Letter | Why Is Everyone Lying About Bard? Every Other Account Proves Ungar-Sargon Right.
Ever since Batya Ungar-Sargon described being protested at Bard College’s recent conference on — irony alert — racism and anti-Semitism, the college and the Hannah Arendt Center which hosted the conference have been in engaged in a full-court PR effort to recast the events and impugn her integrity. In four letters to the Forward, some of which contain needless personal attacks against Ungar-Sargon, not one factual assertion of hers has been refuted, and most have been accidentally confirmed.
I know this because I was up on the stage with Batya at the event that was disrupted. And I am also an Associate Fellow of Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center.
All four letters (and Bard’s coordinated PR effort elsewhere, on Twitter and in press interviews) make the same two points: First, the protesters were only voicing a standard political objection, and there was nothing anti-Semitic about their actions. And second, Ungar-Sargon was never forced from the stage, and therefore her account is somehow a “misrepresentation.”
The first claim is demonstrably false. And the second one is laughable.
Ungar-Sargon never made any claim at having been silenced or, to use current parlance, “de-platformed,” so proving otherwise doesn’t impugn her credibility so much as it does the reading comprehension skills of her detractors.
Roger Berkowitz directs the Hannah Arendt Center, which organized the two-day conference. His letter aims to set the record straight. “Ungar-Sargon’s account of what happened,” he writes, “misrepresents the fact,” and then goes to on to misrepresent her account in the very next sentence. “At no point was anyone prevented from speaking; the talk she refers to proceeded to its end.”
But Ungar-Sargon never claimed the talk didn’t proceed to its end. She relates instead how she left the conference the next day because of her disgust at two things: the targeting of the only Jewish panel — three Jewish speakers speaking as Jews about Jew hatred — for protest, and the complete silence and complicity of all the fellow conference speakers and guests. Berkowitz, like all the other critics, ignores her two complaints and argues instead against something which she never claimed.
It’s not the only misrepresentation in Berkowitz’s letter.
He writes that when “the protest did arise, we did precisely what we said we would.” But this is also not true. We were assured that the most that would be allowed would be for the students to stand in the back and silently hold signs, and that no one’s view would be blocked. The students came right to the front. I wasn’t at the podium, but rather seated in a chair for the duration of the event. I could not see my audience and they could not see me. The loud disruptions were taken care of, to be sure, but throughout Ruth’s speech, demonstrators hissed and called out objections. They were joined in the audience by some of their supporters and at least one conference speaker.
Where you won’t see this is on the film which Bard has posted. It was shot from a tripod at the back of a sloped auditorium, well above the eye level of anyone sitting in the audience. The cameraman has understandably zoomed in on the stage and left the demonstrators out of the shot. The tape picks up what’s on the microphones, so the running commentary and hisses from the demonstrators at each claim of Professor Wisse’s which they found disagreeable are not picked up. From my vantage point seated in a chair on the stage, I could not see most of the audience, and they could not see me.
Here is a tweet of the event of a picture taken by someone in the audience.
I got tough questions but escaped this meted out to speaker who followed me!: Line of no-platformers who chanted and stood in a line through Ruth Wisse’s talk @Arendt_Center pic.twitter.com/QWgiZUqXex
— Eric Kaufmann (@epkaufm) October 11, 2019
The little gray patch at the top right is my hair. My face is behind one of the signs.
This, plainly, is no way to conduct a scholarly discussion of such a serious topic. It is a way of poisoning a discussion and marking speakers as objects of hatred.
And it’s an effective tactic, to be sure. Even after the demonstrators were kicked out of the auditorium, the tension and catcalls from the audience continued. Questions were aggressive and largely unrelated to the lecture, and provocative statements were met by enthusiastic cheering and applause from the audience, including from other invited speakers.
Nothing of the sort happened at any other panel in the two-day conference, and there were plenty of controversial speakers featured and divisive statements made. But there was no theatre of directed hatred to rile up a crowd. There was, in short, a conference — a meeting place of ideas, disagreement, discussion.
When I raised these points with other conference participants, they were for the most part unmoved. Everyone looked for the excuse that allowed them to ignore what had just happened, and many of those excuses were contradictory or nonsensical.
The protest was only against Wisse, I was told repeatedly, even though flyers against all three of us were distributed. This was the reception controversial speakers should expect, I was told, even though there many far more controversial speakers at the conference. But this is a liberal campus, I was told, and the reception was always going to be worse for controversial speakers from the right than from the left. This was doubly odd, as neither Ungar-Sargon nor I can be fairly imagined as being on the right by anyone’s imagination.
