Insider debates: the Israel-Palestine conflict

Five Insider editors penned dueling essays about the Israel-Palestine conflict in the inaugural edition of "Insider Debates"

The Editors
November 22, 2019

The Insider's editorial board had strong feelings about SJP's disruption of Israel-advocate Hen Mazzig's lecture last Friday. Some of us were vehemently opposed to SJP's actions while others were more generous about their motives and understanding of their position. So we did what any good writers do; we wrote dueling essays. Thus begins the first edition of Insider Debates.

The normalization of leftist antisemitism

Managing Editor Teddy David and Senior Campus & Culture Editor Sarah Kopp

Leftist antisemitism is not new, nor is it surprising to those who have looked beneath the surface of leftism. How, then, has it been normalized? Quite simply, it cowers behind a facade of “justice.”

The antisemitism of the far-right is easy to see and easy to call out. They don’t make an attempt to hide it behind the rhetoric of love or justice or equality; they are hateful, and they are proud of it.

The antisemites of the far-left, though, have erected a semantic wall of plausible deniability called anti-Zionism. To be clear, most people on the far-left are not consciously antisemitic. However, the small consciously antisemitic minority find it convenient to attract support, mainly from idealistic young people, by insisting that you can be anti-Zionist and not antisemitic.

On the surface, this does seem like a perfectly fair claim; in theory, someone could be anti-Zionist and not antisemitic. But theory can only go so far before reality takes hold. Columnist Bret Stephens points out that “it’s theoretically possible to distinguish anti-Zionism from anti-Semitism, just as it’s theoretically possible to distinguish segregationism from racism.” Of course, we all know that, in the real world, the latter distinction does not exist.

Antisemitism has always been a flexible hatred. It changes depending on the biases of a particular time and place. It finds the causes célèbres, the buzz-words and political fads of the day and molds itself around them.

This is not a difficult task with the far-left. Their anti-capitalism and anti-Westernism make Jews a natural target. Jews are generally financially successful and leftists see Jews as European imperialist interlopers in the Middle East (despite the fact that 52% of Israeli Jews are Middle Eastern or North African in origin, including Hen Mazzig).

Leftist antisemitism is not new, nor was anti-Zionism its first guise; socialism was. Although many prominent socialists were and are nominally Jewish (they tend to be decidedly anti-religious), the antisemitic trope of Jewish capitalists controlling the world and exploiting the proletariat was used as a cover for the persecution of Jews in the Soviet Union.

Anti-Zionism is only the latest form of leftist antisemitism. It seems remarkable that the left is blind to this fact. They rightly identify far-right code words for Jews like “globalist,” but deny that “Zionist” carries the same baggage. But Jews know what Zionist means in the language of the far-left–it means Jew.

It really should be obvious. Anti-Zionists use the same tropes that out-and-out antisemites always have: Zionists (Jews) control elected officials with money; Zionists (Jews) have “hypnotized the world”; Zionists (Jews) are warmongers; diasporic Zionists (non-Israeli Jews) are loyal to Israel and not their own country. It’s not a coincidence that leftists level these charges against the one and only Jewish state in the world.

Similarly, it is only the Jews out of all the peoples of the world who are denied the right to self-determination. This rejects the fact that Jews are indigenous to Israel–an unthinkable rejection for leftists if you were to replace “Jews” with “American Indians” and “Israel” with “the United States.” Anti-Zionists assert that Palestinians dominated the land for centuries, so Jews no longer have any claim to it. So are American Indians no longer indigenous to the United States?

But apparently, the crimes of Jewish Israelis are so grievous that they have lost their right to self-determination in their indigenous land. Even if Israel was guilty of the crimes of which leftists accuse it, should Germany be wiped off the face of the earth because of the Holocaust? Should China because of their oppression of ethnic minorities and religious communities and their concentration camps for political dissenters? Come to think of it, should the Arab states lose that right for forcing out their entire Jewish populations with state-sponsored pogroms, all in the name of anti-Zionism? Is it really a coincidence that the far-left only denies the right to exist of the Jewish nation?

