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Shuly Babitz
Connection from Afar: Israeli Culture from the US
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What I heard on that campus shocked me

The uninformed kids protesting Israel didn’t surprise me. But the science professor who minimized the Holocaust definitely did
Swarthmore College, May 1, 2024. Photo by Shuly Babitz.
Swarthmore College, May 1, 2024. Photo by Shuly Babitz.

Here’s what happened. Flights to Israel are harder to come by these days. That’s why even though we live in Maryland, I drove my oldest daughter to Philadelphia for her flight to Tel Aviv after her Passover visit. She needed to get back in time to start her second semester at Bar-Ilan University and was planning to help staff Yom HaShoah events at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial and education center. Before starting college, she spent a “national service” year working there, learning everything from how to file papers to how to cultivate high-profile donors. She was excited to go back and we didn’t want her to miss it. So we took the flight from Philly.

After dropping her off, I took a 15-minute detour to Swarthmore, the small liberal arts college where I studied in the 1990s, and also where I met my husband. I had read about the student protests supporting Palestinians and the tents on the main lawn and was curious to see it live. I wasn’t expecting to be pleased with the scene, but I never thought I’d hear a professor promote what sounded like fringe Holocaust denial ideology.

In fact, most of what I saw didn’t surprise me: The earnestly misguided undergrads in keffiyehs. The expensive tents, the Palestinian flags, and the homemade signs accusing Israel of genocide, of starving 2 million people in Gaza, and blaming the college for its economic support of this “apartheid regime.”

Even when I was a student there, it wasn’t easy to be proudly Jewish. So I also wasn’t surprised to see signs of supposed Jewish solidarity with the “correct” moral side: “Next Year in Liberation,” “Not in Our Name,” and “Jews for Palestinian Liberation.”

Swarthmore’s website describes it as “where intellectually passionate students think and create together for the betterment of their communities and the world,” though I didn’t see students engaging in any serious conversations. Most of the tents were empty, with a few groups of students casually talking and laughing on the lawn. Despite the tents, it was a familiar college scene.

In many ways, Swarthmore fits the image of that idyllic website description. The campus is built amid the labeled flowers of a botanical garden, with winding paved walks leading the way to stone-covered buildings, and a clock tower that looms in the sky, its bells announcing each hour spent reading or dozing in the library. It’s the quintessential college campus.

And yet, one sign did take me by surprise. Decorated with flowers and framed with rows of newly planted red roses, it called students to “Honor the Martyrs.” How could students who need near-perfect grades and SAT scores to gain admission to Swarthmore also believe in honoring Hamas terrorists who kidnapped, raped, tortured, and murdered innocent civilians?

As I stood marveling at this sign, I overheard a nearby conversation that clearly answered this question. A small circle of students with keffiyehs listened with rapt attention as an older man explained that “Holocaust exceptionalism” is rampant and that Jews benefit from the “exaggeration” of the Holocaust. I could excuse the student activism, as misguided and inaccurate as it was. But I could not stand by while an adult trampled over the essential facts of Jewish history.

Did I hear you correctly, I asked? Yes, he said confidently. Turns out he’s a professor. Not of Middle Eastern history or international politics – he teaches science. I mentioned how my grandfather was one of the few survivors of the Lodz ghetto and asked him how he could share such views with students – kids, really.  In response, he asked me if I’d heard of the German genocide in Namibia and told me not to lecture him on the Holocaust since his own grandparents had left Germany in 1937.

As the conversation turned to events in Gaza, I asked why they weren’t more outraged about the women Hamas raped, the babies they killed, and the innocent people they are holding hostage. He responded that according to the New York Times, all that violence didn’t really happen. Sure there were hostages, he admitted, but scoffed at the rest. This may have been the moment where another keffiyeh-wearing student approached to ask me if I wanted to take a walk and discuss it further. I did not.

The interaction led me to two conclusions:

One, I was too emotional to have the right responses and spent my drive back to Maryland like George Constanza, coming up with the perfect comebacks that I would never have the chance to deliver.

Two, I needed to do some serious research on the concept of “Holocaust exceptionalism.” We hear a lot about the misguided colonizer-oppressor narrative that’s fueling nationwide campus protests. But there’s another narrative out there that’s just as misguided and it’s gaining serious traction.

“Holocaust exceptionalism” is a theory that argues that Israel and Zionists use the Holocaust to constantly play the victim and use that victimhood to shame and “terrorize” anyone who criticizes Israel. The concept of the Holocaust should not exclusively apply to Jews, and it is not an aberration of history. Rather, Holocausts and genocides happen all the time in Western civilization, so Jews really can’t claim it as something that only happened to them. After all, as my professor friend informed me, Germany systematically murdered about 70,000 people in Namibia and that is just the same as what happened in Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Lodz.

One article that explained this theory came from what sounded like an obscure think tank called the Arab Center Washington DC. But its resident thought leaders have published numerous articles slandering Israel, criticizing President Biden’s handling of the war, and praising Rashida Tlaib – not only in progressive publications like The Nation but in mainstream outlets like The New Republic and CNN.com.

Another Holocaust exceptionalism thinker is Masha Gessen, who has been writing for the New Yorker since 2017. In a New Yorker piece published in December 2023, Gessen writes: “The Palestinians remember 1948 as the Nakba, a word that means ‘catastrophe’ in Arabic, just as Shoah means ‘catastrophe’ in Hebrew. That … comparison is unavoidable.”

In the even more mainstream New York Magazine, Gessen expounds on her New Yorker piece with this point: “By insisting on the absolute exceptionality of the Holocaust, we create this myth of the infallible Jewish people, and Israel has used the myth very well by creating, also, the myth of the most moral army in the world.”

That’s when I realized the conversation I overheard at Swarthmore wasn’t unusual. Of course, a science professor could throw around this kind of rhetoric. Because it’s no longer confined to obscure journal articles and think tanks. It’s in magazines you can easily stumble across on your Twitter feed or in the grocery store. It just hadn’t come across mine. Yet.

On the drive up to Philly, my daughter and I listened to a podcast that brought tears to my eyes. It was Bari Weiss’s recent address on the state of world Jewry, and she mused on how we build courage and gain freedom: “To be a free person,” she told us, “is to refuse to tell lies, to refuse to stand by as they are told.”

Fortunately for me, my oldest daughter is surrounded by students and professors at Bar-Ilan University who don’t fight their battles on manicured lawns. That’s why I can freely send her back knowing that no matter what, the people around her care deeply about one crucial value: keeping all Jewish people safe and strong. Along with my second daughter currently serving in the IDF, they’re all fighting not only for my family’s safety but even for the safety of the Jews at Swarthmore who ridicule them. That connection to Jews worldwide is true freedom.

Back here, we must keep refusing to stand by.

About the Author
Shuly Babitz is a writer and public affairs strategist. She lives with her husband and 4 children just outside Washington, D.C., though her two oldest daughters recently made Aliyah.