And, while many of the more provocative lectures were not terribly provocative to a left-liberal audience, a great deal were. There was a panelist who argued that black underachievement was not because of racism, but because of absentee fathers. There was a panelist arguing that “chosenness” had distorted Jewish political thought and as such infected later European thought on colonialism. There was a panelist that argued that white people in America could legitimately consider their interests as white people in domestic political debates. There was a panelist who argued that certain African and Asian countries might have been better off had they remained under European colonial rule. And there were three panelists with a vigorous and polite disagreement about Islamaphobia in France. Some had difficult questions from the audience; many didn’t even have that.
None were protested. None.
This is what makes Berkowitz’s claim that the demonstration was motivated by nothing more than the fact that the three panelists “espouse political opinions with which the students disagree” so outrageous. It’s understandable that this is what he might want believe, but it’s verifiably false. The three of us up there on that stage actually have radically different political views from each other, and radically different views on the issue in question at that session. This would have been apparent had a civilized discussion taken place.
Kenneth Stern takes a similar tack in the most factually challenged letter of the four. He mischaracterizes Ungar-Sargon’s claim, mischaracterizes the students’ protest, and offers some rather outlandish hypotheticals (invite documented charlatan scholar Ilan Pappe or a pro-Zionist Palestinian and see the audience reaction) all to avoid making the most readily available comparison — the reception of the one panel of Jewish speakers, presented as Jews, talking about Jew hatred with the reception of every other panel in the entire two-day conference.
“It was exceptionally clear to me as an audience member,” he writes, “that these students protested because they strongly disagreed with Wisse’s views, not because of her Jewishness.”
Right. Except — and if it seems tedious to you to have to hear this again imagine how it felt to have to say it one hundred times — these students protested all three of us on the panel and exactly zero of the other participants in the entire conference.
Shahanna McKinney-Baldon’s letter throws a lot of mud at Ungar-Sargon, but then explicitly confirms Ungar-Sargon’s initial account: She objected to the mild blandishments against disrupting Wisse’s lecture and encouraged the students to go ahead with their planned protest. McKinney-Baldon adds context and detail and flavor to the conversation, but essentially confirms Ungar-Sargon’s account.
In fact, two details she adds only make the initial account stronger. First, the student Ungar-Sargon talked to directly ended up sitting out the disruption. Second, McKinney-Baldon concedes — entirely understandably— that what bothered her was the idea that students should direct their protests to the panel that was discussing Zionism because she was sitting on that panel and didn’t herself want to be protested. She didn’t want to be protested because she was going to “share deeply personal reflections” and “already felt vulnerable.” It’s a poignant demand for empathy on McKinney-Baldon’s part; I don’t know why she doesn’t want to extend this empathy to others up there on that stage.
Samantha Hill’s letter, like all the rest, is focused on refuting a claim that Ungar-Sargon never makes, namely that she was somehow forced from the stage. In this aspect, it is depressingly consistent with the others. But Hill departs from the party line in one crucial way: She describes the demonstrators action as plainly anti-Semitic without trying to make excuses for their behavior.
Without citing me by name, she mentions that I “spoke eloquently about the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses, and asked what we can do to address these kinds of protests that try to de-platform Israeli and Jewish speakers.” But this does not fairly represent what I said at all. I said that the policy of allowing students to protest inside was preventing an open exchange of ideas, not fostering it. I said that it would never be tolerated in any other context. I never asked what could be done; I said exactly what the policy should be. And I didn’t talk in general about the rise of anti-Semitism on college campuses, but spoke specifically about how Bard students were mobilized to believe in a conspiracy theory that holds that Jews who claim to care about anti-Semitism are really just engaged in an organized effort to hide their own crimes. I asked to speak privately about content which the Arendt Center itself had put out in recent weeks which, I felt, legitimized this conspiracy theory, but was never given the chance.
Though Hill’s letter is, of the four, the least dishonest by far, it does contain the most ironic reproach of Ungar-Sargon. “By choosing to leave,” Hill writes, “Ungar-Sargon opted to protest, instead of remaining in the conference to have difficult conversations. She opted for call-out culture instead of critical engagement.”
But this gets everything backwards. Ungar-Sargon — and Ruth Wisse and myself — were uniquely denied the opportunity for critical engagement by the very practitioners of the “call-out culture.” We were the only ones in the entire conference who were denied this chance, and only Hill is willing to say out loud what everyone with eyes in their head can see as the main motivating factor behind this: It was the job of Hill and Berkowitz and the other organizers of the conference to ensure that such an opportunity for critical engagement was provided, but they failed to meet this most basic requirement.
And rather than address this failure, they have been lashing out at the one lonely voice trying to hold them to account.
Shany Mor is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College and a Research Fellow at the Chaikin Center for Geostrategy at the University of Haifa. He served as a Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council.