And leftist anti-Zionists have been all too willing to play the useful idiots to proudly antisemitic groups such as Hamas, seeking normalization in the West as “freedom fighters.” This is what we saw last Thursday at Vassar when a group of protesters began shouting, “from the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!” There is no way to sugarcoat it. This is a call for the violent destruction of the State of Israel from which would follow, at best, the displacement and, at worst, the murder of six million more Jews.

One might say that–despite current policies to the contrary in Palestinian-governed territories–Jews would still be allowed to reside in this newly created Palestine. However, this denies the reason for being of the Jewish State in the first place. Yes, it is important in Jewish religion and culture that Eretz Yisrael is the promised land. But, on a concrete level, this is the only place on earth where Jews are responsible for their own governance and defense.

Jews have always been keenly and uncomfortably aware of the wild and violent swings public opinion can take towards their faith. To believe that life would go on as usual for Israeli Jews if they were to be subsumed by a foreign power is an act of staggering naivety and ignorance.

So yes, regarding last week’s events, members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) should absolutely face disciplinary measures by the Vassar administration. In accordance with the Vassar student handbook, Section One of College Regulations states, “Vassar College is dedicated to freedom of inquiry in the pursuit of truth, and is vigilant in defending the right of individuals to free speech. The college, however, is also a community dedicated to the cultivation of an atmosphere in which all of its members may live and work free from intolerance, disrespect, or harassment.”

At the very least, the protests last week meet the standard of disrespectful and harassing. Mazzig had difficulty continuing with his talk and the chants made students inside feel threatened. As President Bradley clarified in her second statement on the issue, the chants “crossed the line into anti-Semitism.”

These chants went far beyond the line. As for the SJP members claiming to not associate “from the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free!” with Hamas, this is not only irresponsible but ignorant. Understanding the historical significance of the phrase is something every member of SJP should be held accountable for; escaping blame in this way is unacceptable. All members of the Vassar community must take Jewish students’ safety more seriously in the face of left-wing antisemitism.

Antisemitism, whether conscious or not, lurks behind its latest front–anti-Zionism. Especially at a place like Vassar, many well-intentioned, idealistic students are vulnerable to falling into this trap. By demonizing Israel as a white, imperialist, apartheid state, they are led to believe that fighting against Zionism means fighting for justice and equality.

Israeli policy can and should be criticized, but young anti-Zionists who are motivated by the perceived righteousness of their cause must carefully interrogate their beliefs. They need to ask themselves why Hamas, Louis Farrakhan, and David Duke are on their side. They need to ask why they are using centuries-old antisemitic tropes with “Zionist” substituted for “Jew.” They need to ask if they would call for the violent destruction of any other nation on the same grounds.

And those who are not anti-Zionist must be vigilant. Antisemites have shown, time and again, that they can seduce masses to their cause with calls for “justice” and “revolution”–anti-Zionism is only the latest example. As with any coding, this cannot obscure the hate underneath. 

Antisemitism will never be completely eradicated, but, 75 years after the Holocaust, civil society must continue to relegate it to the lunatic fringes. That means uniting to condemn it unequivocally, whether it comes from those trying to carry on the Nazis’ legacy or those who claim to fight against it.

Equating pro-Palestinian activism with antisemitism is dishonest and dangerous

Senior Policy Editor Henry Mitchell

A recent protest by the Vassar chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) disrupting an Israeli speaker on campus added new fuel to a debate that has been raging on both the Vassar campus and at universities across the country. Are students activists and protesters advocating for the Palestinian cause, such as by supporting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction (BDS) movement, engaging antisemitic behavior?

To be clear, the protests by the SJP were deeply rude and disrespectful. Preserving a wide breadth of opinions and open dialogue on college campuses is important, and disrupting an invited speaker was highly inappropriate and, in fact, ineffective at achieving their goals. 

However, labeling the protests as as antisemitic is problematic, as it dilutes the meaning of the term and equates such activism with truly dangerous antisemitic behavior. 

The discussion over potential antisemitism from pro-Palestinian activists has become more heated in recent years. Even progressive members of Congress such as Ilhan Omar have been accused of it over their pro-Palestinian leanings.

Certainly, there are many critics of Israel who hold antisemitic views, and those should be called out for what they are. However, the trend of immediately dismissing critics of the Israeli government as antisemitic is dangerous, as it obfuscates the true meaning of the term, which, for many Jewish people, carries with it centuries of pain and discrimination. 

