Last Friday, Feb. 5, an email was sent out to the student body regarding antisemitic comments posted on Yik Yak. Most notably, one user commented “f*ck Jews” on a post defending Israel, which prompted swift condemnation from the Administration as well as student groups such as the Vassar Jewish Union (VJU) and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP).
But that wasn’t all. Later on in the same conversation, that individual clarified that they didn’t mean f*ck all Jews, just the ones who support Israel, and fully embraced that this somehow made their comment acceptable.
That same day, another commenter on Yik Yak used similar antisemitic language, engaging in statements such as “your just a retard and so are Zionists” and “Zionism is a plague of mankind. These Jews stand around throwing this is antisemitic and that’s antisemitic” and “I’ve never met a Jew who didn’t think Israel is their home land. Jews through terrorism have kept Palestinians locked like animals in their home.”
That same commenter insinuated that the Jews, and me personally for being a Jew, should evaluate what we “do wrong in Palestine and other places.” I have photographic evidence of this entire conversation.
It is impossible to discuss these statements while ignoring the growing anti-Zionist sentiment on campus. But how linked are these sentiments and what responsibility should pro-Palestinian organizations take incidents such as this?
Firstly, it is important to define antisemitism. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), an international civil rights organization whose primary purpose is to “stop the defamation of the Jewish people” defines antisemitism as “belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish.”
Secondly, what is the definition of Zionism? According to the Anti-Defamation League, it is a “Jewish national movement of rebirth and renewal in the land of Israel.” The organization goes on to write that “modern Zionism fused the ancient Jewish biblical and historical ties to the ancestral homeland with the modern concept of nationalism into a vision of establishing a modern Jewish state in the land of Israel.” Essentially, Zionism is the belief that Israel ought to exist as a home for the Jewish people.
So, this begs the question: is anti-Zionism inherently antisemitic? The state department’s official position seems to suggest so, and this has also been endorsed by high profile figures such as President Obama and Pope Francis.
With that said, I don’t view it as particularly constructive to adopt this definition when discussing these issues as they affect Vassar. It is perfectly legitimate to question any movement or ideology, and Zionism is no exception.
So, let’s accept, for the time being, that anti-Zionism is not inherently antisemitic. After all, it goes without saying that Israel’s human rights record has not been perfect, and it’s unacceptable to completely dismiss all opposition to it as racist. However, just because criticizing Israel is not inherently antisemitic does not mean that the rhetoric of organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), or even, for that matter, a Jewish Voice for Peace, cannot contribute to antisemitic viewpoints.
I truly believe that it is the responsibility of those who believe in a cause to stand up for it, as this is the basis for a healthy democracy. At the same time, those same individuals carry an equal responsibility to engage in said activism without demonizing those who disagree.
The activities and language of pro-Palestinian groups on campus goes above and beyond critiquing Israel into demonizing opposition.
For example, take SJP’s condemnation of the antisemitic statements made on Yik Yak. In it, they denied that Judaism is inextricably linked with Zionism. This is telling. While there are certainly Jews on campus who do not identify as Zionists, SJP seems to believe that they can make unfairly broad statements condemning Zionism, even liberal Zionism, as inherently racist, while ignoring that, for most people, Zionism and Judaism are linked. When organizations such as SJP make broad statements condemning all Zionists as racists, not only are they attempting to marginalize and demonize their opposition, but they are sending a message to the community that it is okay to think less of a Jew who defends Israel’s right to exist.
Furthermore, I take issue with SJP’s endorsement of bullying, vaguely antisemitic ideas such as pinkwashing. Pinkwashing Israel, a global LGBT, anti-Israel organization, defines pinkwashing as “the disingenuous invocation of LGBT rights by Israel and its supporters to divert attention away from its atrocities against the Palestinians.”
The idea that Jewish, Israeli or LGBT rights organizations are scheming to exploit LGBT rights for the purpose of distracting the public from human rights violations in Palestine is reminiscent of the old and tired antisemitic beliefs of a “worldwide Jewish Zionist conspiracy.” Even if that is not pro-Palestinian activists mean to suggest, it should be obvious why such an idea could lead to an antisemitic incident. It begs the question: when an organization takes what has traditionally been said to marginalize Jews and replaces the word “Jew” with “Zionist” or even “Jewish Zionist,” does that make said statement any less problematic. My answer, and I suspect the answer of most individuals, would be of course not.
But even this I can tolerate to an extent, as long as there is a healthy opposition to these ideas. Unfortunately, pro-Palestinian student groups on campus have gone out of their way to obstruct the activities of dissenters.
Perhaps the best example of this comes from the end of last semester, when SJP and Jewish Voice for Peace both tried to prevent J Street from attending a conference in New York because some of the speakers at the event identified as liberal Zionists. While the VSA unanimously agreed to let J Street attend the conference, this incident highlights a frustration that many individuals have with dialogue regarding Israel on this campus. The most baffling part of all of this is that J Street is not even a radical Zionist organization. They’re a moderate group that urges for a two-state solution and whose foremost concern is peace in the region.
That these groups cannot find a way to work together to pursue peace in Israel speaks poorly on the state of discourse at Vassar, and should shed a light as to how antisemitic incidents related to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis could arise.
So what’s the takeaway? Firstly, I urge Vassar’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine to formally acknowledge that their language has been has been irresponsible and apologize to the Jewish community. Secondly, I ask them to take a stand in favor of free speech at Vassar and to oppose the censorship and unfair treatment of any student organization, even those that disagree with them on a particular issue.
Finally, I ask the student body to engage in respectful dialogue that does not dismiss anyone’s opinion as either inherently antisemitic or racist. We must realize that saying “f*ck Jews” is wrong the same way saying “f*ck Palestinians” would be wrong. If the state of discourse on Israel is allowed to continue, Vassar will be doomed to become an extremely hostile environment where those of certain beliefs are privileged over others. It is on the basis of a free state that we can fight for our beliefs while respecting the dignity of our opponents.