In opinion columns, in her latest book “How to Fight Anti-Semitism” and while promoting the book on The Brian Lehrer Show on the radio, New York Times opinion editor Bari Weiss makes false equivalencies as she argues that waves of anti-Semitism are sweeping through the United States and Western Europe. For Weiss, everything from neo-Nazi marches, to boycotts by opponents of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, to street crimes against religious Jews, to hurtful comments by college students are evidence that Jews are under attack.
While a student at Columbia University in 2004, Weiss co-founded a group called Columbians for Academic Freedom that charged professors who were intimidating students in their classes who made pro-Israel comments. The New York Civil Liberties Union investigated the charges and concluded that it was Weiss’ group, not university faculty members, that were the threat to academic freedom.
In response to a Monday, Sept. 8, 2019, New York Times column “To Fight Anti-Semitism, Be a Proud Jew,” I submitted a response that the Times chose not to print:
Like Bari Weiss, I consider myself a proud Jew who recognizes the need to combat anti-Semitism. However, I think she makes a serious mistake by conflating two different phenomena. Right-wing white nationalism abetted by the Trump administration is a grave threat to Jews and to democracy in the United States and must be vigorously challenged. Urban tension in gentrifying communities where racial and ethnic minorities are being displaced by gentrification and in Brooklyn, New York, by an expanding orthodox religious group has led to anti-Semitic slurs and physical assaults on religious Jews, but they are not an attack on Judaism as a religion and on the Jewish people as a whole. This behavior can best be addressed by building an inclusive community.
Hofstra University recently was embroiled in what is a national campaign by the AMCHA Initiative to identify colleges and universities it suspects of anti-Semitism because professors and student groups challenge the Israeli occupation or because of student complaints that other students expressed bias toward them because they are Jews. The website claims that it is monitoring 450 campuses where over 2,500 “incidents” have occurred since 2015.
A Hofstra entry was updated on Sept. 12, 2019 because of an opinion essay printed on the front page of The Hofstra Chronicle where a student who self-identified as an Orthodox Jew charged that “anti-Semitism is alive and more insidious than I had expected” on the Hofstra campus. The author cited a series of microaggressions by what she considered to be insensitive students and non-supportive faculty and administrators and called on the Hofstra community to “confront this issue now to curb the rise of anti-Semitism, before it’s too late.”
I don’t dispute the student’s feelings, but I disagree with her accusations of anti-Semitism on the Hofstra campus. As a teacher, I distinguish between bias and racism or anti-Semitism. Everyone has biases. They are products of culture, what we are taught and our understanding of experiences. But everyone does not act on biases to restrict or hurt other people. Biases can be examined based on evidence and new experiences and be dismissed, or at least controlled. Racism and anti-Semitism belong in a separate category. Racism and anti-Semitism mean acting on biases and even promoting biases to justify discrimination against and exploitation of groups of people to achieve economic, political or social advantages. It can be a slippery slope from bias to racism when groups are pitted against each other for political power or scarce resources, but the transition is not inevitable.
People can overcome bias and challenge racism and anti-Semitism. Examples are alliances that built the American labor movement in the 1930s, strong support by many whites for the abolition of slavery and the 1950s African American Civil Rights movement, as well as the election of Barack Obama as president of the United States. Distinguishing between bias and racism or anti-Semitism makes it possible to have thoughtful and respectful discussions and societal debates on difficult issues without automatically putting people on the defensive.
Microaggressions and insensitivity are hurtful, but everything does not rise to the level of racism and anti-Semitism. Everything is not the same.
Alan Singer is a professor of Teaching, Learning and Technology and the director of social studies education programs.