Steve Sheffey
Pro-Israel writer and activist

The conflict over the conflict

College students, parents, anyone concerned about the Israel/Palestine campus debate, and anyone wondering about the IHRA definition of antisemitism owe it to themselves to read The Conflict Over the Conflict, by Kenneth S. Stern (New Jewish Press, 2020). Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, the lead drafter of the IHRA’s “Working Definition of Antisemitism,” and was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism for 25 years.
Most Jews who send their kids to Israel on various programs understand that Israel is safe. The rocket and terrorist attacks that we read about are not typical of the entire country and do not occur all the time. When we read about those incidents, we are not reading examples of common occurrences; we are reading about the only occurrences.
Yet when we read about BDS battles on campus, we jump to the false conclusion — perhaps in part because some right-wing pro-Israel organizations fundraise off of this false conclusion — that every day is a battle about BDS on most college campuses.
Stern reports that in reality, “there are over 4,000 campuses in the US–in the 2017-18 academic year, 149 had anti-Israel activity.” There were “117 disruptions (or cancellations because of protests) of pro-Israel events from 2010 through the 2018-19 academic year, of which all but sixteen were able to be completed.” No college has ever divested from Israel.
But even where the most intense of these debates do occur, how concerned should we be and what should we do about it? Stern suggests that we remember what college is, or should be, about: encountering and debating ideas that students might disagree with or find offensive. He opens the book with a discussion about thinking that everyone who seeks to free themselves from bias and blinders should read.
Instead of finding ways to help our kids avoid uncomfortable discussions about Israel, Stern recommends that we teach our kids how to have those discussions and how to think critically. The fate of Israel will not be decided in a classroom or student government debate.
Stern argues that “on the American college campus, the focus should be on learning about this conflict, why it is so complicated, how we think about it, perhaps even what can be done about it. Yet the trend is exactly the opposite: to stake a side and fight a battle, rather than to think and learn.” And because each side of the campus debate believes it is engaged in a life or death battle, instead of attempting to understand the other side and seek the truth through a genuine exchange of ideas, each side sometimes attempts to silence the other side and feels that to concede any point would be to let down the team.
This brings us to the IHRA definition of antisemitism, of which Stern was the lead drafter. Examples of speech protected under the First Amendment were included not to suggest that such speech be banned or even that such examples were per se inappropriate, but to help data collectors in Europe identify statements about Israel that could indicate antisemitism given the context. Stern notes, for example, that “double standards are not unusual in college or in political advocacy, and need not reflect bigotry…Most people advocating freedom for Soviet Jewry in the 1980s weren’t also organizing rallies for Tibetan or Chinese dissidents.”
Antisemitism could be a factor when some people vocal about Israeli mistreatment of Palestinians are not vocal about the mistreatment of Palestinians by Arab countries, but it is possible that “people care more about perceived attacks from an ‘outgroup’ than from within an ‘ingroup’.”
The key point is that on a U.S. campus “hateful statements of opinion (as distinguished from harassment or acts of physical destruction or violence) are allowed. I can say I think Israel is Nazi-like, and shouldn’t have to worry about being prosecuted.” The remedy to hateful speech — as opposed to discrimination, harassment, and intimidation–is not to ban it, but counterspeech.
The problem with using the IHRA definition to enforce Title VI, which since 2010 has included religion as a protected category, is that the IHRA definition includes examples of protected speech. These examples might, in some contexts, give rise to antisemitic speech, but they were not intended as a cause for legal action.
For example, anti-Zionism — denying the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish state–is not, according to Stern, necessarily antisemitic. If we “had been born into a Palestinian family displaced in 1948, we might have a different view of Zionism, and that need not be because we vilify Jews or think they conspire to harm humanity.”
Rather than try to curtail speech on campus by inappropriately using the IHRA definition of antisemitism for unintended purposes, Stern suggests “promoting critical thinking about Israel/Palestine and the subjects (hatred, identities, free speech, etc.) that inform our ability to discuss this difficult issue.”
Easier said than done? Probably, especially because on the far left, too many groups view speech itself as violent or triggering, and on the right, some so-called pro-Israel advocacy groups seek to use the IHRA definition to curtail legitimate speech and to fundraise by manipulating the legitimate feelings of discomfort that some Jewish college students feel, as well as the legitimate emotions of their parents.
None of this diminishes the unacceptability of antisemitic harassment on campus or the vital work of certain Jewish organizations to combat it and protect our students, but we don’t need the IHRA definition to fight harassment and physical intimidation, which cannot be permitted and which have no place on campus or anywhere.
When we treat campus debates about Israel as if the outcome of a campus dispute will materially affect Israel, when we act as if the passage of a non-binding BDS resolution will make even a ripple of difference in the real world, we sell our kids short. These are the hard debates about important ideas that our kids should be having in college. That’s how they learn to think, how to handle hard conversations, and how to reassess their own beliefs.
By forfeiting on their behalf opportunities for them to learn how to think–or worse, by attempting to suppress speech we don’t want to hear, which is the antithesis of what the First Amendment and our Jewish tradition at its best stands for–we cannot hope to win in the marketplace of ideas because we aren’t teaching our kids how to compete in that marketplace. And that’s a shanda.
Stern doesn’t expect partisans on either side of the divide to “stop trying to arm students to be proxy warriors in this battle,” but he does hold out hope that some will see the wisdom in “innovating ways to increase knowledge while protecting and promoting academic freedom and free speech.”
The good news is that more and more Jewish organizations are on record with their concerns about misuse of the IHRA definition of antisemitism. The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs believes that adopting the IHRA definition “at the city or state level is not an effective strategy to fight antisemitism as it exists today” and “legal tools to prosecute hate crimes against Jewish people already exist.”
The Progressive Israel Network and Americans for Peace Now oppose codification. Ken Stern opposes codification.
American Jewish Congress, ADL, Central Conference of American Rabbis, HIAS, National Council of Jewish Women, Rabbinical Assembly, Union for Reform Judaism, and World Jewish Congress have warned that using the IHRA definition to trigger federal or state anti-discrimination laws “could be abused to punish Constitutionally protected, if objectionable, speech.”
Anyone still undecided would be well-served by reading Stern’s book.
About the Author
Steve Sheffey is active in the Chicago-area Jewish and pro-Israel political communities and is the Strategy and Policy Advisor for the Jewish Democratic Council of America (JDCA). He writes and publishes the Chicagoland Pro-Israel Political Update. The views he expresses on this blog are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of any organizations he is or has been associated with.
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