We keep asking for a public debate over Zionism, and a debate is taking place at last over the question of whether anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. Earlier this week the New York Times did a forum on that question and in the last day or so there have been two important statements on the issue, from a pro-Israel editor, Jane Eisner of the Forward, and from the president of Brown University.
Eisner says that Jewish identity now includes Zionism, and an attachment to its product, the very successful (her words) state of the Jews, so opposing Israel’s existence as a Jewish state is anti-Semitic. Whereas Brown President Christina Paxson equivocates. Criticism of Israel isn’t anti-Semitic, she says. Though she does think some Brown students went too far recently.
Whether or not you agree with these statements, it is good that they’re out there. More and more people are registering an opinion about Zionism; and we can look forward to a vigorous, open conversation at last about this ideology (and imho its tragic costs).
First, here ‘s Jane Eisner at the Forward. Her piece is titled, “How long can the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism survive?” Not very long, she says. She endorses the California Regents recent policy pronouncement saying that anti-Zionism is a form of anti-Semitism (even as she seeks to treat that pronouncement as fostering free speech). Eisner says it’s Jewish to dig Israel:
Most American Jews feel some attachment to Israel, and that attachment has become a central part of Jewish identity: a source of pride and sometimes anguish; a cultural, religious, familial and spiritual bond; a sense of a shared fate, and, in some cases, the only way they feel Jewish.
So it is understandable that any Jew, particularly a susceptible college student, would be offended by an attack on Zionism that felt like an attack on his or her Jewish identity…
Eisner says that BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) is pretty much anti-semitic too, inasmuch as BDS is opposed to the existence of a Jewish state.
The movement to urge universities, entertainers and corporations to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel can smack of anti-Semitism when it singles out the Jewish state with the purpose not to reform Israeli behavior but to challenge Israel’s existence altogether.
Or when Jewish organizations are stigmatized unless they disavow their ties to Israel. This happened recently at Brown University, when a group of activists pressured Janet Mock, a popular transgender woman of color, out of speaking at an event sponsored by the campus Hillel because of Hillel’s support for Israel.
Eisner says that Israel’s “success,” in growing Jewish numbers, has had the effect of erasing the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
[N]early 43% of the world’s Jewish population living there, compared with the 40% in the United States. Zionism’s great success has shifted the Jewish center of gravity toward Israel, drawing population and political power, and redrawing identity.
We saw that magnetic pull recently at the Forward. When we asked college students to share an experience that shaped their Jewish identity, we were surprised when all the responses touched on Israel . Nothing about Jewish faith, ritual, tradition, food or humor. These students agreed on little politically, but they were bound in one sense by the common touchstone of Israel.
So if you’re really Jewish, you’re into Israel, Eisner is saying. For her Jewishness is obviously a cultural/ethnic category, not a religious one.
Eisner referred to the Janet Mock incident at Brown. A trans gender activist canceled an appearance at the school’s Hillel last month after Palestinian solidarity folks convinced her that she was supporting Israeli policies by doing so. Hillel is a rigidly pro-Israel organization that censors critical voices.
What follows is a very careful statement issued by Brown president Christina Paxson lamenting the pressure on Mock to cancel as an act of religious intolerance — because Hillel is a religious organization — but also kinda saying that she doesn’t think anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.
“Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic any more than criticism of U.S. policies is anti-American.”
Though Paxson, an economist and public health expert, doesn’t want to go out on a limb. “I can’t read into their hearts,” she says of those who pressed Mock. “The actions that deterred Janet Mock from speaking on campus may or may not have been motivated by anti-Semitism, but they had the effect of thwarting a religious group’s ability to host an educational event.”
I think this is a lilylivered statement. Hillel is a fierce supporter of Israel, and if groups urge speakers not to endorse the organization on that basis, it’s understandable. Let them speak at Open Hillel! Also, why couldn’t Paxson have said more forcefully, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism.
Comments on Janet Mock episode
by Brown President Christina Paxson
Brown University faculty meeting
April 5, 2016
Before this meeting, one of you asked me to discuss the incident that occurred before spring break, in which a speaker—a transgender activist named Janet Mock—decided to cancel a speaking engagement at Brown. She had been invited by Moral Voices, a Jewish student group affiliated with the Brown-RISD Hillel.
Here are the facts: In January, an anonymous student or group of students who are opposed to the organization Hillel International and, more broadly, to Israeli policies, posted an open letter to Janet Mock that asked her to turn down the invitation, since one of the event’s co-sponsors was the Brown-RISD Hillel. The letter specifically objected to what is called “pink-washing,” which is said to be Israel’s policy of holding up a positive record on LGBTQ rights in order to deflect attention from its human rights record in Palestine. The letter claimed that the invitation to Janet Mock from Moral Voices/Hillel was part of this strategy.
