Scholar of antisemitism speaks on campus protests

May 16, 2024
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At the center of debates on what pro-Palestinian protests mean for campuses across the country is one question—are student protesters exercising antisemitism and creating an unsafe learning environment for their Jewish peers?

Benjamin Ginsberg, a the David Bernstein Professor of political science and chair of the Johns Hopkins University Center for Advanced Governmental Studies, says yes … and no. The scholar of American politics, Jewish history and higher education policy—who is Jewish himself—says that although it is possible to separate the two in theory, it’s much harder in practice.

Ginsberg explains the history and “rising threat” of antisemitism in America and his perception of its ties to the political left in his recent book, The New American Anti-Semitism: The Left, the Right, and the Jews, released in February.

“It talks about the change in the United States, and in Europe as well, of the locus of antisemitism from the right, to the left,” he said. “And we’re seeing some of that today. Not all the pro-Palestinian protesters are antisemitic, but quite a few are.”

Benjamin Ginsburg

Inside Higher Ed spoke with Ginsberg for a deeper look at his view on campus protests, their relation to the generations-old form of discrimination, and how they expose the fine line between free speech and hate speech. The conversation, edited for length and clarity, follows.

(A Q&A on Islamophobia with Khaled Beydoun will be available on May 17.)

Q: You are a scholar of Jewish history and you recently released a book on antisemitism in America. How do you think we got here?

A: I’ll give you the short version. I think this began as a result of the Israel-Arab war. In 1967, Israel defeated all of its Arab neighbors, and this had a number of consequences which still resonate through the world. But one of the consequences was to transform Israel from a small socialist state, which was loved by politicians of the left. The war transformed Israel into a power. Moreover, it brought it into the American security orbit and the U.S. began to arm Israel.

To socialists, this was sort of a great betrayal. They began to see Israel as an agent of American imperialism. This became even more manifest with a huge migration of Muslims from the Middle East into Western Europe. Socialists and other left parties saw Muslims as new voters for their coalition. Muslim voters weren’t much interested in the theories of Karl Marx, but the European socialist parties found one point on which they could agree with their putative new followers—and that was Israel.

Both groups could cheerfully oppose Israel. So anti-Zionism became an important plank in the European socialist platform. From there, it migrated to the United States, where anti-Zionism has become a very important element in left liberal politics in the U.S., as we see now.

Cover of The New American Anti-Semitism by Benjamin Ginsberg

Independent Institute

Q: In your view what is the definition of antisemitism?

A: I think that people tend to define it in a way that’s politically useful to them. The official definition is the Anti-Defamation League definition, and then there’s the left liberal definition. But in my view antisemitism is the dislike or even hatred of people because of their ethnic identity. It’s similar to any other form of racism. Antisemites see Jews as an ethnic or racial group with undesirable characteristics.

Q: Do you draw a line in the sand between anti-Zionism and antisemitism? And if so, where is it?

A: This is endlessly debated in America. However, in much of the world, there’s no difference. Moreover, even though anti-Zionism and antisemitism might be philosophically different, in the political arena, they become one in the same. If you’re an anti-Zionist, your opponents are likely to be Jews. From that clash emerges a certain degree of enmity. This is why there’s kind of a mix of anti-Zionist and antisemitic rhetoric from these encampments.

These positions become blended for several reasons. One of which—and this was a question well before October 7—is why Israel? Arguably, there are many regimes in the world that are more despicable than Israel. More Muslims are oppressed by other Muslim governments than are oppressed by Israel. Iran, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Egypt—these are very repressive regimes. So why direct animus toward Israel? In some cases, it’s motivated by an underlying dislike of Jews.

Q: Do you believe it’s possible for the latest wave of campus protests to be peaceful without being antisemitic?

A: I think that the campus protests are not intended to be peaceful. If you want to be peaceful, build your encampment somewhere at the edge of campus and sing songs. The purpose of an encampment in the middle of campus is to be provocative and disruptive. They’re intended to goad campus administrators into calling the police, and in that way, increase sympathy among other students and faculty for these poor kids who were beaten up by the cops, arrested, expelled and suspended. You try to force the authorities to show that behind their beneficent exterior lurks a thug.

Now when confronted by an encampment, university administrators who are smart will leave the encampments alone as long as they can. If you leave them alone, they kind of wither on the vine. People lose interest. Students drift away. The media stops paying attention. Then the next step is up to the campers. They can go away, or they can up the ante to try and provoke a response and run the risk of overstepping. If they overstep, the police can be called.

Q: In the cases where students are not being antisemitic, are administrators justified in removing them from their “provocative” encampment?

A: At some point, the university has to say, “OK, enough already.” At some schools, they’ve asked the protesters to move to the edge of campus. But protesters don’t want to do that. They want the police to be called. They believe that that will add adherence to their cause. This is a standard tactic. Why did Dr. Martin Luther King lead protesters into Selma, Alabama, where he knew that the local cops were brutish? He did so because he knew that the local cops would attack peaceful protesters and this would be shown on national television. So, university administrators should hesitate before calling in the police; but eventually, there comes a time when you can’t have the university’s business completely disrupted.

Q: Have you observed similar kinds of toxic identity politics with other students whether they be Muslim, conservative, etc.?

A: No, I think Jews are currently the major victims of identity politics. I hear the term Islamophobia bandied about, but I think that’s not true. I don’t think there’s much evidence of anti-Muslim activity on college campuses. Conservative students on some campuses tend to be quiet because they regard the faculty as liberal, but no one bothers them much.

I won’t say Islamophobia doesn’t exist at all. It certainly did exist in the wake of 9/11. But in recent years, this idea that Islamophobia is a problem was really invented by politicians.

Q: For politicians who have been evoking antisemitism protections—like Representative Elise Stefanik, for example—do you see it as being for their own gain? Or do you think they truly care about Jewish students as much as they portray?

A: Who am I to question what’s in the heart of a politician? Politicians—and I can’t single Stefanik out in particular because I don’t know her— but politicians generally seek causes that they believe will give them some political advantage. That’s true among Democrats and Republicans. I’m too cynical to take seriously anything that politicians say.

Q: How should college administrators and student affairs officials protect Jewish students and free speech rights on college campuses?

A: Free speech is what a campus should be all about, but the encampments are not about free speech. The idea that the encampments are expressions of free speech is misguided. Within an encampment, free speech is seldom tolerated. Students who want to walk into the encampment to argue with people and present their views are generally not allowed. If you’re interested in free speech, you would probably not support the encampment movement.

Read our Q&A on Islamophobia with Khaled Beydoun available on May 17.



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