Three days ago on Rosh Hashanah, Angela Buchdahl gave a stemwinder of a sermon on anti-Semitism at the Central Synagogue in New York. Below are excerpted passages from her transcript (on Facebook; though I’ve added some links) in which she says that harsh criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic. Central Synagogue is a Reform congregation and Buchdahl is clearly anxious about preserving Israel as a progressive cause.
Buchdahl began her sermon by listing several examples of bigotry aimed at Jews in public life, including the march in Charlottesville in August 2017, Holocaust denial by one Republican candidate for the House, and statements by another Republican candidate that “Hitler was right” about “Jewish cabals.” Buchdahl included in that list sharp criticisms of Israel by leftleaning politicians, and named Jeremy Corbyn of Britain and Ilhan Omar, a presumptive congresswoman from Minnesota.
She went on:
Last spring, a group of rabbis spoke with Simone Rodan-Benzaquen, the Director of AJC Europe, about the shifting landscape for European Jews. I asked if she had any words of advice for us. She said, “Yes. I wish we had spoken louder here in France. We felt we were too powerful and well connected for this to be a real threat. We all wasted a lot of time.” Her message to American Jewish leaders was clear: Don’t wait. Rally your community. Speak up before it’s too late.
And if you think this is only happening in France and England, in North Carolina and Missouri, think again: This is happening right here in New York.
Last spring, as unrest mounted in Gaza, the head of the history department at a prestigious private school in New York posted the headline “ISRAELIS KILL DOZENS IN GAZA” on the wall outside his classroom, with a terrifying picture and no context. This teacher’s politics were well known. He made it explicit in an article for Mondoweiss entitled: “Against Balance: Thoughts on Teaching Israel Palestine.”
Some of his students, however, decided “balance” was a good idea when it came to this complicated issue. They started posting other articles on the wall, to provide additional background and support for Israel’s right to defend its border. A second history teacher then joined the debate and posted an article that likened Israel’s actions to war crimes. This same teacher screamed at a student wearing an IDF T-shirt, that Israelis were terrorists. Later, during a heated discussion about Israel he lost control and violently kicked chairs and slammed a desk.
This is not a matter of trigger words or microaggressions. This is aggression, directed at pro-Israel students by authority figures in a school. The school finally called a town hall meeting and over 200 concerned parents came for a thoughtful and candid conversation.
But when the press got hold of this story, it was reframed as an attempt by self-interested Jews to stifle free speech. The most egregious example was a recent article in the Huffington Post which dismissed entirely the merits of the debate, and instead headlined a story about “Angry Zionists” and a conspiracy of “influential parents” who exploited their wealth, and powerful media connections as they plotted to remove teachers who dare oppose Israel. It seemed this writer was trying to set a record for the most antisemitic dog-whistles in a single article….
We can’t win. If we don’t complain, nothing happens. And if we make a fuss, we’re accused of abusing our disproportionate power and influence—which is exactly how Jews have been slandered for centuries. Unfortunately, I fear that we’ve begun to internalize this prejudice. And it can make us hesitant to stand up for ourselves…
And one of the scariest things about today’s rise in antisemitism is that it’s coming at us from both sides. From the right, white supremacists don’t just consider Jews an enemy,
alongside immigrants and people of color, but the ultimate enemy.
But white supremacists and neo-Nazis are not the only ones we have to fear. Today antisemitism is increasingly found on the left as well.
Now, I want to speak directly to our high school and college students, because the antisemitism of the left is especially pronounced on liberal campuses. In these progressive communities, otherwise devoted to identifying victims of oppression and prejudice–Jewish complaints about antisemitism are often dismissed, even derided….
[T]he longstanding Israeli Palestinian conflict, which is indeed confounding and upsetting, fuels antisemitism on the left which often hides behind a false veneer of “legitimate” criticism of Israel.