The true impact of antisemitism can be quickly observed in such terrible atrocities as the Spanish Inquisition, pogroms in Russia, and the Holocaust. More recently, events such as the Tree of Life synagogue massacre show us that antisemitism alive and well.

However, it is important to note that these terrible acts were all borne out of right-wing antisemitism, not from the left. The long-standing stereotype of Jews as greedy bankers who control the world financial system, à la The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, has been eagerly adopted by the alt-right and has influenced many antisemites, not least the Tree of Life synagogue shooter.

To equate activists fighting for the rights of Palestinians, who have undeniably been discriminated against for decades by the Israeli government, with such a hateful ideology is dishonest and dangerous. While SJP’s actions were questionable, their motive–to raise awareness of a civil rights issue–is valid. While some in the broader movement may hold antisemitic views, dismissing every protest as antisemitism is unfair and dilutes the true meaning of the term.

Dismissing such protests as antisemitic adds fuel to the narrative that liberal college campuses such as Vassar are hotbeds of left-wing antisemitism. This is certainly useful for Republicans who seek to distract from their party’s own rampant racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. However, it is, unfortunately for them, untrue.

The Vassar that I attend, as well as its peer institutions, has a thriving Jewish community. Personally, I have never felt more comfortable with my Jewish identity than in the time I’ve spent at Vassar. 

Vassar should welcome SJP’s pointless protests

Senior Politics Editor Adam Chapnik

As has been thoroughly covered by The Vassar Insider, and on Twitter, Vassar Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) recently protested a Hen Massig lecture sponsored by Vassar Organizing Israel Conversations Effectively (VOICE). In response, Vassar President Elizabeth Bradley, VOICE, and SJP all wrote public statements.

In her first letter, Bradley condemned SJP’s actions as “antithetical to being part of a learning community” and recognized that some Jewish students felt SJP’s actions were anti-Semitic. VOICE backed up Bradley and emphasized its wish to have better dialogue over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Vassar. And SJP reiterated its anti-Zionist position and criticized Bradley’s condemnation as “reactionary” and performative. 

SJP’s actions and their response letter are suspicious. It’s all very dishonest, really. But it’s not entirely their fault. Given Bradley’s more recent letter, it’s understandable why SJP would act so reflexively. (To be clear, I’m not a Zionist or an anti-Zionist).

My family’s Eastern European Jewish heritage is a strong part of my identity. My father’s father’s oldest brother was killed at Auschwitz. My grandfather was able to survive in Belgium during WWII because our last name “Czapnik” is not clearly Jewish. Both of my parents have ancestors who escaped pogroms in what is now Ukraine, Romania, Lithuania, and Poland. I don’t consider myself to be religious, but I’m often reminded that it is anti-Semitism that could have prevented my existence and will always constitute an existential threat to Jewish lives around the globe. I’m privileged that I live in the US where anti-Semitism, although propping up many murders every year, is something I can escape. A large part of this has contributed to my politics. I’m a progressive on many issues, from abortion to gay rights and environmentalism. But when it comes to Zionism, I haven’t been able to pick a side. 

Unlike myself, SJP has approached the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with unflinching self-righteousness. 

SJP, among its chants at the VOICE event, shouted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free!” Mazzig–and many commenters on social media–called this anti-Semitic. SJP, in turn, said the slogan originates with Zionists and was merely subverted by (unnamed) Palestinian activists. Therefore, SJP implied, the slogan cannot be anti-Semitic. In fact, SJP tells us that “conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is itself an anti-Semitic tactic, as it falsely represents the Jewish community and tells them what they ought to believe.” So, according to SJP, Mazzig and his supporters are the real anti-Semites, because they’re telling other Jews what they ought to believe–and SJP does not at all fall victim to the same trap.

This wordplay is all very convenient for SJP, but it does not acquit them of responsibility for their actions. Framing the question of their responsibility as a question of the historical intentions of the slogans they used avoids the fact that their actions do have consequences; meanwhile, they are holding others accountable for the impact of their actions despite good intentions. SJP is telling us only impact matters if it’s Bradley or VOICE or Mazzig or Zionists in question–but not for them. For SJP, however, only their intentions are important, because anything they do is virtuous all the way through. This is absurd. SJP cannot have their cake and eat it, too.

