Consistent, Moral Message Missing

by Jan 9, 2003Culture, Outside Publications

This article originally ran in the Washington Jewish Week on January 9, 2003

Even as antisemitism has declined in the broader American public, things seem only to have gotten worse in at least one segment of American society. Many political “progressives” on campus and among the academia, once champions of tolerance toward all people, now routinely turn a blind eye to antisemitism.

To be sure, the problem with some progressives goes beyond their silence toward barefaced antisemitism. Many have themselves embraced a subtle form of antisemitism by which they suddenly criticize the Jewish state much more harshly than any other nation. Not surprisingly, anti-Israel progressives emphatically deny such charges, maintaining without fail that they are among the first to oppose antisemitism.

But on this account, too, many on the left have fallen woefully short, rarely speaking out against even the most blatant forms of anti-Jewish bigotry.

In a conversation I had with a Jewish student leader at Georgetown University in the wake of reports of antisemitic statements by a prominent Georgetown professor, I suggested that students respond by wearing anti-hate buttons at their planned protest. The student replied that such a particularistic message, i.e., decrying enmity toward Jews, would be frowned upon in the current campus atmosphere. If Jewish students want broad support, he said, they must couch their complaints as malevolence toward all people. 

Similarly, as my colleague Ken Stern has written, some university presidents declined to sign an American Jewish Committee statement decrying the hostile atmosphere toward Jewish students on campus. Numerous Jewish students have, in a wave of incidents across the country, been physically threatened and shouted down by hostile groups and individuals, and Jewish-linked property has been defeated and destroyed. These college presidents refused to endorse the effort because, they said, the statement made no explicit mention of discrimination toward Arab and Muslim students.

Yet many of these same administrators did not hesitate to decry reports of anti-Arab incidents in the wake of Sept. 11, with nary a word about hostility toward Jewish students. The problem seems to be that when other, progressive-certified minority groups, such as African Americans, Muslims, and Hispanics, claim intolerance, campus progressive rise to their defense. When Jews claim the same, most progressives tend to speak only in universalistic terms, if at all. 

Stern argues that the best test of bigotry is to “take a situation, change the race, religion, sexual orientation or other aspects of the player’s identities, and see if the same rules apply.” If African American or Hispanic or Muslim students were treated to the barrage of hostility to Jewish students at some point universities have been subject at some universities have been subject to the past two years, the progressive campus community would be up in arms. In other words, progressive tend to take hostility toward Jewish students less seriously than hostility toward other minorities and thus fail the bigotry test.

One of the underlying reasons for this double standard is that some progressive ideologues believe that only people with power can be racists. Under this winner-take-all power paradigm, the formula is racism=bigotry + power, which means that you cannot be racist if you don’t have power, and if you do have power, you cannot be a victim.

Over time, progressives have come to view Jews as a privileged group and part of the American power establishment, and this lends little credence to Jewish claims of racism. So when Jews allege racism by Arabs or Muslims, or African Americans, progressives tend to remain conspicuously silent because, in their view, Jews cannot be victims, and “powerless” minority groups cannot be guilty of racism.

Progressives do, however, generally speak out when Jews fall victim to antisemitism of the white supremacist variety because white is viewed as the ultimate privileged group, and next to them, even Jews are permitted to be victims.

Accordingly, most progressives don’t speak out against Louis Farrakhan’s antisemitism, but almost always speak out against white Holocaust deniers and neo-Nazis. Likewise, many progressives are quick to condemn Mein Kampf in its original German but have little to say about its Arabic translation (a hot read in many parts of the Arab world today).

In this bifurcated worldview, even the most cut-and-dry incidents of antisemitism often become conflated with the issue of Israel and Zionism. In a recent local protest of an antisemitic Egyptian TV series, it was remarkably difficult to find progressives who were willing to condemn the TV show. While there may have been other reasons for the reluctance, many progressive groups and leaders ultimately did not want to be associated with charges of bias toward Arabs, which might be seen as furthering a pro-Israel agenda. It simply was not “PC” enough for them.

This attempt to define bigotry away can be downright ludicrous. Stern recalled a call on a radio program that tried this tact once when he was discussing an African American professor who was spouting the worst antisemitic and anti-white hatred. “But the guy is the chair of a major department of a major university,” Stern retorted. “How can he not have power?”

Where is the consistent political and moral principle on which progressives pride themselves?

The bottom line is that many in the politically correct class no longer look upon antisemitism as politically incorrect unless it is coming from someone sporting a swastika tattoo. Challenging this pathetic state of affairs will be a tall order for American Jews and for others who truly care about combatting bigotry in all its forms.

David Bernstein is the Washington-area director of the American Jewish Committee.

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