Privileging Islamophobia Over Antisemitism on Campus
Southern Connecticut State University, where I teach, has gone to great lengths to accommodate Muslims — and reject the slightest manifestations of Islamophobia — while acting complacently toward egregious antisemitism and hate crimes. Concurrently, widely publicized events at Vassar and Oberlin Colleges reveal that displays of antisemitism typically cause uproar within the Jewish community but near silence by others, who even go so far as to defend hateful expression as freedom of speech.
In recent months, antisemitic and anti-Israel bullying, misrepresentation and double standards have been common fare. In one case, an academic named Jasbir Puar who claims to be a feminist, and who is associate professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, gave voice to the latter. In her controversial Feb. 3, 2016 lecture at Vassar, Puar asserted that Israel conducts scientific experiments in “stunting growth” of Palestinian bodies. Apart from engaging in classic forms of antisemitic blood libel, she is a queer theorist of so-called “homonationalism,” or the concept that LGBT people in progressive liberal Western countries where they have won civil liberties have become “co-opted” and “discriminate against” other minorities — specifically Muslim immigrants, whom they falsely accuse of harboring homophobia. Puar, operating in what Hillary Clinton calls the “evidence free zone,” turns against feminist concerns, demonizes Western LGBT people and Israel, and accepts Islamic fundamentalism as the manifestation of legitimate Muslim grievances against the West.
Worse still, at Oberlin, Assistant Professor Joy Karega, who teaches rhetoric and composition, has given voice, on Facebook, to bizarre and virulent antisemitic rants, blaming Jews and Israelis for masterminding 9/11, the Charlie Hebdo and Paris attacks and the downing of a Malaysian airliner over Ukraine in 2014. In response to communications she has received from others castigating her or attempting to educate her about antisemitism, she has announced that she plans to write a book-length work defending antisemitic conspiracy theories as legitimate responses against those with “hegemonic power,” and, basically, to critique how Jews conspire to silence antisemitic expression. In the meantime, the observant Jewish president of Oberlin, Marvin Krislov, initially responded only tepidly, by defending her right to “academic freedom of speech” but without offering any acknowledgment of the vicious antisemitism of her posts. Only after intense pressure from Jewish groups has the Oberlin Board of Trustees recently released a statement of condemnation with the suggestion of taking disciplinary action. Meanwhile Karega would surely have been immediately and severely reprimanded publicly had she engaged in anti-Islam (or sexist, racist, or homophobic) conspiracy theories.
At my own institution, in December 2015, the Faculty Senate — which putatively deals with matters involving academic policy and administration — held a regular meeting that showed how the practice of ignoring antisemitism while focusing on Islamophobia operates. During that meeting, one Senator mentioned that some students had made a derogatory comment to another student about her hijab. A Muslim faculty member who was present also said that Muslim students had come to her with concerns over how they were perceived on campus. These events quickly led to an impassioned discussion about anti-Islam bias.
This public conversation took place on a campus where there are a sizeable number of Islamic students who usually interact seamlessly with non-Islamic students and where views of Donald Trump range from disapproval to disgust. However the Senate passed a motion and decided to hold, on February 3, 2016, a two-hour campus-wide meeting to “raise awareness of Islam.” The Senate justified the choice of this time to ensure that as many professors as possible would be able to attend and bring their students. The Senate scheduled the forum to take place at one of the largest venues on campus, and Faculty Senate President William Faraclas announced plans for an aggressive campaign of public outreach.
Insofar as bias against and ignorance of Islam remains prevalent, the Faculty Senate action was commendable, appropriate and timely. But the lavish attention given to this one form of prejudice seemed somewhat misplaced. And this is particularly true in light of other remarks offered at that same Senate meeting, at which another faculty member noted in passing during the conversation about Islamophobia that swastikas had been painted in a public women’s bathroom in the main academic building on campus. The Senate was not interested in this comment. Unlike in the case of the remark about Islam, the swastikas were not perceived as problematic, or representative of a more widespread issue that the campus needed to address. Further, painting swastikas in bathrooms is a hate crime — something far more serious than inappropriate comments about hijabs or concerns about perception. But in the contest between merely negative remarks and painted swastikas, the negative remarks won by a landslide. The Senate went even further: it even canceled its next regular meeting so that the entire Senate would be obliged to attend this forum on Islam.
To my personal knowledge, apart from the swastikas, there have been at least three antisemitic hate crimes committed against Southern faculty alone since 2008 — at least one of them involving death threats against the faculty member and her family as well as defacement of Jewish and Israeli materials posted on office doors. Further, during that same time period, Jewish students have complained to me about false anti-Israel allegations made by professors and, led by them, students as well. Rather than the Faculty Senate taking these seriously — antisemitic hate crimes and hateful classroom commentaries by professors — it did nothing.
The fact is this: while the mildest critical remarks or behavior directed toward Islam (or any other protected group) produce serious public outcry, antisemitism on campus, particularly in the form of antisemitic animus directed at Israel, is widely perceived as permissible.
On my campus, after repeated complaints made by Jewish faculty members — but, of course, no one else — a forum focusing on Judaism and antisemitism is finally in the planning stages. It remains to be seen whether or not the Faculty Senate will cancel its regular meeting or dedicate similar time and resources to it.
Corinne E. Blackmer teaches English and Judaic Studies at Southern Connecticut State University.