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.
Unpacking the Campus Antisemitism Narrative
Duration
0:00 / 42:55
Published
April 11, 2024

In recent months, a buzzy new pair of articles on the specter of rising “Israel-related” antisemitism have arrived in The Atlantic. One, by Franklin Foer, heralds the end of the “golden age of American Jews,” while another, by Theo Baker, details the current climate on Stanford’s campus. Though similar stories have circulated in Jewish communal outlets for years, these two longform pieces demonstrate how the subject has also taken center-stage in liberal media since October 7th, against a backdrop of increased scrutiny on college campuses. The media handwringing has been accompanied by political and legal crackdowns: The ADL and the Brandeis Center have filed a lawsuit against Ohio State, the House Committee on Education has launched an investigation into Columbia, and Harvard President Claudine Gay and University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill have both been pushed out of their positions due to their handling of tensions around campus antisemitism. But is this really all about antisemitism? What do these narratives leave out of frame?

In this episode, Jewish Currents editor-in-chief Arielle Angel, editor-at-large Peter Beinart, associate editor Mari Cohen, and publisher Daniel May dissect the common features of these campus antisemitism narratives—and consider what ends they serve. They discuss the difference between antisemitism and political ostracism, the need for more accurate reporting on campus dynamics, the confluence between the anti-antisemitism and the anti-DEI crusade, and the ways that the campus antisemitism panic can result in crackdowns on—rather than protection of—liberal freedoms.

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

Articles Mentioned and Further Reading:

The Golden Age of American Jews Is Ending,” Franklin Foer, The Atlantic

The War at Stanford,” Theo Baker, The Atlantic

The New Antisemitism,” Noah Feldman, Time Magazine

‘Pro-Israel’ Pundits Don’t Talk About Israel,” Peter Beinart, Jewish Currents

Toward a Sober Assessment of Campus Antisemitism,” Ben Lorber, Jewish Currents

Homeland Violence and Diaspora Insecurity: An Analysis of Israel and American Jewry,” Ayal Feinberg, Politics and Religion (and similar studies from Belgium and Australia)

U.S. College Students and the War in Israel: Jewish Engagement and Social Tension on Campus,” 2024 study by Eitan Hersh

Jewish College Students in America,” 2022 study by Eitan Hersh

The Push to ‘Deactivate’ Students for Justice in Palestine,” Alex Kane, Jewish Currents

The Campaign Against D.E.I.,” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, The New Yorker

Campus Wars,” On the Nose, Jewish Currents

Navigating Intersectional Landscapes,” 2019 report by the Reut Group (via Wayback Machine)

November 2023 National Survey of Jewish Voters,” Jewish Electorate Institute

Muslim student struck in Stanford hit-and-run calls for love, compassion, from hospital bed,” Camila Bernal and Chris Boyette, CNN

NYPD Investigating ‘Skunk’ Chemical Attack at Columbia U,” Johanna Alonso, Inside Higher Ed


Transcript

Arielle Angel: Hello and welcome back to On the Nose, the Jewish Currents Podcast. I’m Arielle Angel, editor-in-chief of Jewish Currents, and today, I’m joined by Peter Beinart, editor at large at Jewish Currents.

Peter Beinart: Hey, how are you doing? Glad to be here.

AA: Making his debut on the podcast, Daniel May, publisher of Jewish Currents

Daniel May: Hello, everybody.

AA: And Mari Cohen, associate editor of Jewish Currents.

Mari Cohen: Hello, everybody.

AA: Today, we’re gonna be talking about campus antisemitism. And I just want to say, there’s a lot happening in the world of campus antisemitism. There are a lot of lawsuits that are being brought against schools filed by the Brandeis Center, by the ADL. There is a lot of activity happening at the level of boards and trustees. We saw earlier, at the end of last year, at least two university presidents now (from Harvard and from Penn) be pushed out of their roles.

The way that these issues are working their way through the bloodstream of the American public right now is through media and through the representations of campus antisemitism in media that has provided the informational landscape that all of this is based off of. So I do want to focus us, at least to start our conversation, and then maybe we can get in later in the conversation to some of the other things that are happening with some of the recent articles that have been discussing the climate on campus. Two of the ones that we’re going to talk about today were in The Atlantic. One just came out by Theo Baker, who’s a sophomore at Stanford, called “The War at Stanford,” and one came out a few weeks ago by Franklin Foer called “The Golden Age of American Jews is Ending,” which wasn’t only about campus antisemitism, but that was sort of the bookend of the piece and the main source of evidence for his thesis, which is that the golden age of American Jews is ending and that that is concurrent with the decline in liberalism that will be scary for everyone.

