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March 8, 2019 5:00 pm

Wake Forest Jewish Students Protest Exclusion From Campus Antisemitism Panel, Decry ‘Antisemitic Messages’ Promoted During ‘Palestine Solidarity Week’

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avatar by Shiri Moshe

Members of Wake Forest University Hillel and Students Supporting Israel pose before a Feb. 27 panel discussion. Photo: SSI.

Jewish and Zionist student leaders at Wake Forest University in North Carolina have accused the organizers of a week-long Palestinian solidarity campaign of silencing their voices while discussing antisemitism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and called out a faculty member for failing to represent their perspectives.

Critics of the “Solidarity with Palestine” week have pointed to a mock wall that was erected on campus with the words “resistance is not terrorism,” and a display that accused Israel of ills including “murder of children” and criticized the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The panels were briefly taken down by a student who was reportedly “highly offended” by their message, but reinstated shortly afterwards, with Jewish students obtaining permission to raise a counter-exhibit focusing on Jewish history in Israel.

Yet tensions continued to rise during the week, peaking at a February 27 panel titled “Free Speech, Free Palestine” that was organized to discuss, in part, “the differences between anti-zionism and anti-semitism.”

Speakers at the event, which were not publicly announced in advance, included Barry Trachtenberg, the director of WFU’s Jewish Studies Program; Michaelle Browers, the director of WFU’s Arabic Program and Middle East and South Asia Studies Program; and a reservist from Christian Peacemaker Team, which describes itself as supporting “Palestinian-led, nonviolent, grassroots resistance to the Israeli occupation.” All wore stickers bearing an image of the Palestinian flag, alongside the words, “End the occupation.”

Like the rest of the week’s events, the panel appeared to be organized by members of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), though the group repeatedly denied that they were its main sponsor. One student explained in an email prior to the event that “we are just providing support to Palestinian students who want to highlight their experiences and culture.”

In emails sent to YDSA members at least a week before the panel and reviewed by The Algemeiner, Jewish students had raised concerns that their community would not have a voice during a campus discussion on an issue that intimately affects their lives. Through separate online polls taken before the event, board members of WFU Hillel and Students Supporting Israel (SSI) unanimously concurred that Trachtenberg — who they rightly suspected would be the only Jewish voice among the speakers — does not represent their Jewish student community.

The opposition to Trachtenberg is largely rooted in his past statements on issues related to Israel and campus antisemitism, including his endorsement of the US Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel and other initiatives affiliated with the Palestinian-led boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) campaign — a self-described human rights movement whose co-founder Omar Barghouti rejects the continued existence of a Jewish nation-state and Jewish claims to Israel.

“To suggest that Professor Trachtenberg represents mainstream Jewish thought is to deny reality,” Molly Sugarman, WFU Hillel president, told The Algemeiner. “There is a very proud pro-Israel community at Wake Forest University, and we would have liked to have seen representation of diverse viewpoints, rather than the very one sided panel that we saw instead.”

Hillel and SSI accordingly sent a joint statement to the panel’s organizers on February 20, noting that “it is especially important to have a Zionist voice that represents Wake student’s Jewish Community since this is something that impacts us daily,” and naming two suggestions: Alyza Lewin, president of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, and Randall Rogan, a communications professor at WFU with expertise in terrorism and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Yet organizers rejected their request, writing that they “unfortunately concluded that the panel is already full.”

“In particular, given that we already have a Jewish panelist with an extensive background in Jewish Studies, I hope that your concerns about representation are satisfied,” they added.

Phillip Yurchenko, president of WFU SSI and a board member of WFU Hillel, also turned to campus director of Jewish life Gail Bretan and two Hillel International staff members for advice, and was encouraged “to stay low key” and avoid drawing more attention to the week’s events. The advice contradicted his own instinct and that of peers including Sugarman, who preferred to take a more active approach to the messages they saw being promoted on campus.

“I was taught to denounce and expose antisemitism when I see it, even when advised to ‘leave it alone and keep quiet,’ because if we don’t, it will become normalized and more prevalent,” Sugarman explained.

Jewish students ultimately decided to stage a protest of the event, with dozens showing up to the panel in matching white shirts, some wearing blue tape over their mouths. Yurchenko held a sign reading “Barry Trachtenberg DOES NOT represent us,” which bore the logos of both groups.

There were ultimately around 50 Jewish students and community members in attendance, Yurchenko estimated, making up roughly half of the crowd.

Before the discussion kicked off, audience members watched a promotional clip published in 2012 by the BDS group Jewish Voice for Peace, which sought to describe the roots of the dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. The clip almost exclusively aired grievances against the former, portraying it as inherently discriminatory against non-Jews, a lead aggressor in the conflict, and the primary obstacle to its peaceful resolution.

It only alluded to violence by Palestinians — whom, unlike Jews, were repeatedly referred to as indigenous — when briefly claiming that Palestinians “fought back” against Israel for decades through “armed struggle,” before claiming the majority now prefer popular protest and endorse boycotts.

The discussion that followed variously touched on ways to promote Palestinian rights, the history of black-Palestinian activism, and the “aggression” displayed by some members of the campus community during the week — remarks that some Jewish students took as an allusion to their objections.

