More on the Bard College conference on racism and antisemitism

Bard College. Photo. Wikipedia

JVL Introduction

Yesterday we reposted a letter from Kenneth S. Stern to Forward. Here is a further letter from the organiser of the conference.

We draw readers’ attention to  these exchanges because they show there is a fightback from within the US Jewish Zionist milieu – a realisation that the hunt for antisemites is getting out of control and that free speech is under threat.

Let us hope for a similar realisation here. And soon…

[Since posting this article our attention has been drawn to a further piece on Bard by Philip Weiss. It repeats some of Kenneth S. Stern and Roger Berkowitz’s letters, but contains much else besides. We have added it to this post.]

This article was originally published by Forward on Mon 14 Oct 2019. Read the original here.

Letter to the Editor: I Organized the Bard Conference, and Batya Ungar-Sargon Misrepresented What Happened

To the Editor:

I am the person who invited Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Opinion Editor of The Forward, to participate in a recent conference hosted by the Hannah Arendt Center at Bard College, a conference where she contends in a column published Oct. 12 that she was protested for being Jewish and, as a result, “couldn’t proceed” with her talk.

I have great sympathy for Ungar-Sargon, and great admiration: I was excited to invite her to speak to our undergraduates and the wider community. I am truly sorry to hear how negative her experience was: the very last thing I would want at a conference I organized on “Racism and Anti-Semitism” is for a participant or an attendee to have felt singled out for discrimination

But Ungar-Sargon’s account of what happened at the conference misrepresents the facts. At no point was anyone prevented from speaking; the talk she refers to proceeded until its end. You can see for yourself by watching the video of the conference here.

Ungar-Sargon was to have given two presentations on the second day of the conference. When she writes, “I never got to say or do most of these things,” it is only because she elected not to participate and instead to depart the conference.

The first day of the conference, Ungar-Sargon was a moderator for a talk by Ruth Wisse, professor emeritus at Harvard University, a scholar of strong and controversial opinions, and an 83-year-old survivor of the Holocaust. The title of the session was “Who Needs AntiSemitism?”

Wisse has frequently defended the view that anti-Semitism includes singling out Israel amongst the world’s nations for its wrongdoings. She also argues that the Arab states and Palestinian people are in a war against Israel and that it is anti-Semitic to hamper Jews in their rights to defend themselves. These are positions my colleagues and I felt had to be heard among the broad range of voices we were including in the conference.

As Wisse was delivering her remarks, undergraduate protesters representing Students for Justice in Palestine, many of them Jewish, arrived to protest. They were protesting not because Wisse and the other two speakers on stage were Jewish, as Ungar-Sargon suggests (the many other Jewish speakers on other panels at the conference were not protested), but because Wisse, Ungar-Sargon and the third panelist espouse political opinions with which the students disagree.

We were alerted to the possibility of protest in advance, and I worked with the president and deans of the college, as well as Bard security, to develop a detailed contingency plan.

We first sought to convince students not to protest. Some listened to our advice. We then advised those intent on protesting that they would have the right to silently protest in the hall, but that were they to disrupt the talk or prevent Wisse from being heard, we would remove them and consider disciplinary action. This is consistent with Bard policy for protests of invited speakers on campus. Above all, we were adamant that the talk would not be disrupted or canceled. There would be zero-tolerance for the de-platforming of Wisse or any other speaker.

I communicated all of this to Wisse, as well as Ungar-Sargon, well ahead of the talk. Neither gave any indication that our plan was unacceptable. I offered to be on stage as a second moderator to provide additional support, an offer which Wisse brushed off. “Braced by Yom Kippur,” she wrote in an email to me, as the conference was the day after the holiday, “we shall not be removed.” Ungar-Sargon made explicit that she expected she would be fine and that she would ask for help should she need it.

When the protest did arise, we did precisely what we said we would. Twenty students walked into the hall, stood silently holding signs with slogans, some with quotations from Wisse’s work. One, from an essay Wisse published in Commentary, in 1988, said that “Palestinian Arabs [are] people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery.” Others said “Zionism = Racism.”

At two points during Wisse’s talk, the protest became vocal. This violated college policy, and deans and security officers immediately escorted two individuals out of the hall. The total disruption was about one minute. Wisse then finished her talk, received applause and then the moderated conversation began.