So I’m just going to kick it to you guys: What is happening here? What is the narrative that is being told? And also, I think, we’ve been hearing this narrative for a really long time; this isn’t the first time on this podcast, even, that we’ve talked about campus antisemitism. What about this moment is new, if anything, post October 7?

MC: I actually think the narratives are pretty similar, just in terms of tropes that have been a fixture of the liberal media for a long time, including conversations around cancel culture. I think that there has always been this kind of parallel conversation about the safety of Jewish students on campus—particularly the idea that campuses are unsafe for Jewish students specifically because of pro-Palestine activism. But I do think the volume of these kinds of stories and pieces published in these big magazines, and going on the cover, and being the mainstream story in American discourse is what’s different.

DM: I also think that part of what’s different is, it seems that the scale of the incidents and the kinds of experiences that Jewish students are having on campus is also exacerbated in a moment like this. One of the things that’s so frustrating and challenging about this conversation is that it is both one that demands attention, demands response, and even I think some of the experiences and anecdotes that these pieces describe are ones that should concern us. And yet, at the same time, it seems like to even be in this conversation is to indulge this dynamic, where this becomes the story that preoccupies all of American Jewish communal discourse at a moment of ongoing mass killing and starvation. And so it becomes hard to even think about how to think about it, given the fact that the nature of this conversation contributes to the dynamic that is so frustratingly apparent in all these pieces.

AA: I mean, I want to speak actually to that. It reminded me of a piece, Peter, that you wrote for Jewish Currents a while back that was basically about how certain liberal or center-right pundits didn’t talk about Israel at all, that they mostly (when they purported to talk about Israel) talk about, essentially, campus antisemitism. I mean, you were writing specifically about someone like Bari Weiss, and I do see that dynamic very much on display here, where I haven’t seen a lot of what The Atlantic has published about what is happening in Gaza, but there’s at least a dozen pieces now that are beating the drum about campus antisemitism. And there is a way that I’ve noticed with my family members, for example, where when they hear these stories about campus antisemitism, even if they’re very disturbed by what’s happening in Gaza, it allows them to turn it off. It’s almost like one cancels out the other. Suddenly, we can’t do anything about Gaza, we can’t really participate in that discourse, because there’s this campus threat, and actually, the campus threat proves that everybody wants to kill us. And therefore, we’re stuck back in a paralysis with this issue.

PB: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. The problem is that a lot of this writing about campus antisemitism isn’t really putting what’s happening in the US (or on campuses) in conversation with what’s happening on the ground in a sophisticated way. I think that the dynamics play out in a couple of ways. So one is that there is academic research that shows that when Israel has larger military operations that kill more Palestinians, there is a spike in reports of antisemitic incidents. There was an academic study in the US, one in Australia, one in Belgium. So the fact that we are seeing a bigger spike in reports of antisemitic incidents at a time when Israel is killing an unprecedented number of people is really predictable, right? And it’s really important to be able to say that. That doesn’t mean to say that Israel is responsible for someone committing an antisemitic incident in the United States. It’s also the case that we’re seeing a rise in anti-Palestinian incidents—in some ways for the flip side, right, because of people who were responding to what Hamas did and taking it out on Palestinians. So I think, unfortunately, sometimes it’s hard to make that point without being put in a situation in which you then get accused of Israel being responsible for the rise in antisemitism, which isn’t the point. The point is, these two things are related. Just empirically, it’s almost certain that if this war were to end, the number of incidents would probably go down. So that’s one thing that I think often people are not really engaging in. It’s as if there’s been a huge spike in antisemitism, and it’s just because all of these lovers of Hamas somehow came out of the woodwork.

And then the second thing is that a lot of this writing about campus antisemitism doesn’t engage enough with what’s happening in Gaza to allow the reader to understand why people might be really angry and upset, right? Of course, it doesn’t justify antisemitism, but it’s not pathological to be really, really angry and upset about Gaza, because it’s really awful, and our government is in the thick of it. And so what’s happening is, that is moving people on the left, who are already pro-Palestinian, to be more intolerant of pro-Israel perspectives. It means that there’s a kind of social antagonism, ideological exclusion that is stronger now towards students and others who are pro-Israel. And that’s very, very disconcerting for them, and often even more disconcerting for their parents, because it is a shift in American culture over the last generation that’s pretty dramatic. But ironically, it’s often been American Jewish center-right pundits who have been telling us, for all these years, that ideological antagonism and fierce debate is not actually the same as bigotry, that it’s actually something that we’re supposed to accept and even welcome on university campuses. And yet, that’s not the sensibility that’s applied when the debate becomes around Israel and Zionism.