Much of the talk surrounding antisemitism centered on the way the hatred is expressed on the right, particularly by white supremacists, and how this expression purportedly links with anti-Palestinian sentiments.

At one point, Browers criticized a resolution passed by the WFU student government in December that recognized a definition of antisemitism published by the State Department in 2010, which echoes one put forward by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA).

The definition — whose examples include “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel” and “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination” — also explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”

“This campus got swindled,” Browers said of the resolution’s passage, arguing that external news coverage highlighting the incident as a victory for Israel made it “clear that it was about politics, it wasn’t about hate.”

“You got swindled,” she reiterated. “You still can undo it, you can make that message about hate speech and you can take a stand against antisemitism, but that’s not what happened.”

Browers added that student leaders failed to address these concerns when they later passed an amendment clarifying that the antisemitism resolution took no political stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“The original amendment rendered criticisms of Israel suspect for potentially being antisemitic, it subjected them to a litmus test,” she asserted. “I’m heartened that students tried to correct it and I have great faith that you will get it right eventually, but I don’t think it’s yet been undone.”

Later on in the panel, Trachtenberg appeared to scoff at a sign held by one SSI member that called Jews “indigenous” to Israel, describing it as “an attempt to erase the presence of Palestinian people.”

When Browers pointed to the Jewish professor after being asked by Yurchenko why panel organizers “excluded a voice from Wake Forest Jewish community when talking of antisemitism,” the SSI president said to loud applause, “Barry Trachtenberg does not represent the Wake Forest Jewish student community.”

The incident cemented the divide between the panelists and the gathered Jewish students who, while having a personal stake in a campus discussion on antisemitism, felt that organizers deliberately marginalized their voice.

“It was a missed opportunity for a constructive community dialogue,” said Sugarman, who expressed shock and disappointment at seeing “such a blatant display of antisemitism” throughout the week.

“Although the organizers of the program promised an opportunity for dialogue and open discussion, only those espousing the Palestinian point of view were given the opportunity to speak,” she recounted. “Members of Hillel and the mainstream Jewish community who tried to voice a different perspective were ignored or dismissed. Our hopes for a balanced and inclusive approach were dashed and instead replaced by a largely prejudicial view about Jews and about Israel.”

Gabriel Frank Benzecry, a junior and former president of WFU Hillel who is now an SSI board member, likewise decried the “lies and antisemitic acts” he encountered during the week, calling them “disgusting” and a failure to represent the values of Wake Forest.

“We are so lucky to have such a strong Jewish community that will not stay silent,” he told The Algemeiner.

Another student who was at the panel, freshman and SSI member Eli Allison, said organizers “intentionally excluded” a representative Jewish voice, while speakers “deflected questions that wished to expose another narrative on the conflict.”

“Two non-Jews, and one incredibly non-representative Jewish speaker, attempted to define antisemitism in front of a large group of people; and did so in a way many found hurtful,” he continued.

A Jewish student who requested to remain anonymous also said he was “disappointed and appalled by the discussion panel” in an email he drafted to Trachtenberg that night, calling it “one-sided and unfair” and taking particular issue with the JVP video played at the beginning of the event.

“As a leader in Jewish history, both on this campus and off, I found it unsettling for you to not mention the previous thousands of years of history the Jewish people have to Israel,” explained the student, who ultimately did not send the email due in part to fear of academic repercussion.

He recalled speaking to “many other Jewish students on campus” and Jewish people from Winston-Salem, where the university is located, who expressed similar views.

“As a Jewish student, I have never felt like my voice has ever been represented through the faculty and staff of the university and tonight is direct evidence of why that is,” he added. “I am ashamed to consider myself a part of a university whose Chair on Jewish History allows blatant slander and false facts to be posted on campus.”

Yurchenko and Sugarman said they are trying to work with the administration to improve the campus climate for their community, and met with Vice President and Chief Diversity Officer José Villalba both before and following the week’s events.

“The most recent meeting was centered on learning more about how students experienced the events and on sharing ideas for going forward,” WFU said in a statement to The Algemeiner. “The faculty advisor for Hillel was present at the meeting. Students from both sides of the arguments have expressed a desire to talk with each other.”

“Wake Forest University is committed to creating a campus environment where a wide diversity of ideas and perspectives are expressed,” and “providing all students the right to speak, write, listen, challenge and learn,” including in regards to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The statement noted that following the “strong response” to the information displayed during “Solidarity with Palestine” campaign, the administration “made additional space available for community members to display alternative information, perspectives and beliefs.”

Yet Yurchenko has advocated for more steps to be taken, particularity an official acknowledgement of what he and his peers encountered throughout the week.

“It’s not really a question of whether there was or wasn’t antisemitism, it’s textbook definition,” he said. “Jewish students on campus really don’t feel safe, antisemitic messages are promoted and literally nobody has acknowledged it.”

Sugarman similarly called on the administration to “take the necessary actions to foster an environment that is welcoming to the Jewish students, as well as as other minorities.”

“Having personally been affected by an act of antisemitism on campus during my freshman year,” she added, “I can attest to the importance of taking appropriate steps to prevent Wake Forest University from evolving into an environment which turns a blind eye to acts of antisemitism.”

Trachtenberg, Browers, and YDSA did not respond to requests for comment by press time.

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