At that point, the remaining protesters started singing protest songs in unison and were escorted out. The moderated discussion, including audience questions, took place without incident. You can watch it all here: we have nothing to hide.

What’s most important is to rebut Ungar-Sargon’s implication—one magnified by others on Twitter — that she was not allowed to speak. She wrote in The Forward that she “never got to say or do most of these things,” implying that she had been silenced. She said she “couldn’t proceed.” This is patently untrue. Rather, the next day, Ungar-Sargon chose to walk off the stage where she was supposed to give a talk.

Before she left, Ungar-Sargon did read a statement that many in the audience found moving and eloquent. As she was leaving, voices in the audience urged her to stay, including myself and her co-panelists. To see the Opinion Editor of The Forward voluntarily leave a conference on anti-Semitism and racism was astonishing. To now find her accusing the conference of silencing her is deceptive and disingenuous. Her 30,000 Twitter followers have carried her untruthful account across the Internet, and it is our hope that they will watch the conference on video to see how little Unger-Sargon’s account corresponds to what actually occurred.

I must reiterate: Bard College and the Arendt Center stood firmly against de-platforming and silencing. At colleges all around the country, controversial speakers are being de-platformed. Despite considerable pressure, we at Bard have never canceled a speaker. We believe that hearing controversial views is an essential part of thinking as well as a necessity in a pluralist democracy. We also believe that protest is an essential component of liberal-arts education because we believe it is an essential part of educated protest in our, or any, democracy.

In consistently insisting that we hear from a plurality of opinions, the Arendt Center honors the legacy of Hannah Arendt. “We know from experience,” Arendt wrote, “that no one can adequately grasp the objective world in its full reality all on his own, because the world always shows and reveals itself to him from only one perspective.” For Arendt, free speech is about seeing the world as it is, in all of its plurality and uniqueness, not as ideology suggests it should be.

In my own introductory remarks for the conference, I offered a grim list of hate crimes that have led to the murder of Jews, Muslims, Black Americans, and LGBTQ people over the last few years. I also explored Hannah Arendt’s understanding of the nexus between anti-Semitism and racism. And I ended with a call for the kind of liberal education that allows us to hear and engage difficult, sometimes controversial, opinions. It has been, and continues to be, my hope that we might be ennobled, not diminished, by that struggle.

In her speech at the conference before leaving, Ungar-Sargon accused me and other conference goers of sitting “idly by as Jews were protested for trying to talk about anti-Semitism.” This is flatly not so. What is? That she decided to go home and call the rest of us cowards.

Roger Berkowitz is the founder and academic director of the Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College.

Batya Ungar-Sargon links anti-Zionists to David Duke and synagogue murders

Philip Weiss, Mondoweiss, 14

After an anti-Zionist student group disrupted a panel she was on last Thursday, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of the Forward, said the students protested the event because the three panelists were Jewish and that intellectuals who stood idly by or cheered on the demonstrators bear responsibility for the spike in anti-semitism and even synagogue murders.

Ungar-Sargon also made these claims: 97 percent of Jews are Zionists; anti-Zionists in the Jewish community are as anomalous as Trump supporters who are black; she is the “number one publisher of Palestinian voices in America”; she has “spent my entire career embedded in the Palestinian community;” and she has done more than anyone else you will meet to get Israelis to vote for Palestinian politicians.

Some who attended the event or protested it have disputed Ungar-Sargon’s version of events.

The panel took place at Bard College in the Hudson Valley on October 10 in a conference on racism and anti-semitism. Titled “Who Needs Anti-Semitism?” the panel featured Ruth Wisse, the Harvard Yiddishist; Shany Mor, a Bard teacher who formerly served as director of foreign policy at the Israeli National Security Council, an official body; and Ungar-Sargon.

The Students for Justice in Palestine chapter at the school disrupted the event for several minutes chiefly because Ruth Wisse has made anti-Palestinian statements.

The next day Ungar-Sargon was on a second panel titled, “Racism and Zionism: Black and Jewish Relations.” She gave a short speech denouncing the earlier protest as anti-semitic and the conference-goers as handmaidens of anti-Semitism, and then walked out.

