What Really Happened at Bard College?

A Forward editor alleges she was protested for being Jewish. Witnesses tell a different story.

Mairav Zonszein
October 14, 2019
Batya Ungar-Sargon (left), Ruth Wisse, and Shany Mor on a panel at Bard College, October 10th, 2019. Video still from the event.

ON SATURDAY EVENING, the Forward published a column by its opinion editor, Batya Ungar-Sargon, with the headline “I Was Protested At Bard College For Being A Jew.” The article refers to an incident two days earlier at the “Racism and Anti-Semitism” conference, organized by Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center. In her op-ed, Ungar-Sargon claims that a student protest against a panel she moderated, which was called “Who Needs Anti-Semitism?”, was antisemitic. She also implicates the conference organizers as well as fellow speakers—among them the Black Jewish educator Shahanna McKinney-Baldon—in the protesters’ alleged antisemitism. 

The protests, organized by the campus group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), targeted the panel primarily because it featured Ruth Wisse, a retired professor of Yiddish literature at Harvard with a history of bigoted remarks toward Palestinians and Muslims—and also because Ungar-Sargon and Shany Mor, an Israeli fellow at the Arendt Center and former director of foreign policy on Israel’s right-wing National Security Council, were the moderators. Ungar-Sargon portrays the protesters as straightforwardly antisemitic, according to the following logic: “Didn’t they see that protesting Jews over Israel when they are not even talking about Israel is racist? Didn’t they understand that saying we were responsible for the behavior of the Israeli Jews just because we shared their ethnicity was racist? That making every conversation with Jews about Israel is racist?” 

Ungar-Sargon continues: “The center’s leadership, and the two Bard College deans attending the conference, seemed to have no particular plan to handle what was fixing to become an ugly disruption of Jews trying to discuss anti-Semitism.” Overall, the op-ed gives the impression that Ungar-Sargon was targeted by antisemitic protesters for being Jewish, that she was barred from speaking, that fellow panelists egged this on, and that the organizer—who is also Jewish—sat there and did nothing about it. Ungar-Sargon’s account has been uncritically amplified by many influential Jewish voices, including the head of the Anti-Defamation League, Jonathan Greenblatt, and New York Times opinion editor and writer Bari Weiss, the author of a recent book on fighting antisemitism.

But interviews with participants and witnesses reveal glaring omissions and misrepresentations in Ungar-Sargon’s account, casting doubt on her allegations of antisemitism. Roger Berkowitz, the director of the Arendt Center and the organizer of the conference, disputes the op-ed. “For her to say we didn’t have a plan is astoundingly false. And to suggest someone was not allowed to talk is just a fabrication,” Berkowitz tells me in a phone interview. “The title of the piece is so duplicitous it’s hard to imagine,” Berkowitz adds.

Berkowitz says he sent an email ahead of the conference warning of a possible protest, and that 24 hours before the event, when it became clear to him that one would be taking place, he, along with Bard President Leon Botstein (who is also Jewish) informed Ungar-Sargon and her fellow panelists Wisse and Mor of the plan. In accordance with Bard’s code of conduct, students would be allowed to protest silently, but not to disrupt. If they interrupted, they would be removed, which is what happened. “Not one interruption was more than one minute long,” Berkowitz says. It is clear from the full video of the event that disruptors were swiftly removed and the panel was completed as planned.

There were only 19 student protesters in the large auditorium of over 100 people, according to both SJP and Berkowitz. Several people who were in the audience tell me the protest was largely silent and respectful; the protesters mostly stood near the stage and held signs—most citing anti-Muslim quotes by Wisse, as well as some that read “Zionism is Colonialism,” “Zionism is Racism,” and “anti-Zionism =/= anti-Semitism.” Several of the protesters were Jewish. Ungar-Sargon did not mention this in her piece, which also elided Wisse’s reputation for anti-Arab rhetoric, for deflecting any criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and for blaming the left and African Americans for antisemitism.

