Nearly 100 years ago, Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis famously coined the phrase “sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants” in praise of transparency and honesty in public policy. Not long after, Jewish communal organizations (within which Brandeis was an active supporter of the Zionist cause) appropriated the phrase for their own purposes, suggesting that exposing anti-Semitism was the best way to eradicate it from the public domain.
The theory behind the sunlight rule was that exposing anti-Semitism would provoke a negative public response and thereby delegitimize it as an acceptable form of discourse in the eyes of the public. Such a conclusion was understandable in the civil rights era, when a mass movement challenging racism and bigotry sparked a widespread shift in public attitudes and laws. Exposing hatred marginalized it.
But as the political hatred of Jews has taken on new and less obvious forms in recent decades, it has become apparent that sunlight can act not only as a disinfectant, but also as a spotlight, and have the exact opposite of the intended effect.
While it may be obvious to most Jews that the denial of the Jewish right to national independence is a form of anti-Jewish bigotry, it is not always recognized as such by others. Thus, publicly condemning anti-Israelism may do more to reproduce the bigotry than to drive it underground. The exposure can take an idea that at one time would have received little attention and propel it into public consciousness, leading to greater acceptance rather than to rejection.
A recent study by Israel’s Foreign Ministry confirmed that annual ritualized condemnations of the Jewish state on American college campuses receive nearly all their diminutive media coverage from Israeli or Jewish sources. Indeed, Ali Abunimah, a prominent American anti-Israelist active on campus, has even thanked the pro-Israel community for the publicity.
This is not to say that the Jewish community should do nothing in response to such hostility. When, for example, a conference designed to promote Israel’s isolation came to the University of Pennsylvania last winter, the local Hillel wisely mobilized students to hold dozens of Sabbath dinners with non-Jewish leaders around campus to talk about Israel. These dinners reached many times more people than the paltry student showing at the conference, and didn’t run the risk of feeding into publicity for the event.
Some see the failure to speak out against every vicious attack as evidence of weakness or trepidation among Jews reminiscent of the days of the European Jewish ghetto. And perhaps that mentality still does exist among some in the Jewish world. But today the sparing use of power is more often evidence of strength and political maturity.
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.