Ungar-Sargon said in her speech (and a subsequent op-ed) that she told the protesters they had chosen the wrong panel to protest, they should save it for the Zionism panel.

Their response was that the discourse of anti-semitism is inherently bound up in the Israel question. You know who thinks that? David Duke thinks that. David Duke thinks that talking about antisemitism hurts Palestinians. David Duke thinks that the actions of one Jew are the responsibility of another Jew. Thus I, the number one publisher of Palestinian voices in America– The Forward, a Jewish newspaper where I am the opinion editor, publishes more op-eds by Palestinians than the New York Times, the Nation and the Washington Post combined– I, who have spent my entire career embedded in the Palestinian community, who have convinced more Israelis to vote for the Joint Arab List than you will meet in your life– I am worthy of protesting when I try to talk, not about Israel, but about antisemitism… It is because I am a Jew.

She went on to blame her fellow conference-members for standing idly by as anti-Semitism ravages the Jewish community.

I’m bothered by the cowardice of my fellow conference goers…. None of you could find the guts to stand up and call out a blatantly racist act. [You say] “Oh they were protesting Israel, they were protesting Zionists.” 97 percent of Jews worldwide are Zionists. 97 percent!…. Why do think that is? There are the same number of antizionist Jews as there are black women who voted for Trump. Some of the Jews here will reassure you that it is fine. Would you allow Diamond and Silk [black women who are Fox News hosts] to tell you what’s racist? You certainly should not. I’m horrified by your cowardice…. I feel shut down. What have you done to help Jews as antisemitism as spiked across the nation.. as Jews have been murdered at their place of worship, and orthodox Jews beaten to a pulp day after day in Brooklyn? You can say, “I sat idly by as Jews were protested for trying to talking about antisemitism. I allowed a Jewish woman to be held accountable for the actions of a country half way around the world where she can’t even vote, because of her ethnicity. I egged that protest on, I applauded it, then I went to a party.”

Adam Shatz of the London Review of Books was a speaker at the conference. He repudiated Ungar-Sargon’s claims on twitter:

I was there, and what provoked the protest wasn’t the fact that the discussion was about anti-Semitism, but that the speaker was Ruth Wisse, a notorious anti-Arab racist and unconditional defender of Israel and its occupation. The notion that this woman from the Forward was protested because she’s Jewish is preposterous. A great number of speakers were Jews who are deeply aware of anti-Semitism – Etienne Balibar, Marc Weitzmann and others. None were protested because they were Jewish, or speaking about anti-Semitism. I would say at least a plurality of the protestors were young Jewish students. It’s also remarkable how right-wingers and defenders of Israel who complain about the ‘victimology’ of Arabs and black people slide so easily into claims of victimhood themselves.

A Bard student who is a member of SJP and tweets under the handles Akiva Hirsch and Yung Perchik was one of the demonstrators. He also dismisses Ungar-Sargon’s claims:

First, you made a comment about the fact that we were protesting a panel that was about antisemitism, not Israel/Palestine. But Israel/Palestine was one of the things Wisse focussed on in her speech, the other being Black Americans.

Now while the members of Bard’s SJP, myself included, are not fortune tellers, based on the horrifically racist things Wisse has said in the past, we had a feeling that was how her speech was going to go. That’s a big part of why we decided to protest.

Another big part of why we decided to protest is you. You have made a name for yourself by silencing Black Jews, and we don’t take kindly to that.

The other reason is that Mor, the third person at this panel, was the director of foreign policy on the Israeli national security board. So because of that, the panel always had something to do with Israel….

As for your talk of feeling frightened by the conference’s other panelists approval of our protest imagine how frightened a Palestinian student would feel knowing that Wisse said “all Palestinian-Arabs do is breed, bleed, and advertise their misery”

And yet she still managed to make the cut to be invited to this conference. And if you want to talk about Jews being silenced and ignored, talk about the Ethiopian Jewish woman who was told by Wisse that Black Jews are treated just fine.

My last thought on the protest: as a White Jew, I will NEVER allow hateful bigots like Wisse to claim that they represent me, and I will do whatever I can to make sure that she and those who hold her same values don’t have a platform…

Last thing before I go to sleep: I derive no pleasure from protesting the only all-Jewish panel at the @Arendt_Center’s conference. But I can’t help the fact that they chose awful people for this panel, and no amount of being Jewish can fix someone’s awfulness.