Later, in March, a group of “Brown students” created an on-line petition asking her to come to Brown but to refuse the co-sponsorship of Hillel. The petition garnered around 150 signatures—it is unknown how many signers were Brown students. Janet Mock cancelled a few days before her talk was scheduled to take place. Her agent stated that this was because the controversy over sponsorship would overshadow her message of transgender rights.
On March 16, I sent a letter to the Brown community in which I expressed my concern about this incident. I said that “while we cannot and should not prevent any member of our community from signing a petition, it is counter to Brown’s norms and values for expressions of dissent to be targeted at a student group because of its religious affiliation.”
The letter attracted a wide range of reactions. Many people wrote to thank me for making this statement. But, as usual, this was not a consensus view. Some thought that my letter did not go far enough, and wanted to see a stronger condemnation of the students who wrote the petition.
Others thought my letter went too far, and specifically that—by expressing my disagreement with the petition-writers—I was conflating anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. This concern came mainly from my statement that it is wrong to target a student group “because of its religious affiliation.” Basically, people in this camp argued that Hillel and, by extension, Moral Voices, was the object of the protest not because it is a Jewish organization, but because it is associated with Hillel International which supports Zionism.
The issue of how to distinguish between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has come to the fore at other universities, too. The UC system recently issued a statement that said that “Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
Frankly, when I issued my statement, I was not thinking about the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I very purposefully did not accuse the petition-signers of being anti-Semitic. I can’t read into their hearts, and I have no idea what they were thinking.
I was thinking about the principles of the Brown University community, which are written up in a document that all students sign and acknowledge before coming to Brown. The relevant section is titled “Respect for the Freedoms and Privileges of Others” and it reads as follows:
“We strive for a sense of community in which the individual growth of all members is advanced through the cultivation of mutual respect, tolerance, and understanding. Brown University values and encourages individuality while also affirming the community dimensions of academic life. A socially responsible community provides a structure within which individual freedoms may flourish without threatening the privileges or freedoms of other individuals or groups.”
It goes on to note our commitment to equity on issues related to race, religion, gender, sexual orientation and other differences.
It is not always easy to carve a path between the protection of individual freedoms, on one hand, and the prevention of threats to the freedoms and privileges of other groups, on the other hand.
The Mock episode presents a situation in which we have to do this. I think two points are important.
First, students who object to Israeli policies have a right to voice their objections. We have community members (many of whom are Jewish, and are affiliated with Hillel) who object to Israeli policies. These community members have a perfect right to protest events at which pro-Israeli views are expressed, provided they follow our protest guidelines. Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitic any more than criticism of U.S. policies is anti-American. Of course, people who support Israeli policies are free to speak their minds, too.
Second, student groups have the right to sponsor academic programming of their choice. The students who asked Janet Mock to either not come to Brown, or to not come under Hillel sponsorship argued—wrongly, I believe—that the Brown-RISD Hillel and student groups affiliated with it do not have the right to sponsor talks or events with social justice themes, because of their association with pro-Israel policies via Hillel International. This is in direct contradiction to our principles.
I think it is important to note that the Brown-RISD Hillel is the center for Jewish life on our campus, and people who are affiliated with it—including students in the group Moral Voices—have a wide range of views of Israeli policy. Moral Voices is defined by shared religious beliefs, not shared political beliefs. The actions that deterred Janet Mock from speaking on campus may or may not have been motivated by anti-Semitism, but they had the effect of thwarting a religious group’s ability to host an educational event—which is one of the privileges and freedoms that it is entitled to.
I would go a step further, which is that even if Moral Voices was defined by a commitment to a specific policy/political position, it would still have the right to host speakers of its choice at Brown. The same is true for any faculty member or student group on campus. But, the fact that this student group is defined by its religious views makes the incident all the more disturbing, since we are obligated to take special care to prevent bias on the basis of race, religion, ethnicity, gender and other protected classes.
In the end, assessing the right or wrong of this doesn’t require a sophisticated parsing of the difference between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism, but simply an appeal to the community principles I read earlier:
“A socially responsible community provides a structure within which individual freedoms may flourish without threatening the privileges or freedoms of other individuals or groups.”
This is the principle that we need to keep clearly in mind as we work through this issue and others like it that may come in the future.
I am sure that many of you have comments or questions on this incident and, if you’d like, we can take a few minutes to address them now.