It is now ten days since Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon left Bard College in fury over what she called an anti-Semitic demonstration — a claim that has been widely repudiated and discredited by many participants (including many Jews), by the organizer and by the institution itself.
The protest targeted a talk on anti-Semitism by the racist retired professor Ruth Wisse (a Holocaust survivor) with moderators Ungar-Sargon and Shany Mor, an Israeli fellow at Bard how formerly headed foreign policy at the rightwing Israeli National Security Council. Mairav Zonszein, who wrote one of the best accounts on this matter, summarizes:
There were only 19 student protesters in the large auditorium of over 100 people, according to both SJP and [Hannah Arendt Center director Roger] 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.
So, there was a political aspect here, directed also at the moderators. Batya Ungar-Sargon has repeatedly and disingenuously accused Reps. Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib of anti-Semitism over their criticisms of Israel. But Ungar-Sargon does not want to accept that Ruth Wisse is a racist; when she implored one student demonstrator to go to another panel, she said that Wisse was a Holocaust survivor.
Some of those refuting Ungar-Sargon’s claims were not your usual suspects, like Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, formerly with the American Jewish Committee, as well as Roger Berkowitz. It seemed for a while that Ungar-Sargon could not possibly hold credibility. Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, a black Jewish educator, demanded an apology and a retraction of at least part of Ungar-Sargon’s published accusations which McKinney-Baldon felt had misrepresented her.
Many of us thought that it couldn’t just go on, that Ungar-Sargon would have to turn around and apologise. But no – she doubled down on her stance four days ago, tweeting:
Mo’adim L’simcha [happy Jewish holidays]. I’ve seen the responses to my piece about Bard. Suffice it to say, a host of articles trying to “refute” what one has written that only end up substantiating one’s claims and arguments is the stuff of journalism dreams.
This is mind-boggling. How could one claim such a victory, when so many sound accounts discredit you so strongly? The nerve of the argument here, the chutzpah – is the claim that these people can’t see what Ungar-Sargon is seeing. That is, that if people are protesting politically, and protesting Jews, they are actually protesting Jews as Jews. Never mind that most of the protesters are themselves Jews! This is bad faith.
Mairav Zonszein has responded to Ungar-Sargon’s contention that the responses themselves confirmed her original allegation, that it’s bad faith. Ungar-Sargon knows she’s lying.
Can’t say I’m surprised. This is not an isolated situation. There is a pattern of not just bad politics, not just bad journalism, but bad faith behavior. I have spoken to several people bullied by you and who are afraid to speak out because of your position.
What gives Batya Ungar-Sargon this apparent power to make people afraid of her? She has an important job in the Jewish journalism world, as editor of the Forward’s opinion pages.
Ungar-Sargon is actually working strategically. She is working to inculcate the notion that those who are critical of Israel to a degree that makes her uncomfortable–and anti-Zionism is pretty much always uncomfortable for her– are basically anti-Semites. She wants to establish red lines on permissible ‘legitimate opinion’, which she prides herself on being a facilitator of; after all, she has herself been critical of some of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians inside the occupation. But her rule says: If I feel your criticism is anti-Semitic, if I get that association, then it is. And if I declare it as such, refuting my account only substantiates my claims, because you can’t see what I’m seeing, and you’re surely an anti-Semite. This is a circular logic, divorced from reason. And the Anti Defamation League cheers her on. Because it has a similar scale. Sure you can criticize Israel. Just not harshly.
Ungar-Sargon attacked Reps. Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in much the same way. It didn’t matter that their claims against Israel held substance. What mattered was that Ungar-Sargon felt their comments touched on anti-Jewish beliefs.
We need to recognize that Batya Ungar-Sargon has taken an ideological stand here. You’d think the wave of appalled criticism, including from Bard itself, would cause her to reflect or engage or debate. No. She is not interested in reasonable discussion. She has left that room. As she wrote in her fictitious account of the Bard conference:
I have nothing more to say to you, and nothing I want to hear.
She is of course framing this intransigence as a response to people having crossed a “red line”, of supposedly protesting “Jews for being Jews”, but at this point no reason will convince her that this is about something else. The opinion editor doesn’t want to hear anyone’s opinion.
And all this is part of a grand strategy. This is not a one-off, that much is clear. Ungar-Sargon is attempting to strengthen the power of the false anti-Semitism charge, by applying it from what is generally perceived to be the liberal and progressive front, so that Palestinians simply won’t gain entry into the U.S. discourse except on the narrowest terms.
As Amjad Iraqi succinctly put it in the Israeli +972: she is serving a “dangerous” climate.
It is not just that her positions are being used by the right to silence Palestinian voices. By presenting herself as an “influential voice among American Jewish progressives” (as she describes in her bio), she is arguably also persuading more ‘moderate’ U.S. audiences to buy into the conflation of Israel critics with anti-Semitic hate groups. This, too, feeds the dysfunction of the debate on Israel-Palestine – the very phenomenon she is supposedly challenging – thus making it more difficult for Palestinians to advocate for their rights.
The damage this has caused is not compensated by the claims Ungar-Sargon made about her work in her speech the day after the protest: that she has published more Palestinian op-eds than any other U.S. outlet; or that she has “spent her entire career embedded in the Palestinian community”; or that she has “convinced more Israelis to vote for the Joint Arab List than you will meet in your life.” (Ungar-Sargon was contacted to elaborate on these assertions for this article; no reply was received).
There are countless Jewish writers and analysts, women and men, who come from different or opposing political camps and who have valuable, credible, and grounded takes on these subjects (including here on +972). The dangerous episodes spurred by Ungar-Sargon undermine her claim to being one of them. Instead of advancing the public discourse, she has sadly done much to regress it.
This is why people like Dani Dayan, now Israeli Consul General and former head of the settler-council YESHA, respond to her antics with a salute: “I stand up and applaud with admiration”, he wrote. Dayan is much more right-wing than Ungar-Sargon in the Zionist spectrum; they “disagree on many issues”. It’s not merely that they agree on this one – it is the very fact that Ungar-Sargon carries such clout for liberal and progressives that causes Dayan to rejoice so greatly. Because we need to keep Israel support bipartisan!
Dayan knows that if she can cover the left flank to secure Zionism by usage of the ‘anti-Semitism’ charge, she will do work that he could never pull off as a rightwing settler.
Batya Ungar-Sargon’s tactics confirm what non-Zionists and anti-Zionists often charge: that so-called ‘liberal-Zionism’ is a means of securing an inherently illiberal end. Because when push comes to shove, there is nothing they want to hear from you. No, liberal Zionists will always dump their liberalism for their Zionism.