AA: I think some of what you’re getting at here is also the question of the difference between antisemitism and political ostracization, which is one that we’ve struggled with over the years in terms of how to talk about it. Because, as we know (and we’ve said this on the podcast many times), it is true that, even if it’s changing, a solid three-quarters of the Jewish community, let’s just say, do consider themselves Zionist, and certainly all kinds of official or mainstream Jewish organizations on campus (that are not like a JVP, but certainly the Hillel) do have a position, have excluded Palestinian speakers for many, many years, do participate in Zionist activity. And I think there are also many groups that have outside funding, very well-funded campus groups (Dogs for Israel, or whatever). Some of these pro-Israel campus groups are reinforcing a sense that Judaism and Zionism are the same thing, which many students who are raised with Zionism as an ideology in their homes and in their synagogues, accept that on themselves. And so, how do we make that distinction, first of all? And, second of all, why do we expect that campus activists—who, remember, whenever we’re talking about campuses, we’re talking about very, very young people; we’re talking about, in many cases, people who are on the border out of childhood into adulthood—how do we expect them to make a distinction in the Jewish community that Jewish communities are not making themselves? And then how does the Jewish community then speak honestly about what is actually happening here?

MC: I have some data that I think actually might be instructive about some of this. There’s a new study that came out that was studying the responses of Jewish and non-Jewish students to stuff going on on campus, I think this past November and December, so November/December 2023. Obviously, very close aftermath of October 7 and early days of Israel’s assault on Gaza. And Eitan Hirsh is a researcher who had also previously studied Jewish students and non-Jewish students on campus and antisemitism in 2022, and actually, his work is quoted in the Franklin Foer piece in The Atlantic. Foer actually cites a statistic in which Hirsh found that, on campuses with a relatively high proportion of Jewish students, nearly one in five non-Jewish students said they wouldn’t want to be friends with someone who supports the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. In Foer’s words, that means they were saying, in essence, that they couldn’t be friends with the majority of Jews. And he described this as a number that haunts him. And so it’s interesting because what we can see, actually, in this 2023 survey, is that it is true that half of the most liberal students say that they don’t want to be friends with students who are supportive of Israel. But under 10% of these very liberal students say that they avoid Jews because of their views on Israel. And so, what’s interesting is that the students are both saying that they don’t want to be friends with most people who support Israel, but they’re also saying: No, I don’t avoid Jews. So I think kind of what we’re seeing is like the students trying to negotiate this contradiction.

AA: Well also, just to say, I think there are people on our staff who would also say: Look, my friend group at this point doesn’t include a lot of people who are supportive of the Jewish state as such. I think that if you think that kind of support is consistent with Jewish supremacy in Israel (which many people do), it’s, to them, the same as saying: I wouldn’t support an ethnostate anywhere, and I wouldn’t support people who support those things. I mean, basically, what do we do with this? What do we do with this difficulty?

MC: What’s been hard is, I don’t think the left in the Jewish life has had a compelling answer to this difficulty so far, because I think what we often do is we say: Well, not all Jews are Zionists (which is obviously true), and not all Jews are pro-Israel. And it is true that especially lately, Jewish leftist activists have been some of the faces on the forefront of the struggle for Palestine solidarity in the United States, but it also elides the fact that, right now, most Jews—from most of the data that I’ve ever seen and analyzed—most probably are Zionist, or even if they wouldn’t use the Zionist label, they would say that they believe that Israel should be a Jewish state. I think the left has found this a really uncomfortable fact to grapple with, and so we’ve tried to just push it aside by saying: Well, these two things aren’t the same.

DM: I feel myself really, I don’t know, uneasy and also confused around these matters. Because on one hand, I feel like there are all sorts of positions that people in my world take that I would want to say are ones that would then render them people that I would not want to be friends with. And in the abstract, support for permanent Jewish domination is one of those things. And yet, I am in Jewish community where that is the position of many, many people, and I remain committed to those institutions and to the relationships with many of those people in those institutions. And on one hand, I feel like it would be totally defensible for a student or somebody else to say: I’m not going to be in personal relationship with somebody who is a Zionist. And on the other hand, I do think that de facto with that licenses is social ostracization of the vast majority of Jews who grew up in Zionist institutions. And I also don’t feel comfortable just saying that that kind of ostracization is okay, even as I find those views that dominate the institutions that I also was raised in reprehensible.

AA: But it is actually okay. Like, it’s okay for these kids to experience social ostracization. It’s not the fault of other students who don’t want to engage with them, that they don’t want to engage with them.

DM: No, of course, we all choose our friends, and we can choose to be friends with whoever we want to be friends with. But again, I think what it means in practice is we’re saying that we don’t have a problem with Jews being ostracized for, you know, [being] raised in Jewish institutions, which are going to produce people who are supportive of the Jewish state.

