Leon Wiener Dow
Director of Beit Midrash at Kolot, Creator and Host of Pod Drash, Author of National Jewish Book Award Winner "The Going"

Checkmate: Antisemitism

There are moments when a person seems to be faced with a choice – but in fact there’s no choice at all. The person stands at a crossroads, and at a technical level, she has the ability to choose between two courses of action. But in fact the course that she must choose is so clear that she cannot not choose it. In a sense, at such a formative moment, the decision already happened, because everything leading up to this moment in this person’s life points in one direction, even dictates it. If she were to deny that choice, she would betray her own self, and she would no longer be who she is.

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It is in this context that you can understand the otherwise bewildering 4.1 second pause between Representative Elise Stefanik’s question about whether calling for the genocide of Jews violates Penn’s code of conduct, yes or no, and former-President Liz Magill’s bumbling answer. Or, for that matter, the insistence of Harvard President Claudine Gay that calling for the genocide of Jews would constitute bullying or harassment “can be, depending on the context” – the context being if it’s targeted at individuals.

Neither Gay nor Magill could have answered otherwise – and not because of the legal counsel and coaching offered by to them by WilmerHale, nor because of the intricacies of balancing First Amendment protection for freedom speech with a university commitment to creating a safe and inviting atmosphere of exploration and inquiry for its students.

No, no, no.

Neither Gay nor Magill could simply acquiesce in labelling the call for Jewish genocide as bullying or harassment because that would mean that “punching up” is not always permitted, and that doing so can be called out as morally repugnant, violent, and threatening. Protecting the Jews from calls for genocide would be to view us as potentially vulnerable, which is a categorical error for privileged members of the white hegemony. Making such a move – which could, in turn, curtail political speech that calls for the liquidation of the Jewish state – would be to attack the very legitimacy of the entire discipline of Postcolonial Studies. Gagging, muting, or even imposing limits on those who attack the Jewish people (not as individuals – that’s unacceptable! just the Jewish people!) would be to be complicit in an oppressive and violent silencing of legitimate protest.

Their answers did not result from technical oversight, the legal complication of the matter, a failure in preparation, or a general moral haze. They reflected with frightening and haunting precision a pervading ethos that not only excludes us Jews from the same protections afforded to every other minority group. It perforce subjects us to their – dare I say hegemonic? – definitions of group and individual identity; power and oppression; race, ethnicity, and creed; moral agency and culpability; and parameters of legitimate and abusive discourse.

We Jews are powerless to resist – because we cannot manufacture a shared vocabulary to launch a counterassault. The powers-that-be (that in this case are the self-defined underprivileged) have performed what I must admit is a rather brilliant move: If we resist – it is a violent act of silencing. If we claim victimhood, we have failed to understand our status as oppressor. If we respond strategically, by mobilizing public opinion or leveraging the institutional or financial influence that we have – we affirm our status as powerful and privileged.

Could it be, then, that what made it difficult for the presidents of three of the United States’ most prestigious universities to label calls for the genocide of Jews as “harassment” – and that what prevents us from expressing our utter disbelief and outrage at that fact – is nothing more than antis–? Shh.

About the Author
Leon Wiener Dow is the creator and host of Pod Drash and the head of the beit midrash at Kolot. His book The Going: A Meditation on Jewish Law won the 2018 National Jewish Book Award in the area of Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. He lives in Jerusalem with his wife and their five children.
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