An upsetting/weird incident at Bard College in the Hudson Valley. On Friday Kenneth Marcus, an advocate for Israel, refused to share the stage with Dima Khalidi of Palestine Legal during a two-day conference on free speech on campus. The organizer of the conference — who identified himself and the Bard president as Jewish in remonstrating with Marcus — changed the program to accommodate Marcus by allowing him to speak first, followed by Khalidi.
When a member of the audience objected to aspersions Marcus cast on Khalidi, Marcus said his refusal was based on the principle that one should refuse to share a space with Holocaust deniers or deniers of racism or people who say that Jews smell.
“One of the historical stereotypes of Jews is that they smell bad. You don’t have a debate about whether Jews smell bad or not. You can have a discussion about what are the reason why historically some non-Jews have developed kind of disgusting and false stereotypes about Jews. But you don’t get into whether gentile breath is fresher than Jewish breath.”
Marcus was apparently objecting to Palestine Legal’s support for the right to speak out for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, or BDS, against Israel.
Marcus was once director of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, under George W. Bush. He founded the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law five years ago to combat anti-Semitism on campus.
Let’s go to the videotape (part 2, minute 272). The incident took place during a conference staged by Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center, titled, “REAL TALK: Difficult Questions about Race, Sex and Religion.”
Roger Berkowitz, an associate professor of politics, philosophy and human rights, was hosting the conference. On Friday afternoon, he announced something “very important.” He had planned the gathering for over a year, and had thought the hardest questions to have speakers publicly disagreeing about would be race and sex. “I was almost worried that religion would be an afterthought.” But it turned out that religion was the hardest issue on which to get speakers who disagreed with one another.
He finally found two lawyers, but one of them, Kenneth Marcus, “who is a really brilliant lawyer and an advocate for Israeli students and free speech, wouldn’t share the podium” with Dima Khalidi, and Berkowitz accepted the arrangement.
“And the argument was principled, I want to be very clear. And the principle was that the arguments he thought she made were arguments that came out of anti-semitism. It was not my choice to separate the speakers and it wasn’t Dima’s, it was Ken’s.”
Marcus then took the stage with Ken Stern, a Bard alumni, and sought to explain himself. “My concern was not about a particular individual but a particular posturing about the issue,” he said. “If we were going to have a conversation about sexism in which we had someone who denied that sexism exists as a problem or who minimized it, I would have a problem with that.” Similarly if there was a debate about racism in which someone said that racism was “a hoax or not a problem, I’d have a problem with that.” He said that anti-Semitism was being treated in that manner — implicitly, Dima Khalidi denied its existence.
“For all I know she is a very lovely person. She happens to be the president of an organization that has taken positions because of which I thought that having her in the same conversation would posture the issue differently than I felt comfortable with.”
Marcus cited Berkowitz’s Jewishness. “You have mentioned the fact that you’re Jewish, the president of the institution [Leon Botstein] is Jewish– I didn’t think there is bad faith… but I was concerned about a nonparallel structure.”
Marcus’s answer was not good enough for a young woman questioner who at 3:03 challenged the fact that he had not even mentioned Khalidi by name. She went on, “Who gets to decide that you don’t have to listen to another person, you don’t have to share space with another person…In my experience… it’s not always an option to opt out of a difficult conversation or sharing space with someone you don’t want to share space with.”
Now the discussion got even weirder. Marcus said, “I believe I do know her name,” but he felt that if he had mispronounced it, he would embarrass himself or offend Dima Khalidi. He then said her name: Dima Khalidi. Though he said he was not sure he was pronouncing it right.
The questioner asked what he objected to. Marcus:
“I think I need to go into this explicitly, and I’ll just say it. There are some kinds of debate that are appropriate and some kinds are not appropriate. There are some stereotypes about Jews and other minorities that you just shouldn’t debate. I did not want to have an inappropriate kind of debate. And I believe that the way that Doctor Berkowitz was posturing it would have led to the wrong sort of situation, and would have preferred a different sort of issue.”
The young woman asked politely: Would you say more about the particular issue that you are seemingly avoiding, because this panel is called Real Talk.
Marcus finally got real: “There are two related issues. One is Holocaust denial and the other is anti-semitism denial.” As to Holocaust denial, he said the consensus emerging from Deborah Lipstadt’s experience with the Holocaust denier David Irving was that anti-Semitism experts should not debate Holocaust deniers.
“And the reason is first, that it’s not a scholarly appropriate debate, and second, there are some sorts of stereotypes that if you debate them you are demeaning people. So for example, there are some minorities who are stereotyped that they smell bad. That includes Jews. For instance, one of the historical stereotypes of Jews is that they smell bad. You don’t have a debate about whether Jews smell bad or not. You can have a discussion about what are the the reasons why historically some non-Jews have developed kind of disgusting and false stereotypes about Jews. But you don’t get into whether gentile breath is fresher than Jewish breath. So my concern was we don’t have certain kinds of debate, certain kinds of stereotyped discussions.”
Marcus said he had come to Bard to discuss free speech and didn’t want to have a debate even sequentially with Khalidi.
The questioner said she’d like to hear from Khalidi if she is a Holocaust denier.
Marcus said, “I don’t think she is a Holocaust denier.”
Marcus and Stern exeunt left.
Dima Khalidi and Bard professor Peter Rosenblum, enter right.
“I’m really glad to be here. Not on I think the terms that Ken Marcus described. But I think this really is one of the issues on campuses that is at the center of all these questions about free speech and limitations and regulation and what we can and can’t say.”
The lawyer was typically lively and positive.
What was Marcus’s problem? Khalidi is the founder and director of Palestine Legal, which is dedicated to fighting for the rights of Palestinian solidarity activists to advocate for BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions campaign.
Marcus recently characterized that movement, in a Jewish publication, as anti-Semitism traceable to Nazism: “The BDS movement extends age-old anti-Jewish hatreds in new settings… I trace BDS’ origins back to the Nazi boycott of 1933 and beyond. We must remember that the Nazi boycott was one of the first steps in the planned extermination of the Jewish people. ” Even boycotts of settlement goods are anti-Semitic: “Whether consciously or unconsciously, Europe’s leaders are treating Israel as the collective Jew, assailing its legitimacy in the same way that their ancestors challenged the legitimacy of the Jewish people.”
P.S. Palestine Legal was started with the help of the great Michael Ratner, whom Khalidi eulogized beautifully in New York last June. (Minute 50 at that livestream). She spoke of Ratner turning against Zionism after a very Zionist youth, and spending much of his last years working for Palestinian rights. Ratner was Jewish, and smashed anti-Semitism wherever he saw it.