AA: Then the question is: Are we giving them room to change? Like, is this the way to get them to change? And some people would say, “Yes,” and some people would say, “No,” and some people say, “I don’t care.” But it does seem like, for Jewish Currents, or for Jews on the left, that does have to be a question that we have to take up. Are we giving them room to change?

DM: I do think that there’s a way in which understanding the degree to which Jewish institutions have made Jewish identity so inextricable with support for Israel and support for Jewish supremacy does, at least, open the possibility of a certain kind of generosity towards folks who are raised within those institutions.

AA: Right, especially young ones. Peter, I was just going to turn to you specifically because I know that you’ve spent a lot of time on campuses this year doing talks, and I just wonder how this tracks with what you’ve been seeing.

PB: I do think that I’ve met students who feel that sense of ostracism as very painful for them and who feel that it even crosses the line into antisemitism. But I also think we all know that, actually, there’s also a lot of really valuable communication and interaction that takes place across these lines, and that actually does lead Jewish students to change their views. I think the transformation in views (that has now become kind of a cliche, I think) is happening faster for younger people on college campuses. And that’s, of course, something that the establishment Jewish organizations don’t have an interest in talking about. But I’m struck by how often that happens very, very fast, and oftentimes, it happens in private conversations, in interactions that people have with the person on their hallway, which actually are really great. Because again, there is also this tendency in some of this journalism, and in the Jewish organizations, to always want to depict the pro-Palestine activist in the most menacing light, but they’re not necessarily so menacing, right? Oftentimes, they’re people who you can have really valuable conversations with—these students take classes.

So I think it’s not only a negative story; I’m actually struck that in some ways, the students who are more on the right—who are often very rooted in Hillel and often, like, if they’re more religiously observant—they seem less jarred, because it’s almost like they have this citadel. It’s the students who are less connected to that world, or are on a campus (like a small liberal arts campus) which doesn’t really have much of a pro-Israel infrastructure, who seem the most vulnerable, because oftentimes, they don’t necessarily even have a clear idea of what Zionism exactly means. But they don’t want to be put in a position in which they have to repudiate it in order to be a Jew in good standing. And it always just makes me feel that the tragic thing is that these Jewish institutions, our community institutions, have failed these kids. We should be, in a loving, compassionate, empathetic, thoughtful way, helping kids to understand why Zionism is hated by Palestinians so that their first experience of that is not in anti-apartheid week. That’s not the work of the pro-Palestine activist—it’s our work in our community. And you know, we at Jewish Currents and others have been asking people to do that for such a long time now, but it hasn’t been done enough, and the students are paying the price on campus.

MC: And the other thing is, when we talk about this idea that there’s been an increase in militancy of the movement and an increasing unwillingness to deal with people who have pro-Israel views, I do think that there is a failure of the Jewish institutions causing that as well, because I think that there were opportunities where there was a version of this activism that had a different set of demands, or that was more oriented towards finding cooperation with some of the maybe Jewish pro-Israel students—and it was completely ostracized and demonized the same exact way that this activism is being demonized now. And so, I think that it’s pretty natural that, over time, these students, these activists would just be less and less interested in even trying to appeal to or speak to any of those people. I mean, you even think about the way that J Street basically got accused of essentially being Hamas by so many quarters of the right-wing Jewish community. I mean, there’s like this crazy documentary smearing J Street that I remember people used to talk about when I was in college (it’s called, like, “The J Street Challenge,” or something). But, you know, you basically get to a point where anyone even offering the most mild dissent over the past 20 years has been smeared by these Jewish institutions, and so of course the pro-Palestine movement is not going to feel like it’s worth their time to try to speak in that direction.

AA: Just to give a broad overview, I would say that there’s actually a range of different kinds of antisemitic incidents that come up in these kinds of articles. And some of them are very concerning, that are very clearly antisemitic, calling people dirty Jews, following them around and harassing them, people who are wearing kippahs, whether or not they are doing something at that moment that identifies them as having a particular political orientation. And then there’s also, as we discussed, cases that are more straightforward political protests; for example, speakers associated with the IDF speaking on campus and there being protests of those kinds of speeches, things like that. And there are also cases that may be somewhere in between. I think what is difficult is that what we get in these media accounts are very rarely—I don’t know, I don’t know how else to say it—trustworthy. I mean, for example, in The Forward piece we have recounting of a 2014 incident (and this is recounted just straightforwardly) that Jewish students received eviction notices on the doors of their dorm rooms to protest evictions that the Israeli state was doing in Jerusalem. And I recognized this right away, because I’ve been paying attention to this for a long time, and the activists have tried to defend themselves multiple times, that these were signs that were put up in multiple dorms, no idea who’s Jewish and who’s not; that this was just a protest, it didn’t target Jewish students. The way that that was picked up and the way that it ricocheted, it made a huge deal at the time (this was 2014), and now, it’s in this Forward article as evidence of this long history.

