Author Bari Weiss moderated a Zoom webinar discussion with three Jewish students about anti-Semitism on college campuses on December 3.
The webinar, which was part of the Hillel At Home initiative, featured USC student Rose Ritch, George Washington University (GWU) student Blake Flayton and Cornell University student Esther Bentolila. Weiss started the webinar by saying that the purpose of being Jewish goes beyond fighting anti-Semitism. “Our purpose is to be Jews,” she said.
Weiss added that “that being Jewish is the great honor of my life” and “that is the basis for really everything that I do and the fire that makes me want to get up and sort of get into the battlefield.”
Ritch proceeded to tell her story about the anti-Semitism she experienced on campus. It started in June, when allegations emerged that the USC student government president had engaged in microaggressions against Black students, leading to calls of impeachment. Ritch said that she was then the next target of impeachment calls over her silence on the matter as well as that her Zionist identity “caused harm” to Palestinian students. Formal impeachment charges were eventually filed against her, which didn’t mention anything regarding her Zionist identity. However, Ritch argued that the formal impeachment document bypassed student laws and didn’t fit the grounds for impeachment.
Once the calls for impeachment started, Ritch said that a “pretty intense online campaign” against her started, with various social media posts calling for her “Zionist a—” to be impeached and accusing Zionists of being responsible for police brutality. Ritch eventually resigned from the student government in August.
“it was a very hard decision,” Ritch said. “A lot of thought went into it.”
She added that she didn’t expect her resignation to become a massive news story.
Bentolila then explained how she became aware of anti-Semitism on campus during her first semester at Cornell, when three swastikas were found on campus — including one drawn in the snow — in 2018. For Flayton, an avowed progressive, it was when a social media video surfaced of a GWU student saying, “We are going to bomb Israel you Jewish pieces of s—!” A person who Flayton thought was a friend of his asked on Instagram why they should be defending the Jewish community when they don’t “stand up for other communities.”
“I started putting together the puzzle of things that had been said to me [on campus],” Flayton said, as people on campus had compared Israelis to the Nazis and used terms like “genocide apologism” to describe supporters of Israel.
“None of this is criticism of Israel,” Flayton said. “This is darker and more sinister.”
He argued that such demonization of Israel turns a civil academic discussion about the Israel-Palestinian conflict into an emotionally charged verbal fight, and that those who speak out against it “you get a sense that you no longer belong in the community of progressivism.”
Ritch said that what happened to her was the byproduct of “this moment of our country coming to terms with this wokeness” since George Floyd died while in police custody and that a lot of students on campus do not understand what Zionism actually is. In fact, Ritch never identified herself as a Zionist until this past summer, and now she has embraced the label since it’s all about supporting the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland.
Flayton pointed to writer Andrew Sullivan’s 2018 piece “We All Live On Campus Now” to describe the current culture of wokeness in the country; Flayton argued that Jewish experiences “are being trivialized for this false concept of the greater good.” As an example, he pointed to the New York Times publishing “a very flattering piece on [Nation of Islam leader] Louis Farrakhan” regarding the Million Man March.
Such examples show how “othering [the] Jewish people” is becoming more mainstream, Flayton said, stressing the importance of watching what students and professors say on campus.
Weiss said that she thinks college campuses are “hilariously overly sensitive” and doesn’t see a way to work within the “woke” ideology. Flayton agreed, stating the ideology of wokeism is divided between the categories of “oppressors” and “victims” and that a group in the oppressor category can never be a victim and vice versa. He argued that progressive students like himself can fight against anti-Semitism while advocating for other social justice issues like criminal justice reform and LGBTQ+ rights, “but once this other layer is added on to it… then it becomes an issue because then it becomes either intentionally or unintentionally anti-Semitic.”
Weiss said that she thinks college campuses are “hilariously overly sensitive” and doesn’t see a way to work within the “woke” ideology.
Ritch then said that she had initially hoped to resign quietly, but after seeing Weiss’ public resignation letter from The New York Times, she was inspired to go public with her resignation letter from USC’s student government. Weiss said she was encouraged that nearly 45 professors signed a letter supporting Ritch as well as the idea that Zionists deserve a space on campus. “That was a world away from my experience as a Zionist activist on campus at Columbia [University],” Weiss said.
Flayton, on the other hand, said that when he published his op-ed in The New York Times in November 2019 highlighting the anti-Semitism he experienced in progressive spaces on campus, only one GWU professor — a Jewish studies professor — reached out to him about it.
“I realized that this conversation has become so toxic, so politically charged, so emotional, that most people on campus would really rather not touch it because it sparks anger resentment accusations,” Flayton said.
The best way to handle such discussions going forward isn’t to “yell louder” or “[provide] a laundry list of all the things Zionism is and isn’t,” Flayton argued. Rather, it involves “the shared understanding that this is a space for disagreement and compromise.” Ritch also said that discussions about the Israel-Palestinian conflict are challenging because it can make one feel “vulnerable” so the best thing one can do is to put “yourself aside for a little bit” and be “confident in your identity.”
Weiss then turned the conversation toward the issue of anti-Zionist Jewish groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). Flayton acknowledged that all voices need to be heard but “there is something so hurtful and depressing” when groups like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) promulgate blood libels and anti-Zionist Jews either give them cover or stay silent; Flayton argued this amounted to “tokenization.”
Toward the end of the webinar, Weiss said, “I believe that the ideology that these students have encountered is a fundamental threat not just to Jews but to liberalism, liberal democracy and Western civilization.” She added that throughout history, Jews have been the first victims of totalitarian ideologies, and Jewish students “are playing the role of the canary.” Weiss said she was “encouraged” by leadership from Jewish students in the fight against this ideology.