/ 25 June 2024

Debunking tired misconceptions: Anti-Semitism and Zionism on campus

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Protesters hold a banner with a Star of David during a rally to condemn the alleged anti-Semitic gang rape of a 12-year-old girl, during a rally, in Paris on June 19, 2024, following the indictment of two 13-year-olds for gang rape, death threats, anti-Semitic insults and violence. (Photo by MAGALI COHEN/Hans Lucas/AFP via Getty Images)

Apparently, if you believe Leslie London’s article in the Mail & Guardian, Jews lie. Jews use antisemitism as a tool to silence dissent. Only Jews who are anti-Zionist can be believed. Jews supposedly misrepresent peaceful protest as cloaked antisemitism and maliciously use this to influence international affairs. They do so to ensure that Israel is never challenged.

The malicious portrayal of Jews is patronising, insulting and patently false. 

We, the South African Jewish community, as represented by the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, know who we are and we will speak for ourselves. Let’s start: London’s suggestion that Zionist Jewish students are feeling uncomfortable on campus, because they are being challenged to think differently about Israel is laughable. It is also gaslighting.  

The reason Jews on campus feel uncomfortable is they are being made to feel so. How do we know this? Because this is what Jews on campus are saying. 

In a letter signed by 540 Jewish Columbia students, writing, “in our name”, they describe their experiences as follows: “If the last six months on campus have taught us anything, it is that a large and vocal population of the Columbia community does not understand the meaning of Zionism, and consequently does not understand the essence of the Jewish people. Yet despite the fact that we have been calling out the antisemitism we’ve been experiencing for months, our concerns have been brushed off and invalidated.”

They go on to talk about their experiences: “We sounded the alarm on October 12 when many protested against Israel while our friends’ and families’ dead bodies were still warm. We recoiled when people screamed ‘resist by any means necessary’, telling us we are ‘all inbred’ and that we ‘have no culture. We shuddered when an ‘activist’ held up a sign telling Jewish students they were Hamas’s next targets, and we shook our heads in disbelief when Sidechat users told us we were lying.

We ultimately were not surprised when a leader of the CUAD [Columbia University Apartheid Divest] encampment said publicly and proudly that ‘Zionists don’t deserve to live’ and that we’re lucky they are ‘not just going out and murdering Zionists’. We felt helpless when we watched students and faculty physically block Jewish students from entering parts of the campus we share, or even when they turned their faces away in silence. This silence is familiar. We will never forget.”

It is convenient to think that Zionist Jewish students are being forced to think differently about Israel because of the effect the war is having on Gaza civilians. Here again London decides on our behalf what we think. War is horrific and we deeply empathise with every innocent life lost. Yet it is simply not possible to achieve a military victory against a brutal, terrorist organisation without causing civilian death, especially when civilians are used so callously as human shields. 

As Jews, we get to define what antisemitism is and we understand its many manifestations. London quotes Professor Joshua Shanes in his assertion that “calls for Palestinian equality … even when they upset Zionist identities are not antisemitic”. He cherry-picks this quotation but fails to go deeper into the same article that he quotes, which discusses the relationship between antisemitism and anti-Zionism more completely. 

There, Shanes states that “the key to identifying whether anti-Israel discourse has masked antisemitism is to see evidence of the antisemitic mythology”. As an example, he argues that if Israel was described as part of an international conspiracy or if it holds the key to solving global problems, all definitions agree this is antisemitic. He goes on to say, “[E]qually, if Jews or Jewish institutions are held responsible for Israeli actions or are expected to take a stand one way or another regarding them … this ‘crosses the line’ because it is based on the myth of a global Jewish conspiracy”. 

Most egregiously, London’s opinion piece states that Israeli academia is sinisterly tied with the military forces and have actively intervened to curtail criticism of Israel in the United States. According to London, the umbrella body for Israeli universities, VERA, has been an active part of the branding exercise to label the protests as antisemitic.  As a result of this, “the US House adopted legislation doing exactly what [Benjamin] Netanyahu sought — measures to clamp down on the university protests, and VERA has dutifully served its master”. (Read: Jewish influence over the levers of power, Jewish international conspiracy, pick your poison). 

London continues to define our experience on our behalf, as he labels congressional hearings into antisemitism on US campuses as a “kangaroo court”. Rather, though, the inability of US university presidents to protect their students from base hatred and bigotry is a stain on these institutions.

London’s diminishing of this event is outrageous and patronising to those students affected by the behaviours of the so-called peaceful majority. And yes, these anti-Zionists did include Jewish students, just as the apartheid system included black people who were willing to collaborate with it. But here we acknowledge that while opportunistically marshalling other Jews to justify one’s argument may be repugnant it isn’t antisemitic (we know the difference), it’s tokenism. 

Judging by how many antisemitic tropes London uses in his piece, it is unsurprising that he can’t find antisemitism in the protests that he so readily champions. 

Charisse Zeifert is the deputy director and Adam Charnas is an analyst at the South African Jewish Board of Deputies.