In the Stanford piece that came out, there was an incident where a professor singled out Jewish students and made them stand in the side of the room. There are people who were in that room who are saying it didn’t happen that way. And I feel like, you know, we at Jewish Currents, we don’t have time to go through and re-report all of these reports. But, because the people who are reporting on these issues have already made up their minds that this is a huge problem—that Jews are very much oppressed and that there is no difference between political ostracization and antisemitism—you have this climate of credulity around, basically, what these incidents are and what they’re made of. I’m not saying that there isn’t antisemitism; as Peter said, I think it goes up significantly in these moments, and we have to be on guard against it. But I have a very hard time reading these articles without then looking up what the activists in question are saying about the way that those events are being represented. And invariably, you find a very different narrative on that side of things.

I mean, even just in the Stanford article, there’s an incident where there’s a protest of a speaker, and the author says that someone emerged as a leader of the event, quote, unquote, and that they started shouting antisemitic things—that may have happened, but how do you characterize who’s a leader of a protest when there’s a group of people protesting? Do we know if that person was a student, or somebody off the street? What is the context here? Because if this is just a crazy person who joined the protest, and then the author of the article is saying, “They emerged as a leader,” I don’t know what that means. And there isn’t a lot of scrutiny on the way that these things are written. So it’s very hard to know what’s actually going on.

PB: Yeah, I think you’re making a really important point. And I think the critical question to ask is—again, not to suggest that there’s not real antisemitism going on—but that the way we treat these incidents should be the same way we would treat an incident if someone was making an accusation of anti-Black racism or anti-LGBT, right? I mean, it’s just basic journalistic responses: Talk to people on different sides, try to figure it out. And sometimes, you even find that it’s some of the same institutions that are most skeptical about overheated accusations of bigotry (when they’re coming from, let’s say, Black people) seem to not have that same attitude when it comes to this. I also think that part of the problem is, as you said, that antisemitism in the establishment Jewish conversation is just a word for anything bad that happens to Jews. You know, at Berkeley, there was a pro-Israel speaker who wasn’t allowed to speak on campus—I think they were brought back and they were allowed to speak, but there was some disruption, and they weren’t allowed to speak. And so I don’t like that; I believe that, basically, people, regardless of their views, should be allowed to speak—you should protest, but you shouldn’t prevent them from being able to give their speech. So that’s bad. But I don’t think it’s antisemitism. If it was a Christian Evangelical pro-Israel speaker, they would have been doing exactly the same thing, right? It’s because they were defending Israel. And for that matter, this happens when right-wing people come to speak on all manner of subjects, and I don’t like it. But it’s that unwillingness to unpack these things. There can be problems of intolerance and infringement of free speech which are not antisemitism. But I think it all gets kind of conflated together.

MC: Yeah, I mean, that’s partly what I find so frustrating, is it just feels like all the standards of fact checking and inquiry just go out the window when there’s these discussions. It’s completely normal in these pieces to say: This only happens to Jews, and this doesn’t happen to anyone else. And that’s just not true. I mean, a fact-checking process would catch some of these assertions. For example, in the Forward piece, he says: “But many governments in the world share these undesirable traits—still, no one defaces Chinese restaurants in San Francisco because Beijing imprisons Uighurs and occupies Tibet.” But it actually is true that Chinese Americans have faced a lot of abuse based on stuff that the Chinese government does. Russian Americans were facing abuse and having restaurants defaced and boycotted during the invasion of Ukraine. That doesn’t mean it’s a good thing—but it’s not actually only a problem in the case of Jews in Israel. It’s a broader phenomenon that happens when something is in the news about a country doing something reprehensible. So I think that there’s just these statements that get thrown around that are just put into public discourse without any scrutiny, and it’s really frustrating.

DM: It’s not only a matter, I think, of journalistic ethics, but also just basic intellectual historical rigor. I mean, one of the things that all of these pieces do is, first, make a move to say anti-Zionism is not the same thing as antisemitism. And then they go about telling a history that would basically make anybody who was critical of Zionism either completely irrational, completely naive, or basically antisemitic. And just to give one example, so this is from the Noah Feldman piece in Time Magazine—so this is how he describes the Nakba: “The Palestinian catastrophe, or Nakba of 1948, was that when the Arab invasion of Israel failed to destroy the nascent Jewish state, many Palestinians who had fled or been forced out of their homes by Israeli troops were unable to return.” Now, setting aside the grammatical mess of that sentence, that just ends up standing in for this history would then make anybody who is critical of the founding of the State of Israel, basically, somebody who was just—

AA: Doesn’t know that history at all.

