Matisyahu, the Iran deal and the college campus


Do we need to have a definition of anti-Semitism?  Most people think they already know what it means.

And sometimes the answer is obvious. Think, for example, about the vandals who recently scrawled the words “Yids out” on the fence of a girls’ primary day school in London.

Or consider Matisyahu. What else can you call it when Spain’s annual reggae music festival, Rototom Sunsplash, cancelled a scheduled appearance by this Jewish American singer.  Organizers argued that the rapper is a “Zionist” and supports the practice of “apartheid and ethnic cleansing.”

You don’t need a Ph.D. in anti-Semitology to know what that was about.

Often, though, there is room for disagreement.  When Israel’s critics use double standards, are they just being advocates, or have they crossed a line? For that matter, when some who support President Obama’s proposed Iran deal speak of their opponents’ “money” and “lobbyists,” are they mobilizing anti-Jewish sentiment or just being “realistic”?
            
Consider how some of the Iran deal’s supporters lambaste Senator Chuck Schumer, one of the president’s top Senate allies, for opposing the deal. The Daily Kos ran a cartoon showing Schumer with an Israeli flag, calling him a “traitor.” MoveOn.org lumped Schumer together with another famous Jewish Democrat, saying, “our country doesn’t need another Joe Lieberman in the Senate.” These organizations clearly crossed a line.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone who supports the Iran deal is an anti-Semite. Nor is it anti-Semitic merely to disagree with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s view of the world.

Definitions are like fences. They wall some things in and others out. It is not just that we need to be clearer about what should be condemned as anti-Semitic.  We also need to be clearer about what is not anti-Semitic and should not be unjustly maligned.

Unfortunately, our best definitions are now under attack. Earlier this year, Jewish Voice for Peace assailed the U.S. State Department’s authoritative definition of anti-Semitism.  The State Department definition is important because it embodies Natan Sharansky’s “3-D Test.” Many criticisms of Israel are not anti-Semitic. But they may enter that territory when they Demonize the Jewish state, Delegitimize Israel, or apply Double standards.

Anti-Israel activists are incensed that the State Department’s definition includes “demonizing,” “delegitimizing,” and “applying a double-standard” to Israel. They want to redefine anti-Semitism so that extreme anti-Israel activism will no longer be considered anti-Semitic.

Fortunately, the State Department rebuffed their efforts. In an important August letter, Special Envoy Ira Forman, the Obama administration’s point man on global anti-Semitism, explained that his department’s definition is important to his work and has not led to any encroachments on free speech.

Although Israel’s critics targeted the State Department, the real battle is over higher education. In response to a rash of anti-Semitic incidents, several student governments and advocacy groups, including the Louis D. Brandeis Center, have urged broader use of State Department standards in higher education.

Several months ago, a report jointly issued by the Louis D. Brandeis Center and Trinity College demonstrated that over 50% of Jewish college students reported experiencing or witnessing anti-Semitism during the 2013-2014 academic year. Earlier this summer, nearly three quarters of Jewish students responding to a Brandeis University study reported having been exposed to at least one of six anti-Semitic statements, such as claims that Jews have too much power and that Israelis behave “like Nazis.” Jewish students have reported being punched in the face, called derogatory epithets, and harassed in many ways.

Unfortunately, the federal government does not yet apply the State Department’s definition to American colleges.  If a French university were to tolerate a hostile environment for Jewish students, based on behavior that demonizes and delegitimizes the Jewish state, the State Department would understand when a line is crossed.  But if the same thing happens in California, New York, or Florida, the U.S. government would not be able to say whether the conduct was anti-Semitic, because domestic agencies are not coordinating with State.  Obviously this problem must be fixed.

At the same time, university leaders should educate their communities about the lines between legitimate political discourse and anti-Semitic intolerance.  This doesn’t mean censorship.  It does mean that universities should take their educative function seriously.  In September, the University of California Regents, the University’s governing board, is expected to discuss adopting a statement of principles on intolerance.  This would be an excellent opportunity for the Regents to assert leadership by taking a well-defined stand against prejudice.

Marcus is President of the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law (www.brandeiscenter.com) and former Staff Director of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. Oxford University Press will publish his new book on The Definition of Anti-Semitism in September.

Where’s the struggle?


I feel cheated. I’ve always been told that Judaism is all about the struggle — the struggle with God, with ourselves, with ideas.

