January 17, 2020

Why Do College Students Regularly Protest Jewish and Israeli Speakers on Campus?

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Yom Kippur was the day before the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities’ conference on “Racism and anti-Semitism.” The holiest day of the Jewish year, Yom Kippur is a day of atonement and repentance. Like many Jewish people, I spent the day fasting in shul. Since I attend services on Bard College campus, this meant I also spent the day with students. Between morning services and evening services, the students told me about a planned protest against one speaker: Harvard Professor Emeritus Ruth Wisse.

For the next two hours, I talked with students about the protest. They all were Jewish, with some being members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). Some students were supportive of the protest, some were not. One of the students pulled out her computer and read me a statement Professor Wisse had made, cited on Wikipedia: “Palestinian Arabs [are] people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery.”

I told them that personally and politically, I did not agree with everything Wisse had said, but she had a right to speak. I made my case as the assistant director of the Arendt Center. I said Professor Wisse is 83. She’s a survivor. She has dedicated her life to the Yiddish language. It is not responsible to protest her. I told them this is a panel about anti-Semitism and the protest will be seen as anti-Semitic. 

The students proceeded with their mostly nonverbal protest and were removed when they verbally interrupted Professor Wisse’s talk. When Wisse finished her remarks, there was a thoughtful discussion between her, Batya Ungar-Sargon, Shany Mor and members of the audience. (Watch the video here.) 

The following day, at the beginning of the panel discussion “Racism and Zionism: Black and Jewish Relations,” Ungar-Sargon read a statement condemning all the conference participants for not calling out the student protestors as anti-Semitic, and being complicit in anti-Semitism. She left the conference, refusing to engage her fellow speakers and the audience in conversation.

In response to this, I offered a session so people could discuss what was happening. They asked many serious questions: Why was the only panel protested the only all-Jewish panel dedicated to a discussion of anti-Semitism? Was the protest anti-Semitic? How might we reconcile that charge with the fact that many of the protesting students were Jewish? What is our role as educators if not to prompt students to examine their thinking and the rationale behind their political opinions, without preempting their right to peaceful protest?

Anti-Semitism is a very real problem on college campuses, and we need to address the underlying political causes motivating students to protest Israeli and Jewish speakers. There were plenty of controversial speakers at our conference against which the students could have spoken out. If they had tried to shout down a speaker of color, there would be enormous outcry.

Students today do much of their protesting online, “calling out” and “canceling” students deemed insufficiently loyal to a party line on racial and social justice issues. Protest is, in part, a culture of performance where students parade their virtue − but they do most of this online and in non-public situations. It is highly disturbing that protesting speakers who defend Israel now is seen as an act that gains students social capital. It is evident that even if the protesters themselves had sound political motives and were not in the least anti-Semitic, their protest exists within a larger context of campus culture that sees criticism of Israel to be not only allowable but ennobling.

“It’s our job as educators to help students see how dangerous and prevalent anti-Semitism is right now and how their actions can perpetuate a culture of anti-Semitism.”

BDS protests such as the one we saw last week play off anti-Semitism and contribute to it. Political slogans such as “Zionism = Racism” are persuasive to college undergraduates and fail to reckon with the complex history of Israel and Palestine. But simply calling students anti-Semitic is not enough. Call-out culture from the left and right is not going to help us combat anti-Semitism on college campuses.

In 1969, Theodor Adorno and Herbert Marcuse had a debate about student protests. Adorno was against them; Marcuse was for them. Having escaped the Holocaust, Adorno pleaded with Marcuse to see the rise of left fascism on college campuses. Adorno appealed to Marcuse by reminding him what they withstood, and that protesting Jewish speakers is a form of left-wing authoritarianism.

We need to have this debate again − today.  

If we are going to stop perpetuating a culture of anti-Semitism, we need to address the mobilization of groups like these on college campuses and the chilling effects these protests can have on Jewish life. We must ask why Israel has become a focal organizing point for radicalizing students. It’s our job as educators to help students see how dangerous and prevalent anti-Semitism is right now and how their actions can perpetuate a culture of anti-Semitism.

This is why the Arendt Center actively is working to create spaces to have these difficult conversations. We are working to address anti-Semitism on college campuses by developing workshops to educate students so they can form political opinions based on facts instead of talking points political organizers hand them. We must protect free speech, but we also must address these protests and ask why speakers such as Professor Wisse and Shany Mor end up paying the cost for free speech.

Last spring, we held our first Campus Plurality Forum on Israel and Palestine with students and experts including David Bernstein, Riham Barghouti, Jamil Dakwar, Letty Cottin Pogrebin and Sarah Schulman. Over the course of two days, students from Students for Justice in Palestine and from the Jewish Student’s Organization sat together in conversation, read, talked, listened to experts and engaged in critical dialogue.

We are at the beginning of this work, and we are dedicated to opening spaces for conversation so students are equipped to discuss these serious issues. Hannah Arendt was a fierce defender of free speech. She believed it is “Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world, as that about which we speak, emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.” 

To mark the beginning of Sukkot, I had dinner with friends, neither inside nor outside, in their sukkah. In many ways, the sukkah resembles the conference and conversation spaces we work to make: openness on many sides, all parties sitting together, experiencing the vulnerability and growth that comes from exposure to that which is unfamiliar. A space where no one is silenced by others, no one disinvited, where there is no evasion of challenging questions. Rather than building walls, we are proud to create an open forum where people with different opinions can come together to stop and think.

At one point over dinner, as we talked about the conference, my friend’s 8-year-old daughter asked, “What is anti-Semitism?” I told her Professor Wisse defines it as any politics organized against Jewish people. She wanted to know how a Jewish person could be anti-Semitic. A few days after Yom Kippur, on the eve of Sukkot, this child affirmed my immediate response to the protest: What students need is not to be called anti-Semitic; they need education. It is our job as professors to teach students how to think, not what to think.

Samantha Hill is Assistant Director for the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.