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Ungar-Sargon’s Bard College fiction is widely repudiated

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Forward opinion editor Batya Ungar-Sargon has described an experience she had at Bard College last week as ‘anti-Semitic’, in that a panel she moderated on anti-Semitism was protested by pro-Palestinian activists. Her suggestion was that this had to be anti-Semitic, since the panelists were Jewish, and the issue was not Israel. Her supposed firewall was that the protesters had another outlet to protest, a later discussion on Zionism, but that since they refused to let up on the first, that proves the anti-Semitism, which she claimed various professors and intellectuals supported. She walked out the hall in fury the next day, after having delivered a live admonishment of the intellectual community that stands idly by as Jews are supposedly being attacked for being Jews.

But Ungar-Sargon’s account has been widely repudiated by a wide array of respected individuals who were participant.

Adam Shatz of the London Review of Books:

The notion that this woman from the Forward was protested because she’s Jewish is preposterous.

Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, formerly with the American Jewish Committee (worked on combatting antisemitism for 25 years):

Ungar-Sargon was right to note that the panel the students chose to protest was all Jewish, but her leap to the conclusion that it was protested because it was all Jewish, or that perhaps there should have been some special dispensation from protest because it was all Jewish, is misplaced.

Roger Berkowitz, the organizer of the conference – writing in the Forward itself:

Ungar-Sargon’s account of what happened at the conference misrepresents the facts.

Ungar-Sargon’s omission of the political aspect of the first panel is apparently strategic. It turns out the main target of the protest was Ruth Wisse, a retired Harvard professor of Yiddish known for horrifyingly racist anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic as well as anti-black views. Kenneth Stern notes:

It was exceptionally clear to me as an audience member that these students protested because they strongly disagreed with Wisse’s views. not because of her Jewishness…

Ungar-Sargon was a moderator in that first panel titled “Who needs anti-Semitism”, along with Shani Mor, an Israeli fellow at the Bard College Hannah Arendt Center and former director of foreign policy at the right-wing Israel National Security Council. One cannot ignore the political aspect of the latter, nor should one ignore the political aspect of Ungar-Sargon’s repeated disingenuous assaults on Rep. Ilhan Omar for supposed “anti-Semitism” when criticizing Israel.

Anyhow, the protest was well within the civil rules of the institution, as official accounts confirm. In fact, Ruth Wisse did speak about Israel – a sin which according to Ungar-Sargon’s purist logic should account for anti-Semitism, since the panel was only about anti-Semitism. Kenneth Stern brings this into perspective:

Ungar-Sargon wrote that Wisse’s talk was only about anti-Semitism, not Israel. But Wisse did speak about Israel, and of course she has written about it extensively. Ungar-Sargon’s assertion that bringing Israel into a discussion of anti-Semitism is inherently racist is mind-boggling. I speak regularly to Jewish audiences and on college campuses about anti-Semitism, and generally say little about Israel up front, but Israel is the topic audience members — frequently from the right, politically — most often focus on in the question-and-answer period.

Furthermore, Ungar-Sargon’s account of how a panel member was “egging on what was a blatantly anti-Semitic protest” does not suffer scrutiny. Ungar Sargon mentions the educator by name – Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, but not that she is Jewish and Black. McKinney-Baldon was supposed to be sharing the panel on Zionism with Ungar-Sargon the next day, the one Ungar-Sargon left in protest.

Mairav Zonszein, in her piece from yesterday in Jewish Currents titled “What really happened at Bard College”, elucidates on this case:

“What it sounds like in this piece was that I was actually egging on the protest and encouraging the group in a way that simply did not happen,” says McKinney-Baldon, who seemed rattled. “And I’m shocked by this misrepresentation and with the criticisms that are now coming my way. I am being accused in the media of antisemitism, without including that I’m Jewish, and this misrepresentation has been published without speaking to me for comment prior to publishing. It feels like bullying.”

Zonszein summarizes:

During her lecture on the “Who Needs Anti-Semitism?” panel, Wisse succinctly defined antisemitism as “the organization of politics against the Jews.” But in this instance, Jewish protesters, conference organizers, and speakers—in particular, a woman of color—have all been targeted by Ungar-Sargon’s espousal of this definition. It appears Ungar-Sargon used her platform to defame certain Jews and others who do not agree with her by accusing them of antisemitism—an accusation that carries significant reputational damage—without offering them a chance to respond.

Ungar-Sargon’s Editor in Chief Jodi Rudoren supports her.

“I am very proud to have published the piece, along with the response,” Rudoren told Zonszein. “I believe they help illuminate the very serious problems we are confronting regarding our ability to discuss critical issues, and, yes, help further that discussion. I would welcome additional voices on either what happened at the conference, or the broader questions the pieces confront.”

But Ungar-Sargon’s piece featured as a main article, where the repudiating account by the organizer featured merely as a letter to the editor. And this is not just a matter regarding conflicting points of view – it is a piece of fiction casting herself as the hero.

