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August 25, 2021 11:55 am

Parsing the ‘Antisemitism/Anti-Israel Phenomenon’

avatar by David Fine


An anti-Israel ‘apartheid wall’ on display at Columbia University during Apartheid Week in 2017. Photo: Facebook.

The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) recently released a study on the attitudes regarding antisemitism and anti-Israel activism on US college campuses. It concluded that that we “may need to confront the notion, common among liberal Jewish Americans, that right-wing sources are mostly responsible for antisemitism.”

Citing perceptions of Israeli Jewish campus professionals from early 2021 (before the Gaza war) and correlating them with the findings of a survey of Hillel directors in 2015, the JCPA study argued that the significant antisemitic and anti-Israel pressures on campus are driven by “the progressive left,” and that it is these attitudes which must be confronted.

While there remains much work to be done with the progressive element in American politics in terms of attitudes towards Jews and Israel, the picture posed by the JCPA is flawed methodologically and otherwise.

The JCPA study looks at the perceptions of Israelis sent to work on college Hillels through the Jewish Agency. While their perspectives are not unimportant, the study seeks to draw conclusions on the nature of the antisemitic and anti-Israel culture that American Jewish college students encounter. The data is second-hand, as the respondents are asked to report on the experience of Jewish students.

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The problem with second-hand data is the interpretive element of the reporter. How does the Israeli shaliah understand the experiences that American Jewish college students describe? The study should have accounted for that perspective. The Israeli emissaries are closer to the average college student in age and life experience than the Hillel directors surveyed in 2015, but more removed, as Israelis, from the very complicated mosaic of American Jewish identity.

The study reports, in fact, that the antisemitism encountered most on campus was not physical and not even primarily from fellow students, but rather from the comments of (left-leaning, we assume) professors in the classroom. While this is disappointing to hear when we expect our universities to construct classrooms free of prejudice and discrimination, a more solid finding based on those students who are in the classrooms would better merit a call to action, such as the JCPA suggests, of “identifying and targeting these individual faculty members.”

A broader interpretive approach employed by the JCPA study is the conflation of the “antisemitism/anti-Israel phenomenon.” The study acknowledges that the conflation of anti-Israel rhetoric with antisemitism is a matter of dispute, citing as two opposing perspectives the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) “working definition of antisemitism,” endorsed by the US State Department, and the Jerusalem Declaration.

The JCPA study declares its acceptance of the IHRA definition and uses that approach when analyzing anti-Israel and antisemitic rhetoric. While it is true that the Jerusalem Declaration presents itself as a corrective response to the IHRA, it is not the clear-cut “alternative” to the IHRA that the JCPA study suggests. While the Jerusalem Declaration specifically states that the support for BDS (Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions) does not in itself constitute antisemitism, the IHRA is careful not to include criticism of Israel as ipso facto antisemitic.

Criticism of Israel, according to the IHRA, is antisemitic when it “targets Israel … as a Jewish collectivity” and singles out Israel for criticism not given to other states in similar situations, but that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”  A more careful study of anti-Israel attitudes on campus would seek to taxonomize the nature of the criticism according to both definitions of antisemitism. When does the criticism target Israel as a Jewish collectivity — and judged by a standard that no other country in a similar situation would be — and when is the criticism focused on specific policies?

These academic nuances illustrate the broader philosophical challenge posed to American Jews both on campus and in society in general. When is criticism of Israel legitimate, from non-Jews and from Jews? As both prominent Jewish and non-Jewish academics signed the Jerusalem Declaration, the question remains salient. Israeli professionals are uniquely suited to answer this question because they come from a society where there are no scruples on criticism of Israeli policy, and they possess an identity where being Jewish and being Israeli are synthesized in a way that cannot be achieved by American Jews.

The JCPA study would have been richer had it explored these angles on identity. It does report, before its conclusions and calls-to-action, that anti-Israel and antisemitic prejudice is more prevalent on “other campuses” than the respondents’ and that the prejudice is non-violent — findings that offer some welcome relief (despite the negativity of the conclusions).

But qualifications aside, surely the American Jewish student encounters challenges to Israel and, by association, to being Jewish on campus. My approach is to apply a “China test” — can one distinguish between a rejection of Chinese culture and indigeneity, and a protest against specific actions of the Chinese government? I think that one can, but clearly both events happen on (and off) campus.

Clearly an allegation of “dual loyalty” against American Jewish members of Congress, for example, crosses a line that must be called out. Love of one’s people and culture is not mutually exclusive. We can better help our students navigate the pressures and promises of the college campus by encouraging free thinking, embracing complex identities, and avoiding the conflation of all criticism with prejudice.

David J. Fine, PhD, is rabbi of Temple Israel and Jewish Community Center in Ridgewood, NJ, and adjunct professor of Jewish law at the Abraham Geiger and Zacharias Frankel Colleges in Potsdam, Germany.

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