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‘Forward’ opinion editor has nothing more to say, and doesn’t want to hear you

Media Analysis
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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.

Jonathan Ofir

Israeli musician, conductor and blogger / writer based in Denmark.

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9 Responses

  1. Donald on October 21, 2019, 4:18 pm

    I thought Batya had maybe gone too far, but this doubling down thing has worked for Trump and it works because he has a core base of support that “knows” he is fundamentally right no matter what the facts are, and Batya has the same kind of base.

    Last week I thought Stern’s letter meant that Batya had lost. She might even have to resign or lay low. Now I think there is a fair to middling chance this will become a “cause” and the NYT will eventually cover it “objectively”, meaning that nobody reading their account will be able to tell who was right. That’s my prediction. Not willing to put money on it. Well, maybe someone else’s money.

    And Batya’s career has probably taken a boost. She and Bari could go on tour together.

    • Misterioso on October 22, 2019, 9:59 am

      In short, Batya Ungar-Sargon refuses to read the writing on the wall. She and her ilk are inevitably going to lose the battle. Frankly, I don’t understand why they can’t see what’s coming at them ever faster, i.e., an avalanche of the ugly long suppressed truth regarding Zionism and its cancerous spawn, “Israel.”

      • genesto on October 22, 2019, 1:48 pm

        Rigor mortis is setting in amongst the dying breed known as liberal Zionists. Thanks to the right wing in Israel – supported by our white nationalist leader here – eliminating even the slightest chance of a 2SS, and the anti-Zionist movement growing among young American Jews, the liberal Zionists are sounding more and more desperate very day.

        The movement towards Palestinian freedom and justice will move forward more rapidly once these troglodytes are gone from the scene.

    • Misterioso on October 22, 2019, 10:23 am


      Jewish Currents, Oct. 14/19

      “What Really Happened at Bard College?” By Mairiv Zonszien

      “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.”

  2. bcg on October 21, 2019, 6:16 pm

    Nice takedown of Batya in the Times of Israel: The author explains how she was skeptical of Ungar-Sargon’s account and then started receiving emails accusing her of anti-Semitism!

    But in the past day or so, the chorus of voices adamantly contradicting her version has grown…

  3. JWalters on October 21, 2019, 9:08 pm

    Batya follows the standard Zionist algorithm –

    (1) dodge any actual discussion or debate,
    (2) character assassinate one’s opponents,
    (3) apply indignation lavishly.

    These tactics are precisely explained by an AIPAC operative in the great undercover documentary on AIPAC (first episode). “The Lobby – USA – ALL episodes 1+2+3+4”

    Batya is merely a hired liar. She knows it. Her employers know it. Any moderately intelligent, moderately educated person can see it. The sociopathic force behind this pernicious destruction of civil society needs to be removed for the good of humanity.

  4. pabelmont on October 23, 2019, 11:52 am

    Having power means never having to listen to opposition, never having to make sense or tell truth or even be grammatical (Trump has taught power-holders a lot) (not saying anyone is ungrammatical, here). Perhaps this rather forward lovely lady will one day lose power if — may God not forbid — The Forward sees that she’s a hindrance rather than a blessing.

  5. annie on October 23, 2019, 1:02 pm

    The Canary reported yesterday the University College London (UCL) has insisted “leading academics, including Jackie Walker, must abide by chilling new guidelines” which include:

    “Suggestions (overt or implied) that Jews as a group or particular sections of the British Jewish community invent, exaggerate or “weaponise” incidents of antisemitism for political or other benefit.”

    iow, no claiming antisemitism has been weaponized — ever. it’s ridiculous. chomsky commented, among other things ” I’m frankly at a loss for words.”

  6. edwardm on October 24, 2019, 5:10 pm

    “Suggestions (overt or implied) that Jews as a group or particular sections of the British Jewish community invent, exaggerate or “weaponise” incidents of antisemitism for political or other benefit.”
    Pshaw! Say it ain’t so! eg. the Dershbag, a reprehensible defender of – a wife killer, a pedophile and apartheid isn’t barred from wine and cheese in the Vineyard for being an immoral shyster – it’s cuz he’s Jewish. Poor guy. No really the very lives of million of Gazans trapped in the world’s biggest open-air prison is far less important than the hurt feelings of say some “liberal” gash like Bari Weiss.

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