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March 6, 2019 6:37 am

Wake Forest Retaliates Against Students for Standing Against Antisemitism

avatar by Amy Rosenthal

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Members of Students Supporting Israel at Wake Forest University pose before a display erected for “Solidarity with Palestine” week in Feb. 2019. Photo: SSI Wake Forest.

Most pro-Israel students are a beleaguered minority on campus these days. And what happens when they dare to stand up for themselves? One answer came last week, when Wake Forest University in North Carolina held its “Palestinian Rights Awareness Week.”

In December 2018, the Students Supporting Israel (SSI) group on campus worked with the student government to pass a resolution against antisemitism based on the US State Department’s definition of that term. All seemed well until late February, when plans were disclosed for a “Palestinian Rights Awareness Week.”

The week would open with a presentation on “How Palestine Became Israel,” followed by a screening of the film 5 Broken Cameras and a panel discussion titled, “Free Speech, Free Palestine.” SSI students asked who would be on the panel, but got no answer. When they asked to have a pro-Israel person on the panel, they were told no. So much for “free speech.”

The students went to Hillel and the Director of Jewish Life on campus, but they were told to “stay low key,” so that the event would not draw more attention. This disappointing response led SSI student leader Phillip Yurchenko to reach out to pro-Israel community groups for support.

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When the pro-Palestinian Arab displays and posters arrived on campus, it was clear that there was a lot of money and organization behind them. When SSI students asked who was sponsoring the event, the Young Democratic Student Association (YDSA) claimed that they were only responsible for reserving space for the event. Later, a flyer showed that the YDSA name had been crossed out in connection with the event; written by hand over it was the name “Palestine Solidarity Coalition.” The members of this coalition were not named.

To counter the misinformation and anti-Israel propaganda, the SSI students set up their own booth. They invited conversation and dialogue. Everyone was welcome to exercise their free speech rights there.

When it came time for the panel discussion, Michaelle Browers, the co-director of Wake Forest’s Middle East and South Asia Studies Program, opened by claiming that measures had been passed “to condemn, punish and otherwise burden advocacy for Palestinian Rights,” which she said are troubling from the “academic freedom standpoint.” She said the goal was to target the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS), which she praised as “non-violent.” She neglected to mention that BDS’s mission is to destroy Israel.

She continued, “If we cannot separate criticism of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism, we risk … conflating Jewishness with Zionism and Jewishness with the State of Israel, which sounds an awful lot like the State Department definition of antisemitism.”

She claimed that pro-Israel students created a “hateful mood … and aggressive behavior … that is threatening the ability of us to work for social justice together.”

Barry Trachtenberg, Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest, followed. “There are many people … who will automatically claim that any speech that’s critical of Israel is inherently antisemitic,” he said. “We get boxed into this situation where we just simply can’t talk about Israel, we’re just not allowed to in any ways that are critical.”

Trachtenberg continued, “There is no reason why we at Wake Forest can’t figure out how … students who support Israel can go on and have their event and that students that are arguing to end the occupation can have their events put [on] without the need for secret police or undercover police, without the need to have marshals, without the need to read a statement beforehand, without the need to have to identify all the speakers, without the need for [a] speaker who wanted to appear on this panel to feel intimidated.” What an impressive exaggeration.

He admitted that the week’s events were “motivated by the student government passing the resolution … fighting antisemitism. … I think the damage lay in the … language used … it kind of does muzzle free speech.”

Browers later said angrily, “I think this campus got swindled” — referring to the passage of the statement against antisemitism. The sad fact is, the people who really have been swindled are the parents of Jewish and pro-Israel students who paid Wake Forest huge sums of money to send their children there, expecting to find academic integrity.

 Amy Rosenthal is the co-founder of the North Carolina Coalition for Israel.

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