, do things. They’re not involved. And so in some ways, the apathetic mass is even more of a problem in trying to figure out how to negotiate this, because these politics are kind of operating detached. Neither of these groups are really making majoritarian claims, or can count on a reliable majority of the community to rally behind them.

AA: Yeah, I guess, all I’m trying to say is like, in order to break down every one of the statements in the Bari Weiss Substack, or whatever–like some of the things that I just read, for my mother, for example–I would have to have a conversation, a very difficult conversation, about some of the things that you were talking about, Josh. Like, about violence, about settler colonialism, about why you don’t need people to be perfect victims or whatever, about tone policing, about all of these kinds of things. And you’re not dealing with a very sophisticated populace on this, you know? Like the amount of of political education that is necessary is really significant.

JL: I do think there isn’t a sense in which the need for sophistication is also present on the other end. Like I sometimes wish that there was a national organizing infrastructure, for Palestine solidarity activism to say, like, “Do not tweet these things. Do not do this. You are held to a higher standard than the other groups, and every single thing that you say on social media is going to be used against you.” And there has to be a kind of super-enforced message discipline, because otherwise, any slip is gonna get weaponized. And I think that’s not taking seriously enough, or it’s like, “This is civility, and it’s tone policing, and it’s bullshit, and so I shouldn’t have to abide by it.” That’s fine as a normative argument, like, I agree, you shouldn’t have to abide by it. We don’t live in that world. I mean, this is some of the stuff that came up when I was doing reporting on Corbyn, where there’s a sense that there should be no consequences for the things that I say, because the standards to which I’m being held are bullshit. But you are also fighting a strategic political campaign. And if one wants to achieve ones goals, one ought to orient one’s behavior around achieving those goals.

DS: One thing I’ll add here–and you know, it’s not that I disagree with you, Josh–but I do think that the objective of the Palestine solidarity movement is not to convince Arielle’s mom that they’re worth supporting. Part of what I was saying earlier is that we actually lose when the framing is anti-Zionist-versus-Zionist. And we win when we build a larger coalition out of all of these apathetic people, all of these people who are not involved. And at the end of the day, it’s true: You say some controversial stuff on social media, Zionists are gonna jump on it. And they’re gonna have an easier time jumping on something that’s more controversial than they are something that is just kind of routine, anti-Zionist sentiment, although they will jump on that as well.

AA: Yeah.

DS: But I do think that it is a strategic error to pick your hardest converts and focus your attention on playing to them. And I also think that there’s a strategic error in being so scared about censorship, and these kinds of blacklisting tactics from Canary Mission, that you convince yourself not to say anything at all. It’s a tough, uphill, huge fight that we’re facing. But I do think that the right way to go about it is by strength in numbers, building solidarity, and rising above a lot of the noise on this. And that does take message discipline, it does take strategic thinking, but I think not to the extent that it actually chills political expression.

MC: I don’t necessarily disagree with you either, Josh. Actually, I think that’s something I think about, and yeah, sometimes things make me uncomfortable, too, even now. But there’s a sense in which the more, perhaps tone-policed version of it, has been tried many a time, and still, it is just gone after in the same way. And so, in that sense that, it’s not worth the time for the Palestinian solidarity movement to try to convince people who are these kinds of staunch opponents, who have a visceral opposition to most anti-Zionist sentiment. I think that sounds kind of reasonable, given that, you know, if you’re in the Israel Studies Department at University of Washington, and you try to just say that the name of the region is Israel/Palestine–people will absolutely go apeshit if you mention the word Palestine. So if that’s the basis at which some of these things have started–

AA: It’s really a completely different language. They’re not sharing a world.

MC: Well, that’s the other thing that I’ve been thinking about, too. And I thought about this a lot while I was working on the Lipstadt piece, and just delving into some of her approaches, and liberal Zionist thinking and the way that a lot of people are talking about it. Which is that the frame on the liberal Zionist side, it just has not been updated. It’s like, there’s this frame that was like–it’s kind of like an Oslo frame, especially, that’s very much like, here are these types of narratives, and we both need to make these certain types of concessions. And obviously there are issues with that frame, too. Lots of Palestinian criticism, lots of issues. That’s the reason it didn’t work. But there was this kind of two-state, liberal-Zionist framework that developed in the ’80s and ’90s in the US, and these people are still talking in this exact frame. And that’s not what’s going on, on the ground, at all. That’s not what’s going on with the state of the occupation. That’s not what’s going on with the state of the Israeli government. None of the things that are actually happening on the ground in Israel/Palestine fit with that frame. But these people are still using it all the time. And I think that’s a lot of what is symptomatic of the responses here.

JL: Yeah, Mari, I think that’s definitely true, the kind of zombie-Oslo consensus that’s still with us, and that has not been displaced. And I think for the most part, the reason–not the only reason–why I think the Jewish establishment and the Israel advocacy groups are attached to this is that it is very effective. I mean, the thing that I wanted to say before, about the Referendum, is that in 2015, with the Princeton Referendum–and also the current one–they weren’t the stereotype of old school, BDS resolutions, like, “We want the university to sever all ties with companies that do anything at all with Israel,” which was like, I don’t know, like 2005-to-2010 version of BDS. They were very targeted, about there are companies that operate in the West Bank, or more specifically one company that’s articulated into one particular aspect of the occupation, like Caterpillar or whatever.