McKinney-Baldon has now also published a letter to the editor in Forward, and she actually demands an apology and a retraction of Ungar Sargon’s piece. From the response letter, which deserves extensive quoting:

Ungar-Sargon was appealing to the student to not protest Wisse, noting that she is a Holocaust survivor. “This is anti-Semitic,” Ungar-Sargon said. “Why are you protesting the only all-Jewish panel at the conference?”

The student referred Ungar-Sargon to their flyer, which referenced Wisse’s well-documented prior bigoted statements about Palestinians. Ungar-Sargon urged the student to protest the panel we were both slated to be on the next day, about Zionism, saying again of Wisse: “Don’t protest her, she’s a Holocaust survivor.”

I turned to the student, shook my head, and said I disagreed. I believe in respecting elders, honoring the legacy of those martyred in the Holocaust, and being sensitive to the needs of survivors, but I disagree that a student should not protest a controversial speaker, in accordance with the rules of their school, simply because the speaker is a Holocaust survivor.

Also, to be honest, in the moment, I was uncomfortable that Ungar-Sargon was encouraging the student to protest our panel the next day, where I planned to share deeply personal reflections on how racism in the Jewish community has affected me and other Jewish people of color. I didn’t want to be protested when I already felt vulnerable as one of only two Jewish people of color speaking at an entire conference on racism and anti-Semitism.

After Ungar-Sargon left, my conversation with the student continued. “I’m Jewish,” I shared.

“Me too,” said the student, adding that several others in the protesting group were as well.

I went on. “I don’t know what you believe, and I may not agree with you. But you should use your voice.”

Eventually, the student did not join the protestors at the front of the hall, or hand out more flyers, instead sitting and listening to the discussion.

… Ungar-Sargon’s article uses my name and accuses me of anti-Semitism, but with no description of who I am, while others are either left anonymous — “academics and writers and intellectuals” — or listed along with their jobs or credentials.

This highlights one of the biggest issues Jewish people of color face. As another Black Jewish woman messaged me: “I am so upset by this. You need to say what this means for our community. We are often singled out, even accused of weakening the Jewish communities we love dearly, and placed as some sort of ‘other’ who makes ‘real’ Jews feel unsafe.”

In other words, Batya Ungar-Sargon threw various Jews, as well as a black Jew, under the bus, for what she mischaracterized as ‘anti-Semitism’. The harm she does is multiple.

It is unsurprising that Ungar-Sargon’s account has been uncritically amplified by Bari Weiss of The New York Times, Jonathan Greenblatt of the Anti-Defamation League (“Bravo”) and Dani Dayan, now Israeli Consul General and former head of the settler-council YESHA (who writes, “I stand up and applaud with admiration”). Batya Ungar-Sargon is making herself into a special brand of Zionism, and she has many followers. But this kind of account cannot be called real reporting. This is disingenuous, bigoted political propaganda. Is that what the Forward stands for?

Jonathan Ofir

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

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5 Responses

  1. wondering jew on October 15, 2019, 5:10 pm

    it seems like the protest was against wisse and this was clear to all. if so the failure to mention this aspect seems to be a falsehood by ungar sargon.
    the liberal zionist tack re: palestinians is “our worthy. opponents”, even many centrist zionists do not condemn the palestinians. wisse belongs to the camp of contempt and as such is offensive to the beinart school to which i belong.

    to the beinart school there are only two valid destinations. two states or one state with full rights for all. the settler movement seems to preclude two states. and the logic of creating a hamastan II on the west bank beggars common sense. so that leaves one state with full rights for all. in many ways, this is a disastrous path, for it leads to an unknown future. far better would have been two states, a situation that is predictable in a way that one state is not. (a severely limited settler movement could have contained the promise of guardianship until a nonhamas future, but the widespread settler reality precludes credulity regarding the temporariness of the settler presence). and thus those who choose the convenience of gordis rather than the morality of beinart will share their stage with those who speak in the tones of wisse. she stinks. and the path of gordis is sensible, but a swamp.

    • Donald on October 15, 2019, 9:51 pm

      On a somewhat related note, I was impressed by Kenneth Stern’s honesty. In the current political environment ( meaning in America) it is rare to see people being fair to their political opponents on any subject. The normal instinct is to circle the wagons and stick by the people on your side even if they aren’t being honest. I suppose Batya went so far over the top he had to say something, but I think he was more honest than a more cynical person would have found necessary.

  2. echinococcus on October 16, 2019, 12:40 am

    “This is disingenuous, bigoted political propaganda. Is that what the Forward stands for?”

    Is this a question?

  3. Elizabeth Block on October 16, 2019, 9:51 am

    Blood libel, eh? Did the settlers think of this when they poisoned Palestinians’ wells, killing livestock? Do they even know the history of the Jews?
    Anyhow, truth is a defence to a charge of libel.

  4. Misterioso on October 16, 2019, 10:19 am

    Good grief, these indoctrinated Zionist zealots are so MESSED UP!! They will inevitably face their day of reckoning.

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