DM: Either that, or a fanatic, or an antisemite. And the same kind of argument shows up in both of the pieces of The Atlantic, where basically, the writers make this distinction that antisemitism is not anti-Zionism, and then give a story of Israel that would make anybody who is critical of the idea of a Jewish state into somebody who does not care about Jewish lives—and therefore, de facto, an antisemite.

PB: To make that point, right, and this is from Franklin Foer’s piece, he says: “A disconcertingly large number of Israel’s critics on the left did not share that vision of peaceful coexistence,” by which he means—he’s talking about two states basically, “or believe that Jews had a right to a nation of their own.” So what you’re essentially doing is you’re suggesting that if people don’t support two states, they can’t believe in a vision of peaceful coexistence. And then it does quote Tony Judt, who’s then given as one example of maybe someone who’s just naive but not hateful, right—so then you’re bringing a Jewish intellectual and basically saying: Okay, well, that’s an exception. But this doesn’t grapple with the fact that, you know: Is the two state solution even possible? That never comes up in the conversation, which is a really important point. And secondly, if you read Palestinian writing, you find lots and lots of people who really do believe in peaceful coexistence and have been writing about it a lot—but not within a framework of a state that privileges Jews over Palestinians. And I think this is what that kind of discourse, just as Daniel’s saying, it basically evades all of that stuff, and, as a result, it’s not really engaging in a useful and thoughtful way with what Palestinians are actually saying.

AA: I want to dig in a little deeper into what these pieces are doing. Because initially, I was sort of like: Clearly these pieces are serving a function, and the function is allowing us to turn away from Gaza, to say this actually isn’t worth our time, because Jew hatred is so strong, to reinforce that feeling in a way that forecloses feeling anything about what is happening. But I actually don’t think that that’s the only thing that’s going on here. You know, obviously, with the Forward piece and the way that he’s kind of tying this to the decline of liberalism in America, he’s doing something else. And there has been a long conversation about the ways that Jews are not included in the intersectional agenda, and that has been used as a way to discredit, basically, movements for racial justice more broadly in the United States. And in the UK, with like David Baddiel’s Jews Don’t Count— this kind of idea.

What seems clear to me in this moment is that Jews are, in some regard, standing in for white people on campus. It would be too hard for them to say, basically: This is anti-white, this kind of education and this kind of environment and this ideology is anti-white. But in the Jew, liberal America has found an outlet for its anxieties about what they see as the overreaches of the left. And now it doesn’t have to be worried about whiteness, per se, it can be worried about antisemitism. Because I’m wondering, like, what are non-Jews getting out of all of this coverage of campus antisemitism? And this is the only thing that I really can understand about it. And also why, as we’ve seen, this has become so connected to questions about DEI and questions about, basically, academic freedom on campus and the ways that racial justice has been implicated. I mean, the place where this has reached its apex is in Florida (and we’re gonna write about this actually, in our next issue) with DeSantis banning campus groups like Students for Justice in Palestine, but also, at the same time, really constraining, in the Stop WOKE Act, what teachers are allowed to teach—what kinds of histories and what they’re allowed to say. I think it is a very scary thing for Jews to become the face of this kind of repression. And in that regard, this is a very different kind of decline of liberalism than Foer is describing. Certainly, I would agree with him that there’s a decline of liberalism happening, but also, in this moment, it seems that Jewish students are being used as a pawn to advance a kind of anti-liberal agenda as opposed to the canaries in the coal mine as we’re used to thinking of them.

PB: Yeah, that’s exactly right. I mean, mainstream Jewish organizations are deeply implicated in these attacks on liberalism. The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to every college president, basically saying: Please find a pretext for banning your Students for Justice in Palestine chapter on campus. The anti-BDS laws, which now, as Lara Friedman and others have pointed out, have become basically a model for all kinds of other things, which basically say: No state employment for you if you take an unpopular political position. And you’re right. The claim that was made at that hearing with those college presidents in December was: Your campuses are hotbeds of antisemitism because you have DEI and because DEI is antisemitic. I think it’s a terrible position for these organizations to put it in, and it is a position that puts you in league with Ron DeSantis and Donald Trump. And if you’re concerned about liberalism, you should be concerned about that.

MC: I think saying “used as a pawn”—I don’t know if that’s quite the way to put it because it’s really like Jews offering themselves up as a pawn, or using themselves. Look, obviously, there’s people like Ron DeSantis and people on the Christian right who are able to use Jews, or someone like Christopher Ruffo, the anti-DEI, anti-CRT guy, who’s going to be going after this stuff, anyway; but somebody like Bill Ackman is basically becoming the new anti-DEI crusader. He did start from this position of wanting to protect Zionist Jews (and I don’t know, maybe also getting back at Harvard for making his daughter a Marxist), but it’s not like the Jewish institutions and figures are passive characters in the scheme. I mean, they’re active.