Last spring a Central student enrolled at NYU came to me distressed. Fifty different progressive student organizations on campus, from the Black Student Union to LGBTQ groups, pledged a boycott. Not only a boycott Israeli goods and academic institutions, but a refusal to partner with the most mainstream Jewish organizations on campus—including the ADL, Birthright, and AIPAC— on any topic whatsoever–issues such as gay rights, feminism or racism, which Jews have long championed.
Opposition to Israel has increasingly become a necessary precondition for all other progressive commitments. Some groups will only allow Jewish students to participate if they take a ‘disloyalty oath’ and affirm they are opposed to “Israeli racism.” This singling out of Israel, as THE litmus test for Jewish involvement in any social justice cause is antisemitism, plain and simple. And I beg of you students to call that out when you see it.
To be sure, not all criticism of Israel is antisemitism. It should come as no surprise to hear me say that because I have publicly wrestled with a lot of things about Israel in recent years. But even if you’re not a rabbi, it is perfectly fair for you to criticize Israel the way you would criticize any other country, including our own. The problem is when people criticize Israel in a way they would criticize NO other country. So where is the line?
To help, I want to share the “3D” test conceived by Natan Sharansky and adopted as part of the US State Department’s own definition of antisemitism to help you recognize when Israel criticism is really just dressed-up antisemitism. The three D’s are: Delegitimization. Double Standards. And Demonization.
When people deny only the Jewish people’s right to self determination–when they characterize a return to our homeland of 3000 years as a racist, white-colonialist endeavor and call into question Israel’s very right to exist–this Deligitimization is antisemitism.
When the UN human rights council calls out Israel for fully half of their human rights condemnations–more than the resolutions against the horrific regimes of Syria, Iran and North Korea combined, this Double Standard is antisemitism.
When the Israeli Defense Force is characterized as terrorists, or Nazis, wantonly killing Palestinians in a “genocide,” this Demonization is antisemitism…
To fight antisemitism, we must also resist our understandable desire to leave when we feel we are not wanted. It is not easy to sit at the table or engage when we feel under attack–but we must stay in it–stay in the conversation about Israel–stay in the fight for pluralistic causes–because Jews have always been at the forefront against oppression of all kinds.
In our fight against antisemitism, we must be willing to mobilize for this battle.
That means you identify antisemitism in its many forms and not internalize any of its hateful prejudice. It means that you call antisemitism out– not only on the other side of the political spectrum, but with allies, sometimes with teachers, even friends. It means you defend the Jewish right for self determination and don’t apologize for the existence of the State of Israel. It means you take risks to get to know someone you might detest in order to change his hate. …
Jews have been fighting antisemtism for centuries. Each generation must learn to fight what is the oldest and most adaptive hatred in history. It’s been tragically devastating at times–only 75 years ago, one out of every three Jews on the planet was murdered because of antisemitic hatred. But we are still here.
A few quick responses. The litmus test of opposing Israel in order to be a progressive is not just applied to Jews. Buchdahl regards the slaughter of more than 60 unarmed protesters at the Gaza border on May 14 as “complicated.” But Gaza is why so many Jews have jumped the Zionist ship. “Israel’s brutal treatment of the demonstrators in Gaza…and Gaza itself…is the anti-Passover. It represents the height of hypocrisy: A supposedly Jewish state violating the most basic concepts of the religion in order to defend its ‘right to exist,’” David Rothkopf wrote. Buchdahl says Huffpo’s story about the Riverdale Country School’s decision to cancel a Jewish teacher’s long-offered class on Israel/Palestine was anti-semitic. The story documents that donors to the school reached out to the American Jewish Committee, which held a meeting with Jewish parents from the school, many of them large donors, to organize against two teachers. That private meeting led to the “town hall” she described. Both teachers are now gone. How can anyone defend such a process? History teacher Doerfler is Jewish. So are Peter Feld and many of the other Riverdale alumni who saw that process as a violation of academic freedom. Buchdahl does not seem to regard these Jews as part of her community.