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So when should Jews publicly condemn and when shouldn’t they? I would propose the following “Sunlight Rules.”
Rule 1: In a case of public anti-Semitism only a lunatic fringe would dispute, Jews must speak out. It would be unthinkable to be silent in the face of the ghastly shootings this year in Toulouse, France, or of the outrageous words of a public figure, such as those of the mayor of Malmo, Sweden, when he equated Zionism with anti-Semitism and suggested that the Swedish Jewish community should distance itself from Israel. These acts were inherently public and largely rejected by people of good will. Condemning them reinforced what most people already knew, and therefore served as a call for action from government and civil society.
Rule 2: Go public only when there’s a significant chance that the troubling incident will gain public currency. In the situation of the Penn conference, the university president, Amy Gutmann, had already indicated that the university would not divest from Israel. In fact, no major university in the country has divested from Israel. The risk was low that not speaking out would be taken as acceptance of the conference, and that was because so few people were aware of it. In such a situation, outside pro-Israel groups and voices could only help [publicize a marginal phenomenon].
Rule 3: Before going public, consider the chances of success in winning the public discussion. Some people confuse the act of taking on detractors with having success in taking on detractors. The primary objective for Jews should be not demonstrating Jewish dignity, but winning the public battle. It’s far better to pick your spots carefully and fight when you have a real chance of victory.
Rule 4: Don’t use your donors as an excuse. Many a Jewish professional will say they had to speak out, unwise though it may have been, because they received a call from a donor asking, “What are you doing about it?” Rather than infantilizing donors, we should explain to them why going public may be the wrong thing to do under the circumstances.
Even with guidelines, each case presents its own unique challenges that require an independent judgment call. But in fighting bigotry directed against them, Jews would do well to play the long-game by picking their spots carefully and not overestimating their ability to move public sentiment.
David Bernstein is the executive director of The David Project, a nonprofit organization working to shape campus opinion on Israel.