No Real Scholarship or Introspection Here: JVPers on Anti-Semitism

The screed Shaul Magid offers in Tikkun Magazine (November 30, 2017) defending the recent panel on “Antisemitism and the Struggle for Social Justice” held at the New School on November 28, 2017, staffed by Linda Sarsour, Rebecca Vilkomerson, and others, is an exercise in vapid self- and in-group-justification.   The panel retailed the same position as does the Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) in its edited collection On Antisemitism: Solidarity and the Struggle for Justice (Haymarket Books, 2017). This position is that – regarding antisemitism today – the great danger is not so much the threat antisemitism poses to Jews but the threat that Jews employ the charge of antisemitism to silence others.   As Maggid suggested last year in an independent talk at Brown University, it is a way of controlling and deforming the Jewish conversation.

A JVP Panel at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst the next day, November 29, offered the same insistences about how antisemitism is “a very, very effective silencing mechanism.”  But while the JVP is pushing this view in several current planned events around the country, this is not true at all.  The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement continues mounting campaigns to delegitimize Israel on American campuses. It continues seeking to influence professional associations like the American Academy of Religion and others, wherever possible. Indeed, JVP continues acting – with Ford Foundation money, nonetheless — as an official notary testifying in the name of “an organization of Jews” wherever they decide it strategic to do so to attest the truth of the BDS message.

Maggid laments that on his own campus at Bloomington, in Indiana, there is a leading institute for the study of antisemitism which largely offers opportunities mainly to pro-Israel advocates who decry the state of anti-Israelism as anti-Semitism.   He says he is not invited to the programs and conferences put on by this institute because the conveners know he has a different view. Perhaps he is not invited because he is not a scholar of antisemitism. Perhaps it is also that he thinks it appropriate for JVPers to mount panel discussions on antisemitism like at the New School that are shaped nearly totally by the views of JVP activists, and not by scholars.   At such events, people are fed the JVP “line” rather than treated to anything resembling a complex discussion of the qualities and dangers of antisemitism in the contemporary period.  This is a form of the old bait and switch: the event advertisement says a panel is going to discuss antisemitism; the panel then delivers a set of observations about how antisemitism is used to set back the left (not to threaten the Jews).

We inhabit a moment in history where antisemitism is clearly on the rise, on both the right and on the left.  There is the antisemitism of the alt.right which showed itself clearly in Charlottesville Virginia during the summer and in leafleting by white nationalist groups of campuses throughout the  Midwest and South earlier this fall; there is also antisemitism on the  hard left  which sparks growing conversation about the place such views sometimes have on public campuses.  The public commons is filled with new studies on the problem of leftist antisemitism.  David Hirsh’s Contemporary Leftist Antisemitism has earned strong reviews; Robert Fine and Philip Spencer offer another take on Antisemitism and the Left. David Rich writes in The Left’s Jewish Problem about Jeremy Corbyn and the challenges today faced by the Labour Party in Britain.  But JVP spokespersons for left progressive activism manage to engage in little introspection whatsoever nor to find little left antisemitism worth worrying about at all.  Nor do they see in its presence on our campuses any kind of challenge to Jewish students and faculty.  No, they find mainly false charges of the misuse of antisemitism by members of the Jewish community which are intended and meant to misdirect and transform the conversation.  The recent collection of essays, in which Maggid is a contributor, basically says the same thing about the complex scholarly discussion that has been going on for years on both sides of the Atlantic about “a new antisemitism.” JVP claims the idea of “a new antisemitism” is the product of pro-Israel advocacy groups and American organizations which have aimed to recast antisemitism as anti-Israelism in order to equate the two and use the term as a bludgeon.

It should be noted that the JVP crowd is not so obtuse as to deny antisemitism altogether; spokespeople see a growing problem of antisemitism around the globe, and so they are quick to acknowledge the problem of antisemitisn as it rears its head in several distant states in Eastern Europe, in Poland and Hungary, for example, and also in the backrooms of the Trump Administration. Maggid, to his credit, also wants Linda Sarsour to reexamine her unreconstructed beliefs about Louis Farrakhan and her inability to see any serious problems in black nationalist antisemitism.  A progressive should not be linked with Farrakhan.  Nor, one might add, contrary to Judith Butler, should one be linked with Hamas. But JVP speakers are insistent in thinking about antisemitism that it is simply not a serious problem on the left.  They believe that the left practices a principled anti-Zionism.  So when such lions and lionesses of social justice and pursuers of intersectional fairness think of antisemitism, it is mainly the repression of faculty and student proponents of BDS and of free Palestine on campus about which they speak.

Rebecca Vilkomerson, since 2002 the executive director of JVP, said it directly in her introduction to the edited JVP 2017 collection when she spoke of the way that accusations of antisemitism are used to suppress the conversation about Palestinian rights.” [p. 2].    JVP says it in its 2015 document, Stifling Dissent: How Israel’s Defenders Use False Charges of Anti-semitism to Limit the Debate Over Israel on Campus.   Vilkomerson repeated the familiar refrain at the New School, explaining her worry at the “appalling threat of antisemitism” globally but reserving her distinctive anger, she said, for the hypocrisy of American institutional Jewish leaders who use antisemitism as a “cudgel.”   We have here a one-thesis organization, unable to survey the reality of antisemitism broadly, but quite able to repeat the group line, true  or not, that Jews use the charge of antisemitism to silence others.

About the Author
Kenneth Waltzer is former director of Jewish Studies at Michigan State University and a progressive opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement. He a historian of the Holocaust completing a book on the rescue of children and youths at Buchenwald. He directed the Academic Engagement Network 2015-2019.