Typically, Jews participate as concerned panelists in official discussions of anti-Semitism.
Tuesday night, they protested. Forty enraged Jews stood outside on the sidewalk in downtown Manhattan, yelling “Am Yisrael Chai” over the heads of 14 police officers stationed between them and a conversation about Jew hatred and Israel, featuring the Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour.
Despite two brief interruptions from protesters, the panel at The New School’s Alvin Johnson Auditorium was far less dramatic. Panelists talked about how to fight anti-Semitism on the far right, but focused more on the perceived problem of why the Jewish community vilifies critics of Israel like Sarsour even more than it does figures with white nationalist ties like, say, Steve Bannon. The answer: Israel is more important than true anti-Semitism, so defenders of Israel will exploit even allegations of anti-Semitism to squelch legitimate criticism of the Jewish state.
“There can be nothing more counterproductive, nothing more hurtful to Jews, than to be intentionally confusing the issue by spreading false or inflated charges of anti-Semitism,” Leo Ferguson of Jews for Racial & Economic Justice said on the panel. “When the right does this, it slowly erodes our ability to accurately assess threats…. It makes it so hard to distinguish [enemies] from real allies or potential allies who may not always agree with us about every single thing we believe, but who deeply care about Jews, and who have so many interests that align with ours.”
Co-organized by the far-left groups Jewish Voice for Peace and Jacobin magazine, the event was peppered with anti-Israel rhetoric. It featured a few awkward moments that illustrated the tensions that pro-Israel Jews have felt when trying to engage in social justice work with a part of the left that many view as anti-Semitic because of their anti-Zionism.
“Apparently I’m the biggest problem for the Jewish community,” Sarsour said, adding that she was there to help dismantle anti-Semitism. “I am, like, the existential threat. I’m confused, literally every day.
The event began with brief remarks from a New School dean, followed by a lengthy introduction from JVP Deputy Director Rabbi Alissa Wise that explained in great detail the group’s procedures for handling disruptions of the event — a tactic in which JVP itself has on occasion engaged.
JVP Executive Director Rebecca Vilkomerson claimed that Israel “practices apartheid.” The organization’s coordinator, Lina Morales, stated that she “consider[s] Zionism to be the ‘Man in the High Castle’ dystopia of Jewish history” — a reference to the Amazon TV show depicting an alternate universe where the Nazis won World War II.
Sarsour, who said she was on the panel not as an expert on anti-Semitism but an expert on intersectional organizing, urged the Jewish community to “show up without putting conditions on your allyship.” Only after doing so, she said, will allies reciprocate.
The protesters outside the event included members of the Jewish Defense League, the long-dormant far-right group founded by Rabbi Meir Kahane. The event “has nothing to do with freedom of speech,” the JDL’s Karen Lichtbraun told the Forward. The New School “is legitimizing four anti-Semites.”
Students from the university’s Jewish culture club were also waving Israeli flags and protesting what they saw as a one-sided discussion. “We’re not trying to be angry, we’re not trying to be in anyone’s face,” senior Hannah Schmelzer said. “We’re simply going with signs saying we support Israel, and this isn’t a fair panel, there’s a faction that’s being left out and we’re not getting a voice.” One sign stated, “Would you invite Oscar Meyer to represent vegans?” — a reference to a tweet by the Anti-Defamation League’s director, Jonathan Greenblatt, criticizing Sarsour’s invitation.
More than 21,000 people signed a petition criticizing The New School for hosting such a panel — especially one featuring Sarsour, who was accused of having “perpetuated anti-Semitic tropes and worked to demonize Jewish Zionists nationwide.”
Sarsour is a supporter of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement, which proponents claim is a nonviolent way to protest Israel’s occupation of Palestinian territories. Opponents characterize it as anti-Semitic targeting of Israel. She supports a one-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — which many Jews think would end Israel’s status as a Jewish state — and once tweeted that “nothing is creepier than Zionism.” Sarsour denies that she is an anti-Semite, and she has helped to fundraise more than $100,000 for vandalized Jewish cemeteries. (She announced at the event Tuesday that excess money from her fundraiser had been used to refurbish a deteriorating Jewish cemetery in Colorado that will soon be rededicated.)
As reports of anti-Semitic hate crimes have risen in the past few years, defining what exactly “anti-Semitism” is has become increasingly fraught, especially in liberal circles and on college campuses. The House of Representatives heard testimony earlier this month from a variety of Jewish experts on whether the Department of Education should adopt a official definition of anti-Semitism that essentially includes criticism of Israel as a Jewish state. Proponents argued that doing so would protect Jewish students from racist abuse, especially during debates about BDS. Opponents claimed that adopting such definitions would stifle legitimate criticism of Israel.
JVP has placed itself squarely in the latter group. It published a book earlier this year, called “On Antisemitism,” that contained a series of essays (plus an interview with Sarsour) addressing “how the deployment of false charges of antisemitism or redefining antisemitism can suppress the global progressive fight for justice.” Attendees of The New School panel received $5 off for a copy.
The debate ultimately turns on whether accusations of anti-Semitism against anti-Israel figures are genuine or part of a political calculation. Ferguson told the Forward before the event began that “there are deeply cynical, false and inflated charges of anti-Semitism, especially from the political right, that are used to delegitimize and attack social movements that those folks simply don’t agree with…. But also, when people act cynically, they then sadly muddy the waters for people who are coming at it from a much more genuine place.”
One of those people is Daniel Brooks, a self-described progressive Jew who attended the event and worried that such rhetoric itself enabled anti-Semitism. “I’m mortified that anti-Zionists can accuse Jews of being racist and supporting an apartheid state, and then claim to care about anti-Semitism,” he told the Forward.
Professors at The New School are working to create a new panel to discuss anti-Semitism, featuring academic experts on the subject.
“When you accuse Zionists of being racist, that’s kind of a heavy accusation, and I think that might lead to anti-Semitism, verbal or physical,” he added.
Aiden Pink is the Deputy News Editor for the Forward.