Adam Shatz, a staff writer with the London Review of Books who also spoke at the conference, describes Wisse to me as “a notorious anti-Arab racist and unconditional defender of Israel and its occupation.” Regarding the protest, Shatz adds, “It wasn’t Wisse’s identity as a Jew, or for that matter as an opponent of antisemitism, that was being challenged so much as her record of racism and her unconditional support of Israel.” Shatz notes that he personally doesn’t favor preventing people from speaking on campus, but that in any case, “Bard handled it well, dispersing the protest after its point had been made.” 

Ben Mulick, the SJP member who organized the protest, twice attempted to read a statement during Wisse’s speech criticizing her, Ungar-Sargon, and Mor for their politics, not their ethnic identity—but was removed. In the video, Wisse can be seen invoking the charge of antisemitism against the young students: “We were told that we would be able to have this panel without antisemitism being manifest.” Later, when Ungar-Sargon took the microphone to moderate, the remaining protesters began chanting “From Simon’s Rock to Palestine, doing nothing is a crime,” and were removed in under a minute. Ungar-Sargon’s claim that she “never got to say or do most of [the] things” she planned at the conference was solely a result of her own decision to leave the next day. 

Student protesters state that Wisse’s Islamophobia is entirely relevant to her treatment of the subject of antisemitism. “If it were not for the fact that Ruth Wisse has a history of saying horrid things about Palestinians and Muslims, I might agree that protesting her under the banner of Students for Justice in Palestine was antisemitic,” says Akiva Hirsch, one of the student protesters, who is Jewish. “But the fact of the matter is, Ruth Wisse has said terrible, racist, Islamophobic things. Nobody who says things like [...] ‘all Palestinians do is breed, bleed, and advertise their misery’ deserves any platform, let alone an academic one to discuss bigotry.”

Berkowitz does note that in 12 years of sponsoring talks, no speaker has ever been stopped from speaking, but every speaker who students have sought to de-platform is Jewish. “Insofar as students are protesting people they disagree with, the protest is a political protest and justified,” he says, adding, “Insofar as people are consistently protesting Jews, I think such protests potentially perpetuate antisemitism and do so at a time when antisemitism is rising. It’s something that can lead to more antisemitism if not done carefully.” 

Hirsch says of his decision to protest the panel, “[Wisse] being Jewish did nothing to inspire the protest. And for what it’s worth, I don’t like protesting my fellow Jews. But sometimes the right thing isn’t the fun thing.” 

In her op-ed, Ungar-Sargon also claims that her fellow conference speaker Shahanna McKinney-Baldon “was actually egging on what was a blatantly anti-Semitic protest.” McKinney-Baldon, a Black Jewish educator who grew up in Zionist youth movements, graduated from a Jewish high school, and majored in Hebrew in college, spoke on the panel that Ungar-Sargon was slated to moderate but which she decided to boycott, leaving the conference early instead.

McKinney-Baldon says that on Thursday evening, just before the protest, she saw Ungar-Sargon telling a student who looked visibly worried that they should not protest her panel because Wisse is a Holocaust survivor (Wisse’s family escaped Romania for Canada in 1940) and it would be antisemitic to protest the only all-Jewish panel. Ungar-Sargon then proceeded to invite the student to protest the next day’s panel that McKinney-Baldon was on, at which point McKinney-Baldon turned to the student and said, “I don’t agree with what she is saying,” referring to Ungar-Sargon, who then left. McKinney-Baldon says she then spoke for a few minutes with the student—who is also Jewish—and told them, “I don’t know what your platform is or if I agree with it, but use your voice.” McKinney-Baldon also stresses that the student proceeded to sit in the audience and did not end up taking part in the protest.