DM: It’s worth noting just the depth of the hypocrisy of it all, because it’s the same folks who have been critical of the feelings of specific students—

PB: “No safe spaces!”

DM: Yeah, right. You know: These are the snowflakes blocking various kinds of speech. And then, it’s the exact same argument that is then used about, of course, Jewish feelings, Jewish notions of lack of safety—that is then used with far, far greater legislative and financial force at work to criminalize all kinds of speech or shut down various kinds of student groups. It’s stark just how deep the hypocrisy of it all runs.

MC: I also don’t know if it’s just hypocrisy, but it might be strategy, in a way. Like it works better for them to be able to say, “We’re actually doing this on behalf of an oppressed marginalized group who’s in danger on campus” than to just whine about snowflakes all the time. It seems like maybe they’re having more success with it. So I don’t know if it’s as conscious or as cynical as that.

AA: Oh, it definitely is. I mean, you remember, Mari, the Reut Group did a paper. They’re a think tank who influences policy in Israel and in pro-Israel circles in the United States, and they did a report (this is like 10 years ago now) that was basically like: Intersectionality is the thing, and if we want to be a part of this conversation, we need to be able to reclaim this for ourselves. And it was like a list of Do this/Don’t do this; basically, don’t attack the framework, become a part of it. Now, I think that the strategists have decided that they’ll take a little from Column A and take a little bit from Column B when it suits their purposes, but certainly, that was a concerted effort.

MC: Right. I guess what I’m saying is, I don’t think that the editors of The Atlantic are sitting in a room being like: How can we best advance our anti-woke crusade today? We’ll call them snowflakes. But actually, no, we’ll switch to doing it through the Jews. I think they believed what they were saying then, and they believe what they’re saying now. But I do think you’re right, that obviously there has been concerted strategy by some of the Israel advocacy groups around this stuff.

PB: Yeah. The other lacuna—the other thing you don’t see—is you just don’t see very much writing about what it’s like to be a Palestinian student on campus, which is not an easy thing, right? I mean, the doxing that’s happened—that’s also just something which is a really critical missing part of this. Those pieces are maybe in left publications, but any in the more established mainstream publications are very rarely written.

MC: Yeah, that was what I found so egregious about this Stanford report by the student, which is that there was a hit-and-run attack on an Arab Muslim pro-Palestine protester that happened in November—like an actual potential hate crime, violent attack—and that does not get mentioned in this Atlantic piece. There’s no direct mention of it. There’s like a little bit of lip service to the fact that Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students are also experiencing this stuff on campus, but no one’s interviewed. There’s no direct voice given to them. I mean, it’s wild that that could be let stand in that way.

PB: I mean, there’s been a murder in Chicago; stabbing in Texas; these college students were shot at Columbia; there was these people with skunk gas; there’s been a lot of stuff, you really have to work hard to look away from all this.

AA: Well, I just want to call attention to some of the ways that these pieces are similar, which is that they all have lines in them that pay lip service to the other side. So they’ll say, like: Well, Jewish students also were involved in some harassment of the pro-Palestine side or whatever. But that is never dug into. So you get the sense as you’re reading it that you’re hearing the other side or whatever because you have this line, but you never actually hear that in a narrative form. That’s not what the piece is actually intending to do. I think there’s also a conversation here about how to contend with the fact that these kinds of narratives are more legible in a liberal context than the narratives that the movement for Palestinian justice and rights are advancing—the narrative that looks at Israel as a kind of colonial endeavor. And look, the fact that it’s a colonial endeavor is written all over early Zionism, but I do have this question about legibility and whether that is something that people in the movement—and by the way, I’m not just talking about SJP, I’m also talking about Jewish Currents—have the responsibility to start to think about how we become as legible as this kind of narrative has become.

PB: Right. I think that the pro-Palestine movement is threatening to Americans because a conversation of decolonization, for Americans who are halfway conscious, is going to recognize that that cuts a little too close to home. So there’s something not surprising about the fact that that kind of discourse is challenging and threatening. But I think the point you’re making in general is that I would really urge those people to commit to the principles of free speech. I would say to them: You have good arguments. The people who are trying to defend what Israel is doing, and the nature of the state, don’t have good arguments. Let their people speak, and actually even go and debate their people, because the strength of your argument will come through. I think that that’s a liberal framework that I actually think that people understand and respect and I think is important, and I think would actually be helpful for the movement.