Kenneth Stern formerly of the American Jewish Committee, now at Bard, was also at the conference and published a letter at the Forward disputing Ungar-Sargon’s op-ed’s claims.

I was in all the rooms she describes… At the Bard conference on Thursday, the students marched to the front and held signs. When one was asked to lower her sign so people could see, she did. When a couple of them interrupted the talk, security officers and deans were right there to ask them to leave, and they did without incident…

Ungar-Sargon was right to note that the panel the students chose to protest was all Jewish, but her leap to the conclusion that it was protested because it was all Jewish, or that perhaps there should have been some special dispensation from protest because it was all Jewish, is misplaced. It was exceptionally clear to me as an audience member that these students protested because they strongly disagreed with Wisse’s views. not because of her Jewishness….

Ungar-Sargon wrote that Wisse’s talk was only about anti-Semitism, not Israel. But Wisse did speak about Israel, and of course she has written about it extensively. Ungar-Sargon’s assertion that bringing Israel into a discussion of anti-Semitism is inherently racist is mind-boggling. I speak regularly to Jewish audiences and on college campuses about anti-Semitism, and generally say little about Israel up front, but Israel is the topic audience members — frequently from the right, politically — most often focus on in the question-and-answer period.

Rebecca Vilkomerson of Jewish Voice for Peace denounced the claim by Ungar-Sargon that anti-Zionist criticism of Israel is part and parcel of attacks on synagogues. No progressive should believe this, she said, and “to the extent they do they shouldn’t call themselves progressives AND that is the unfortunate success of repeating a lie so many times it feels true.”

Vilkomerson said the claim is being advanced by Bari Weiss of the New York Times, too.

This has gotta stop. It is dangerous. It cheapens & destroys any collective understanding of what antisemitism is, ignores and discounts racism and Islamophobia, and tries to undermine any proper attention to Palestinian human rights and Israeli culpability for violating them

MJ Rosenberg describes Ungar-Sargon’s version of the event as “lies” of an ideological character: “The worst thing about @bungarsargon’s lies about what happened at #Bard is that it detracts from the violent #antisemitism emanating from the right to focus on peaceful protest by #progressive Jewish students against the #occupation and its defenders.”

Dani Dayan, the Israeli consul general in New York, cheered Ungar-Sargon on.

“Batya and I disagree on many issues. But when a Jew is attacked by antisemites and responds this way – I stand up and applaud with admiration.”

Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL also applauds.

Bravo @bungarsargon for sharing how she encountered ugly #antiSemitism at @BardCollege — at a panel on anti-Semitism no less. It’s a case study on the very real issues facing Jewish students on college campuses today and shows how hate manifests on the far Left.

Mairav Zonszein writes:

If this is how the @ADL does its research into what constitutes an anti-Semitic incidents, it calls into question everything they do.

I believe Ungar-Sargon’s claims are tactical: she is alarmed at the growing support in progressive circles for anti-Zionism and wants to stem the tide. To do so, she claims that anti-Zionism is a self-hating 3 percent fringe in the Jewish community, like black Trump supporters. This is a wobbly number: Ungar-Sargon herself said last November that 95 percent of Jews are Zionists; now she says 97 percent.

In fact, a growing number of vocal, younger Jews is openly questioning the need for “the Jewish state” and saying the Zionist ideology is racist. Jewish Voice for Peace is a burgeoning justice group, and it is anti-Zionist. The young Jewish group IfNotNow is also burgeoning, and includes some anti-Zionists.

These progressives obviously have traction inside American politics; 56 percent of Democrats say they would support sanctions against Israel over its settlement project. Two supporters of boycotting Israel are now in Congress, and party leaders have been fighting this trend vociferously.

It is also true, as Michael Koplow, a liberal Zionist says, that the Jewish community is largely Zionist, and the establishment organizations are committed to that ideology: “[E]very major American Jewish organization of any significance supports Israel not only in practice but specifically as a Jewish state and… over 90% of American Jews say they have favorable feelings toward Israel.”

Thanks to Dave Reed, James North, Scott Roth, and Donald Johnson.

Correction: This post initially stated that Kenneth Stern’s letter was written by Natasha Roth. Apologies to both writers!