“What it sounds like in this piece was that I was actually egging on the protest and encouraging the group in a way that simply did not happen,” says McKinney-Baldon, who seemed rattled. “And I’m shocked by this misrepresentation and with the criticisms that are now coming my way. I am being accused in the media of antisemitism, without including that I’m Jewish, and this misrepresentation has been published without speaking to me for comment prior to publishing. It feels like bullying.”

This is not the first time Ungar-Sargon has publicly accused a woman of color of antisemitism. In February, Ungar-Sargon compared Rep. Ilhan Omar to David Duke after Omar tweeted about the outsized political and financial influence of the Israel lobby. (Omar apologized for those tweets following enormous backlash.) Since then, and in part based on Ungar-Sargon’s comments, Omar has faced bad faith attacks and threats to her safety emanating from the highest echelons of government. As Nylah Burton recounted in Jewish Currents in May, the Forward sent a fundraising email praising Ungar-Sargon for calling out Omar that was “teeming with anti-Blackness and Islamophobia” (an initial version of the email confused Omar with Rashida Tlaib, the only other Muslim woman in the US House). When Burton and other Black Jewish writers tried to communicate their discomfort to Ungar-Sargon, she did not respond, and ultimately cut ties with most of them.  

Ungar-Sargon’s critics don’t just come from the left. Kenneth Stern, the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, who worked with the American Jewish Committee on combatting antisemitism for 25 years, was at the conference and has already written his own account in a letter to the editor published in the Forward on Sunday that refutes many of Ungar-Sargon’s claims. “Ungar-Sargon’s assertion that bringing Israel into a discussion of anti-Semitism is inherently racist is mind-boggling,” he writes.

Stern tells me that he had been receiving emails from people all day who believed what they read in the Forward without looking at context. “The article plays into the fear that one side was trying to shut down the other, and they weren’t. They were protesting,” he says.

Ungar-Sargon did not respond to a request for comment, but Jodi Rudoren, the newly installed editor of the Forward, stands by the article. “I am very proud to have published the piece, along with the response,” Rudoren tells me. “I believe they help illuminate the very serious problems we are confronting regarding our ability to discuss critical issues, and, yes, help further that discussion. I would welcome additional voices on either what happened at the conference, or the broader questions the pieces confront.”

Ben Lorber, a Bard alum who was in the audience and who researches antisemitism and white nationalism, argues that this incident diverts attention from the real danger posed by antisemitism. “Wisse’s speech, and Ungar-Sargon’s op-ed, serve to distract us from the principal threat to American Jews. Instead of having a vital conversation about the growing threat of white nationalist violence and the Trump administration’s antisemitic rhetoric, we’re bickering over the supposed threat posed by a handful of nonviolent student human rights activists, many of whom were themselves Jewish.”

During her lecture on the “Who Needs Anti-Semitism?” panel, Wisse succinctly defined antisemitism as “the organization of politics against the Jews.” But in this instance, Jewish protesters, conference organizers, and speakers—in particular, a woman of color—have all been targeted by Ungar-Sargon’s espousal of this definition. It appears Ungar-Sargon used her platform to defame certain Jews and others who do not agree with her by accusing them of antisemitism—an accusation that carries significant reputational damage—without offering them a chance to respond. 

A few weeks ago, after Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez called Trump’s attacks on Rep. Adam Schiff antisemitic (an assessment Ungar-Sargon shared), Ungar-Sargon tweeted at Ocasio-Cortez that she should be careful not to toss around accusations of antisemitism. “For once it would be so cool if the anti-Semitic slur was the main offense, instead of the layup for a political attack,” Ungar-Sargon wrote. “I know you mean well. Please understand that our lives and fears are not a weapon, and how terrifying it is to us when they are used as such.”

Mairav Zonszein is an Israeli American journalist and commentator who has covered Israeli politics and US foreign policy for over a decade. She is a founding editor of +972 Magazine, and her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The New York Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Columbia Journalism Review, and more. She is currently senior analyst on Israel/Palestine with the International Crisis Group.