MC: What’s complicated about the legibility thing is it’s really about legibility to white liberals. But I do think that there is a phenomenon in which many people who have more recent direct specific experience of oppression by the American empire—Black Americans, Indigenous Americans—for a lot of people, the existing rhetoric of the Palestine movement really does resonate. You can see that just in polling too, around ceasefire, around all of that, around current support, around solidarity between different minority groups in Palestine and campus. And as I think our contributing editor Dylan Saba has talked about on this podcast before, there is an organizing strategy in which, if you’re knocking at different doors, you don’t keep knocking on the door of the person who’s more resistant to your arguments—you knock on the door of the people who are more willing to join you. And so that’s, I think, what the strategy is that we’re seeing, which is that the white liberal—and specifically, the white Jewish liberal—has not been a very accommodating audience (and it is not very legible to them), And so, the movement is not trying to necessarily convince those people. I think that there’s obviously a couple of issues that come with that. One of them is that a lot of those people are the people who are in power. But I think the real thing is not necessarily a question of legibility in terms of how the movement wins, but it’s really about: Are Jews gonna get left behind? Right? Are Jewish, white liberal Americans just going to be part of a community that no longer identifies with the struggle of oppressed people in the United States?

DM: I mean, I do think that the broad center-right, the pro-Israel world, has been extremely effective at making certain lines, certain talking points, just the water that we swim in, in dominant publications. Whether it’s something like Israel: The Only Jewish State In The World—it becomes a parenthetical. I do think that there is work that is worth doing in thinking about: What are the equivalent of those sorts of points that we think are worth driving forward. Like going back to the way that Feldman describes the Nakba in 1948. So between 6% and 7% of the land in Palestine was owned by Jews in 1947; over 90% after 1948. So what would it take to have that basic historical fact be part of what any writer on this topic has to engage in as a way of describing the reality of what unfolded? I, at least, think it’s worth thinking about: What does it take to make certain aspects of the history, certain aspects of the narrative, hegemonic in the way that the description that Feldman offers here has become hegemonic in our current moment?

MC: I do think there’s been some progress on that front. Even the fact that Foer, in his piece, has to acknowledge the binational vision as a legitimate vision (even if he calls it naive), I think is, perhaps, even different than what you would have seen five to ten years ago. But I don’t know, that is a big organizing question. And I just want to bring in these statistics again from the Hersh study: They have a question to Jewish students about whether they support a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine, and apparently, in 2022, 26% said, “I don’t think there should continue to be a Jewish state in Israel/Palestine,” and then in 2023, 19%, said that. And so, it does seem like, actually, maybe there’s been almost an opposite polarization of what’s happening to the rest of the students on campus, which is that the Jewish students might be, in some ways, becoming more Zionist, or identifying more with the pro-Israel positions. I think it makes sense. It might not be a question for the Palestine movement, because it would make sense for them to focus on the audience that’s going to be easier to reach, but I do think it’s a question for us.

PB: I think the younger generation of American Jews, they’re going to be defined, in some ways, by their struggle over this question over Zionism. But I think that there is more of an awareness in public discussion of some of these basic things. Just the fact that they use the term apartheid in a way that they would never have before. I think that is growing, and that discourse shift, I think, is making positions that are critical of Jewish statehood more legitimate. And it is very difficult for those Jewish students and American Jews who just determined all that’s antisemitism. But I think the good news is that there’s a much larger cohort of young American Jews than older American Jews who don’t see it in that way.

AA: 4Well, and I think it’s just worth noting that the numbers support that this is an older person’s preoccupation. I mean, there are students who are expressing that they’re experiencing antisemitism on campus. I’d say somewhere in the range of like 35% say that they’ve experienced something or that they’re worried about it. But something like 80-something percent of their parents’ generation are saying that they are worried about it. So there is a gap between the fear of the older generation and the experience of the younger one. I think they are related, obviously, but they are not the same.

MC: Among, I think, ages 18 to 35, it’s something like only half think that the US should keep sending weapons and aid to Israel. So you know, there is like a very clear contestation for the future of the politics in the Jewish community, and I think it’s by no means set in stone. I think what I was struck by in the campus survey was whether, for the Jews in the age range who are still on college campuses, whether there’s actually been some backsliding since October 7. And who knows? It’s one survey. I think we’ll have to keep seeing how it goes. But the concern that this could end up leading to re-entrenchment for certain parts of the population, and how we could try to counter that.

AA: I think this is a good place to stop. Thank you all for joining me today in this discussion. If you liked this episode, please share it (especially share it with your parents who are freaked out about campus antisemitism right now). Hi, parents.

MC: Hello!


AA: And subscribe to Jewish Currents: JewishCurrents.org. Thanks a lot, everyone. Bye bye.

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