To The Editor:
This letter was shared with the Hannah Arendt Center as a response to Batya Ungar-Sargon’s piece in The Forward.
I attended the conference on ‘Racism and Anti-Semitism’ at the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College. Let me state at the outset that 1. I am not in any way affiliated or employed by the college. 2. I attend this conference annually as a community member who is interested in learning about complex political issues of timely relevance and 3. I am a Jew who has lived in Israel and who holds political views that are probably similar to those of your Opinion Editor, Batya Ungar-Sargon. I witnessed her words and actions at the conference, and then read her opinion piece on the event, “I Was Protested at Bard College for Being a Jew.” As an audience participant, I want to add my voice corroborating the comments of Roger Berkowitz and Kenneth S. Stern, whose letters have already been published in this paper. Their accounts of what happened and of Ms. Ungar-Sargon’s misrepresentations of said events strike me as accurate.
I was disappointed by Ms. Ungar-Sargon’s remarks to the protestors at Ruth Wisse’s lecture. First of all, I found it disingenuous to ask them to abandon their protest on the grounds that Prof. Wisse was addressing Anti-Semitism and not Zionism/ the State of Israel. As others have pointed out, Professor Wisse DID address anti-Zionism and anti-Israel sentiment. It was clear from several of the protestors’ signs that they had researched her position and found it objectionable. Ms. Ungar-Sargon calls this protest ‘anti-Semitic’ based on the fact that this panel was the ‘only fully Jewish’ presentation. But these protesters were not opposing the PANEL because it was ‘All-Jewish.’ In fact, several of the protestors spoke out that they themselves were Jewish. As such, I found that dismissing their ‘cause’ as ‘anti-Semitic’ problematic, as it invokes the notion of the ‘self hating’ Jew. That well-worn trope is, of course, in and of itself, anti-Semitic.
Even more upsetting to me was Dr. Ungar-Sargon’s choice the following day to show up for the panel in which she was intended to participate, and then to use that occasion as a platform to speak to the audience (me!) in such an accusing manner. Even worse was her decision to leave the conference in a display of fury. We in the audience witnessed a non-violent demonstration by a group of passionate students on their own campus, which many of us, both in the audience an invited speakers were visiting as guests of the Bard community. Most of the protestors were silent and respectful. Some were vocal, but readily acquiesced when asked to leave. Some of the faculty stated agreement with them. How did this manifestation of opinion create such an atmosphere of hostility that Ms. Ungar-Sargon could not stay and address us? What am I, as a participant/observer to feel when one of the key invitees withdraws her commitment to teaching us? By choosing to leave, she enacted a polarizing position. This kind of posturing is so destructive to the predicament of Jews and indeed all identity groups.
Even worse, for most of the students in the audience, her choice to storm off likely had the opposite effect of what had she had hoped to express, notwithstanding the one student who thanked her. Rather than waking students up to the real threats of anti-Semitism, her action more likely caused them to consider that Jewish identity politics have reached a point where there is ‘no talking to’ a hurt or angry Jew, so don’t even try. In this, I refer to the very excellent lecture given earlier in the conference by Dr. John McWhorter, who exhorted us to draw a line between words and gestures of racism that are relatively harmless, and therefore ought not be dignified through an exaggerated claim of victimization, and those that are truly threatening and deserve clear counter-protest.
In closing, I want to thank Ms. Ungar-Sargon for inadvertently helping me understand BDS on campus, about which I have struggled to make sense. Here is what became clear to me in this conference, in part through my observation of the protestors, who at times appeared visibly shaken and upset, in part through Ms. Ungar-Sargon’s reaction. The conundrum of (fellow) Jews in Israel exerting political and military power over Palestinians, in response to a desperate fear of violence towards innocent Jewish citizens — has reached a point of paralysis, without any hope of productive negotiation. How can a responsible intellectual address Anti-Semitism without acknowledging this?
At this moment we are at a standstill on this issue, as we are with several others, such as climate change, or economic inequality. These crises have great bearing on the future of our youth, even more so than on those of us who are older. Our youth are coming of age at a point of collective perceived helplessness. We should be encouraging their participation in every discussion. We should certainly tolerate their non-violent protests, rather than being offended. We, their elders, must face with humility that perhaps these students feel too threatened to simply sit and listen to their elders, given our failure to produce meaningful solutions. The collapse of discursive norms seems to leave a growing chasm to be filled by passivity, violence, or both. Even if we, their elders, don’t bear direct blame for this sorry state of affairs, we should at least be tolerant and respectful of young people’s need to find a new way forward.
Julia Eilenberg, M.D.