This is not a story about me. At least, not directly. I wasn’t there, and I didn’t see it. I just read about it. But in a world where anyone can get sucked into anything via social media, this is a story about how one comment got me branded an anti-Semite for the first time in my life.
In an opinion piece that appeared in the Forward on Saturday, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Forward’s opinion editor, claimed that a couple of days earlier, she had been the target of an anti-Semitic protest at a Bard College conference on racism and anti-Semitism. She said she had stormed out of the conference in a protest of her own – but not before delivering an impassioned speech about her alleged victimization. The title of her piece, “I Was Protested at Bard College for Being a Jew,” was sensational and, if true, horrifying.
Since then, a number of highly reputable sources have come forward and disputed her account. Ungar-Sargon’s most egregious omission: Protesters were mostly focused on panelist Ruth Wisse, a highly divisive figure whose statements about Palestinians are widely seen by the left as racist. Among those offering divergent versions of the event were Kenneth Stern of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate (formerly of the American Jewish Committee), and Roger Berkowitz, director of the Arendt Center and organizer of the conference. Stern’s written response, also published in the Forward, was titled, “I Was at the Bard Anti-Semitism Panel, and Saw Deep Disagreement, not Singling Out of Jews.”
But before these alternative accounts emerged, I had already tweeted that Ungar-Sargon’s op-ed was a “weak, self-serving piece.” I confess that I tend to approach her work with a jaundiced eye, given her track record of both-sides-ism. She has been known to respond disproportionately to anti-Semitism from the left, as when she joined the Ilhan Omar pile-on, and she has alienated Jews of color. But Ungar-Sargon’s piece on the Bard affair went further. It wasn’t just a question of different interpretations of a widely covered event. Hers was the first piece to report the Bard protest, and it was so self-focused, so sketchy on details, that it was hard to even tell what happened. It strongly implied that protesters had prevented her from speaking, which turned out not to have been the case; other accounts say protesters for the most part stood silently holding signs, except for a couple of brief interruptions. The strongest impression made by her piece came from what was not there: details to convincingly support her strong charge of anti-Semitism, not only on the part of the protesters, but on the part of conference participants as well. She presented herself as the only sane voice in a sea of anti-Semitism – at a conference about anti-Semitism. I was skeptical.
Weak, self-serving piece, reporting only your aggrieved POV, putting protesters’ position in the mouth of one student whose response you mischaracterize. She didn’t say Israel=Jews, she said you can’t discuss antisemitism today without discussing Israel. That’s not unreasonable.
— Tamar Wyschogrod (@stoplookingup) October 13, 2019
After my initial tweet, I received a deluge of responses calling me an anti-Semite and worse. (At least, it seemed like a deluge to me, but I’m not Twitter-famous. I can only imagine what people with tens of thousands of followers must have to deal with.) Ungar-Sargon’s story clearly appealed to people eager for opportunities to tar leftists with the broadest anti-Semitism brush available. That urge is especially strong now, in the era of Trump, when right-wing anti-Semitism has become so blatant and violent that the both-sides-do-it narrative (let alone the left-is-worse narrative) is becoming increasingly untenable. I had made myself an easy target by challenging someone who was lobbing ideological bombs. I was collateral damage in the rush to judgment.
“Face your anti-Semitism,” said one. “You’re clearly an anti-Semite,” said another. And my personal favorite: “Honestly, it’s like you think we’ve never met you c*nts before. Three thousand years says we have….At least have the guts to admit you hate the vast majority of Jews.” Obviously, none of these people could conceive of a middle-aged, suburban Jewish woman who cares deeply about the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel.
Most disturbing to me about Ungar-Sargon’s piece was that the only mention of the protesters’ position was a quote she attributed to an unnamed student: “The conversation about anti-Semitism is already inherently about Israel.” Ungar-Sargon called this “a deeply anti-Semitic trope that has been voiced across the spectrum from David Duke to Louis Farrakhan to Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters.” She went on to say, “Right-wing anti-Semites see any accusation of anti-Semitism as a Jewish conspiracy to take away the rights of whites, while left-wing anti-Semites sees the same accusation as an attempt to silence Palestinians.”
This, to put it mildly, is putting words into the mouth of that student, who, by Ungar-Sargon’s own account, said absolutely nothing of the kind. All she said was that Israel is part of the conversation about anti-Semitism. Who in their right mind, on either left or right, could possibly deny that? Between the much-discussed question of anti-Semitism vis-à-vis anti-Zionism, and Trump’s conflation of Israel and Jews in numerous tweets and comments, the discussion of anti-Semitism nowadays eventually comes around to Israel one way or another. In fact, everyone from the American Jewish Committee to the Anti-Defamation League, the Union for Reform Judaism, Jewish Voice for Peace, the Orthodox Union, and even the French government has a position on the relationship between Israel and anti-Semitism. Obviously, to say that the two are closely linked is not an act of anti-Semitism in and of itself.
Of course, I was not at the Bard conference. My initial interpretation of Ungar-Sargon’s account, while reasonable, could have been wrong. But in the past day or so, the chorus of voices adamantly contradicting her version has grown. A small sampling:
“I believe Batya Ungar-Sargon’s take on the student protest at the conference cheapens the term (anti-Semitism); I was there, and I disagree with both her description and interpretation of what happened,” says Kenneth Stern in his own piece.
“I was there, and what provoked the protest wasn’t the fact that the discussion was about anti-Semitism, but that the speaker was Ruth Wisse, a notorious anti-Arab racist and unconditional defender of Israel and its occupation. The notion that this woman from the Forward was protested because she’s Jewish is preposterous,” says Adam Shatz, contributing editor of the London Review of Books.
“The title of the piece is so duplicitous it’s hard to imagine,” asserts Roger Berkowitz, director of Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center.
Two excellent pieces have since come out in Mondoweiss and Jewish Currents that are well worth reading. While some will dismiss them because they appear in left-leaning publications, the articles are clear, balanced, and cite a range of sources.
Needless to say, Ungar-Sargon has found a lot of support from kindred spirits who have ignored the problems in her account and praised her courage, especially upon viewing the video of her emotional statement to the conference. But the growing evidence of the extent of her misrepresentation – and perhaps more importantly, her quick publication of the piece in an editorial space she herself controls — makes one wonder how the Forward can justify keeping her on as opinion editor.
For me, the biggest takeaway is that no author, and especially not one who calls herself a journalist, should feel that the word “opinion” at the top of a piece justifies the distortion of facts or the misrepresentation of an opponent’s argument. Too often, people think the legitimacy of a news operation lies entirely in the accuracy of its hard-news reporting, but it’s just as important to have high standards of honesty in the opinion section. That’s where the most damage can be done, because that’s where news gets turned into emotions and beliefs.