I’ve been told that Judaism embraces the tension between opposing views; that a key part of being Jewish is the ability to hold onto, even nurture, this tension as a way of refining our character.

So, what happened?

When I see the coarse arguments currently raging over the issue of same-sex marriage, I don’t see any thoughtful or fascinating debates or any embracing of tension. I see two armies shooting at each other.

These two armies have one thing in common: They’re both absolutely sure they have the truth on their side.

Many proponents of same-sex marriage are so sure of themselves that they’ll accuse the other side of “hatred, discrimination and bigotry.” When I saw a neighbor a few weeks ago put up a sign that said, “No to Hate, No to 8,” the first thing that crossed my mind was: If these people can go so far as to accuse the neighbors who disagree with them of hatred, well, they must be incredibly sure of themselves. No inner turmoil there.

I can’t say I’ve reached that state of blissful certitude. That’s because for every heartfelt, passionate argument I hear in favor of same-sex marriage, I’ll hear something that complicates the argument, such as this from Carol A. Corrigan:

“If there is to be a new understanding of the meaning of marriage in California, it should develop among the people of our state and find its expression at the ballot box.”

Corrigan is not a Mormon missionary. She’s a justice of the California Supreme Court. She was one of three dissenters in the decision last May to overturn the result of Proposition 22 from March 2000, when 61 percent of Californians who cast ballots voted that “only marriage between a man and a woman is valid or recognized in California.”

Corrigan also happens to be a lesbian, who would personally like to see same-sex marriage become the law of the land. But as she wrote in her dissent:

“We are in the midst of a major social change. Societies seldom make such changes smoothly. For some, the process is frustratingly slow. For others it is jarringly fast. In a democracy the people should be given a fair chance to set the pace of change without judicial interference. That is the way democracies work.

“Ideas are proposed, debated, tested. Often new ideas are initially resisted, only to be ultimately embraced. But when ideas are imposed, opposition hardens and progress may be hampered.”

Does that sound like someone who’s full of hatred, discrimination and bigotry?

Similarly, I came across a scholarly and respectful essay from professor Margaret Somerville of McGill University titled, “The Case Against Same-Sex Marriage.” The Bible is never mentioned. Instead, strictly from a secular and ethical viewpoint, Somerville delves into the many layers of the issue, always recognizing the opposing viewpoint. And without a trace of self-righteousness, she advances, slowly and carefully, her belief that “society needs an institution that represents, symbolizes and protects the inherently reproductive relationship.”

I would love to see all proponents of Proposition 8 show the same appreciation for the complexity of this issue.

As I see it, the key point is not whether one agrees or disagrees with Corrigan and Somerville, but rather, recognizing that there’s a lot more thoughtful debate on this issue than meets the eye.

Frankly, when I see the increasingly vitriolic attacks being launched against people who exercised their democratic right to vote on a proposition, all I’m thinking is: They’re losing me.

One person who certainly didn’t lose me was Rabbi Sharon Brous, the spiritual leader of the IKAR community. Over coffee at Delice Bakery the other day, she made arguments in favor of same-sex marriage that were compelling and genuinely moving.

What moved me the most was the way she made her arguments — without any hint of anger or condescension, but with kindness, reason and heartfelt anecdotes. She didn’t feel the need to use scare tactics. She was against using words like “hate” to characterize the opposition, because, as she said, that kind of language doesn’t “open the heart.”

My conversation with Brous made me reflect on my own approach. Because I’m driven by curiosity as much as ideology, I have a tendency to immerse myself in both sides of an issue — even if I usually lean one way or the other.

I admit that I’m often tempted to just go over to my side, pick up a gun and start shooting. And sometimes I do. But then I ask myself, does the community need another partisan shooter, or does it need someone who can encourage all shooters to put down their guns and try to speak with the calmness and sensitivity of a Carole Corrigan, a Margaret Somerville or a Sharon Brous?

Maybe that’s the real struggle. Instead of trying to “convert” other people to our beliefs, we should struggle to convey those beliefs in a way that won’t alienate, demean or patronize the other side.

Even when — especially when — we’re absolutely sure that we are right and they are wrong.

David Suissa, an advertising executive, is founder of OLAM magazine and Ads4Israel.com. He can be reached at dsuissa@olam.org.