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At Bard, hurt feelings sidetrack a crucial conversation

What was most needed at the Hannah Arendt Center's anti-Semitism conference was for Jews to stay and keep talking to each other
Batya Ungar-Sargon, Reverend Jacqui Lewis, Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, Amy Schiller at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Racism and Antisemitism, October 11, 2019 (Courtesy)
Batya Ungar-Sargon, Reverend Jacqui Lewis, Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, Amy Schiller at the Hannah Arendt Center Conference on Racism and Antisemitism, October 11, 2019 (Courtesy)

We live in a time of rising anti-Semitism. From Pittsburgh to Poway to Halle, it is increasingly violent in nature and threatening the lives and well-being of Jews in the United States and in Europe. So I was looking forward to entering important conversations about racism and anti-Semitism at a conference on those topics held at Bard College’s Hannah Arendt Center last week. I was also there to facilitate breakout sessions based on two oral history projects that I direct, one on the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting and another on 50 years of Israeli-Palestinian peace activism.

But the substance of that necessary conversation has become overshadowed by the controversy surrounding Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor at The Forward. Attending as a moderator, Ungar-Sargon became outraged over a student protest staged during a session on which she was a panelist. The following morning, she accused conference speakers and organizers of enabling anti-Semitism and stormed off the stage. She published an op-ed, “I Was Protested At Bard College For Being A Jew.”

As a first-hand witness to everything that occurred, I can say unequivocally that the op-ed’s portrayal of what took place at the conference, and the characterization of the student protest as blatantly anti-Semitic, misrepresented what happened, as many other attendees have already written.

But what has upset me more than Ungar-Sargon’s distortions was that she diverted an important discussion about anti-Semitism onto herself and her media platform. Ungar-Sargon’s actions turned what the Hannah Arendt Center had intended as an opportunity for learning across the ideological spectrum – to address increasing levels of anti-Semitism that endanger Jews today – into a conversation about her perceived victimhood.

That is not the conversation we Jews need.

At the breakout sessions I facilitated at the conference, I played oral history recordings of personal experiences of anti-Semitism to stimulate dialogue between attendees. These recordings insert complexity into the overly simple narratives we often use to discuss anti-Semitism. I believe that this process can help us during these challenging times.

The first session included voices from the American Jewish Peace Archive, my project interviewing American Jewish peace activists from 1967 to the present day. We looked at how the wounds of anti-Semitism sometimes make it difficult for an older generation to address hard questions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

We listened to audio from Cheryl Moch, a Brooklyn native and former activist in the Jewish Student Movement of the 1970s,who spoke about her memories of the role Israel played for her post-Holocaust generation:

“I think that for those of us who were born right after the Holocaust, that Israel was a great antidote to the feeling that we were, you know, vulnerable in the world, and that we equated the survival of Israel with the survival of the Jewish people who had recently been threatened…There was this shining place, Israel, with a military and an air force, and a “fuck you” attitude to the world. It was wonderful. It was so exciting because I think it made us feel strong when we felt weak, when we felt vulnerable. ..You couldn’t even wrap your mind around criticizing such a place that was our salvation.”

At the end of the session, a young adult participant commented that this story helped him understand how sacred Israel was as a symbol of safety and refuge for generations of older Jews.

The next day, in a session co-facilitated with my colleague Noah Schoen, we listened to an audio clip from Reva Simon, a 90 year resident of the Squirrel Hill neighborhood in Pittsburgh. The interview was conducted as part of the The Meanings of October 27th , an oral history project we are currently working on to document reflections from Jewish and non-Jewish Pittsburghers on the 2018 synagogue shooting.

In response to the question, “How did the synagogue shooting affect your sense of safety?” Reva shared:

“Always looking over my shoulder. When I enter not only the synagogue but when I go anywhere, I tend to look over my shoulder and wonder, ‘Is this okay? Is this okay? Who is that standing over there?’ You have, not a sense of safety, but a sense of fright. Not fright as it sounds, but fear if everything’s okay.

They say if you suspect something you should report it, but what can you say you suspect? You see somebody standing somewhere. He doesn’t look suspicious, but who knows, who knows what can happen? He might have a concealed weapon and is looking for a nice crowd to shoot up. Who knows?”

This excerpt generated a long conversation on the fear that has gripped many Jews since the synagogue shooting and how we can address it.

I believe that oral history can help Jews have complex and nuanced conversations around anti-Semitism. When people are given the opportunity to listen to and reflect on personal stories, it helps them to reflect on their own experience and open up to new understandings that they might not have otherwise been able to hear.

I have two takeaways from all of this.

First, in the conversation about anti-Semitism, we must listen carefully before jumping to conclusions. This is particularly true around intergenerational dynamics involving Israel. The standoff between Ungar-Sargon and the protestors (many of whom were Jews) illustrates how quickly perceptions of anti-Semitism can shut down a conversation. Yet both parties felt they were standing against oppression in their stances. A more nuanced conversation was needed to get to the root of their disagreements and open up space for deeper engagement about anti-Semitism.

Second, the conversation we need about anti-Semitism is easily sidetracked when too much attention is put on hurt feelings. Watching Ungar-Sargon cede the opportunity to share her perspectives on anti-Semitism with a mic in her hand in the opening minute of her Friday panel was acutely disappointing. Who knows what illuminating conversations might have happened if she had stayed for the panel and breakout sessions she was scheduled to facilitate? Even when it feels hard, Jews need to hang in there and keep talking to each other when it comes to anti-Semitism.

About the Author
Aliza Becker is the director of two oral history projects: The Meanings of October 27th, reflections from Pittsburghers on the 2018 synagogues shooting and the American Jewish Peace Archive 1967-2018, stories from American Jews involved in leadership of American Jewish peace and anti-occupation organizations. She is an Associate Fellow at the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.
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