But still, the Israel-advocacy world is still able to say, “This is about delegitimizing Israel writ large,” even though the Referenda were crafted, actually, to press on the Israel-advocacy world’s hypocrisy on two states. You should support this, in theory, if you believe in two states, like why should you support a company that’s profiting from operating in occupied territories? And that rhetoric has not really proven effective, still. The contours of the debate end up being, like, you’re trying to destroy Israel. And so far, there hasn’t been a successful rebuttal that’s like, “No. Israel, as it’s currently constituted, is not a democracy, and you have to democratize the one-state status quo.” Like that hasn’t been able to develop.

AA: Yeah, well, because that idea does actually destroy Israel as we know it. I mean, that’s the fucking problem.

DS: There are real limits to moderating both the content of BDS resolutions and expression, if your thing is that anti-Zionism is antisemitism. Frankly, the framing of how certain things are said don’t matter. You see it in the NYU case, right? Everyone–or at least the subset–is jumping on the idea of the “Zionist grip on the media.” How is someone supposed to talk about the fact that the media is, broadly, in support of Israel, is broadly Zionist? If you say that it’s Zionist, the read that everyone is making–uncontroversially apparently–is that, “Oh, these students secretly meant Jews. So you can’t say Jews, obviously, because that would be antisemitic, but you also can’t say Zionist, because everyone will know that, secretly, what you mean is to reference Judaism. So in fact, you just can’t talk about it at all. There’s no safe way to say that the media supports Israel, or that the media is Zionist. No matter how much you you moderate your language, the only option here, from the perspective of these Zionists, is to just shut up, is just to not talk about this.

AA: Just to model, for our listenership, what it might look like to actually interrogate the question of what it means to talk about a quote, “Zionist media,” is the fact that until now, I think almost every Jerusalem Bureau Chief at the New York Times has been an open Zionist and a Jew. Or the fact that there was a study done, an academic study that looked at pieces written about Palestine, anywhere–like any major magazine or newspapers–and I think pieces written by actual Palestinians before last May were like, in the single digits, essentially, while almost everything else was written by Israelis, or Jews, or just regular people, but mostly Israelis, or American Jews, or global Jews. So you have a situation where there’s literally no comparison in terms of what people are reading and hearing, and how able a certain kind of narrative is to get into the media. Again, we also are talking about how many publications won’t even use the word Palestine. Again, they’re speaking different languages. Some people are coming with a lot of political education around some of these things, and being very deliberate in talking about Zionism as opposed to Jews, and it just doesn’t register.

I mentioned in the beginning how there are these groups who have been trying to use university code for a while, to crack down on students, and bring suits, and kind of force settlements. And actually, Dylan, as you mentioned, one of those settlements plays into the current case at NYU, in trying to get these students’ scholarships revoked under this settlement. I guess with what happened under the Trump administration, with the federal government adopting the IHRA, I think that the sense, when we wrote an article about this–Natasha Roth wrote an article about this back in the summer of 2020–was that this was going to chill speech and would have an effect on the side of people just self-censoring, or like, administrations shutting down events before they could even get started, this kind of thing. But I’m wondering now if we’re starting to see the first real effects of some of this stuff. And I was wondering if you wanted to close by talking a little bit about that.

DS: Yeah, I mean, I think it’s a little bit still too early to know how a lot of these things are going to play out. I don’t know the details on this, but I know that at ASU, there was some repression of some pro-Palestine group, where the administration thought that–or they were agitating to implement IHRA, but it turns out it hadn’t been adopted yet. But now, IHRA has been passed on the state level at Arizona, and so that may raise new questions. My sense is that it’s a real issue, and it’s a real threat– to the extent that that IHRA is being adopted at the state level–because that’s just another opportunity for public universities to leverage this in suppressing some of this activism.

At NYU, it’s pretty bogus. NYU had not even adopted the examples portion of the IHRA definition, which are really what give it its anti-anti-Zionist teeth. The text of the definition itself is pretty uncontroversial and has nothing to do with Palestine activism and stuff like that. And so the attempt to leverage that in the NYU case is a total reach. And NYU administrators would be really sill, if they intentionally tried to bind themselves by that. It’d be just a bogus reading of that settlement. But I do expect it to happen. As IHRA is adopted in state Houses, I do expect that to play into the campus fights that are that are happening at public universities. And also to the extent that IHRA is adopted by private universities, independent of what’s happening at the state level, I do expect that to continue.

And by all indications, this is the direction that Zionist organizations are trying to push this. This is like the MO of the Brandeis Center. It’s the two-part strategy, of agitate for the adoption of IHRA and then try to prosecute pro-Palestinian students under it. So we haven’t quite seen a wave of these things happening, but it’s definitely on our radar as advocates, and the direction I’m expecting Zionist organizations to try and take these fights.

AA: Thank you so much, Dylan, and thanks everyone else for joining us today. This has been another episode of On the Nose. If you liked it, share it with a friend or review the podcast wherever you listen to it, and enjoy the rest of your day. Thanks, everyone.

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