SJP chose to chant a slogan they know for many Jews–fairly or not–is associated with Hamas and the genocide of all Jews. They chose to pursue their self-righteous objectives, casting off nuance and issues of complexity with memorable slogans that rhyme–with deepities. And in their statement following the protest, they reiterated Soviet propaganda that “Zionism is racism,” propaganda used to legitimize Jewish persecution in the USSR. None of these claims are inherently anti-Semitic, but unreflectively tossing them around does have consequences.

Furthermore, SJP hasn’t even tried to prove the efficacy of their actions. It would be a tenuous leap of logic to say that their protest actually could have had a real, positive impact in the world, had it gone down more smoothly. As far as can be gleaned, SJP’s actions at their core were about performing controversy–even if they were convinced they were helping anyone. 

Even if SJP has only good intentions–which I’m happy to believe–their disregard for the impact of their actions threatens to excuse real anti-Semitism at Vassar. Their actions show that they would not question the membership of someone who really believed in hegemonic Jewish power (take any Louis Farakhan acolyte, for example). 

It’s not that SJP is creating anti-Semitism on Vassar (just as Mazzig is not creating Zionists and oppression). By making claims that must tread thin ethical lines, SJP has the obligation to prove their own integrity, and to do so they must distance themselves from any anti-Semitism with which they could be associated. 

Yet SJP seems to tell Jews that only they have the authority to say what is anti-Semitic and what is not. If Nazis said the same thing, nothing would be anti-Semitic. I don’t see many Jews supporting Nazis, and I also don’t see many Jews supporting SJP (not to say they don’t exist, because I know they do). Like it or not, SJP has to prove that the actions they deem ethical actually are ethical. Otherwise, they lack the image of integrity on which the efficacy of their actions depends. SJP’s neglect to distance themselves from anti-Semitism may not be anti-Semitic, but it is solipsistic. 

I do not believe SJP’s intent was anti-Semitic; and for those who do, it’s impossible to interrogate the contents of anyone’s character. That rabbit-hole is one from which there is no return. The question of whether or not SJP intended to be–or whether its actions actually were–anti-Semitic is really beyond the point. 

It’s regrettable that so many alumni, in their criticisms of SJP, are set on the position that, since the slogans SJP used are anti-Semitic, so was SJP’s use of them. This backs the college into a corner in which, for the purposes of PR, it has to take the disgruntled alumni’s side. God-forbid Vassar lose any donors. In a revised response, Bradley wrote that she believes SJP’s actions “crossed the line into anti-Semitism” and announced that an adjudication process for disciplinary action had begun. 

The college is being forced to take the position that only impact matters–even if that impact is tenuous, at best. I see no credible threat of progressive violence and insensitivity against Jews at Vassar as a result of SJP’s actions, nor was Mazzig actually harmed by the protest. If anti-Semites do show up on campus, there is no way to tie the phenomenon to SJP’s actions. The only thing that has been threatened by SJP’s actions is their own integrity.

Bradley’s reflexive response is a threat to academic freedom and meaningful dialogue for everyone at Vassar. It corners SJP and forces them to defend themselves from all accusations to no end, rather than earnestly reflecting on their positions. It also sets a precedent for the college to silence voices because some alumni and students find them disagreeable. 

As much as SJP’s actions and statements have been unconstructive and dishonest, they should have the right to publicly shout their opinions–especially because their recent statements, like Bradley’s, were reflexive and, at no fault of their own, not from a place where they could safely admit to missteps without threat of disciplinary action. The whole idea of an intellectual community is a place where all expressions are permissible without consequence, but there is always an incentive to reflect honestly and deeply–and the admission and resolution of errors is applauded just as much as the courage to be willing to make mistakes in the first place. If this is not what Vassar is, I don’t know what purpose there is in the college giving in to donors’ wishes. What’s the purpose of funding an intellectual environment that only protects those who pursue “safe” ideas? 

Disciplinary action against SJP has no possibility of stopping the threat of anti-Semitism at Vassar. It condemns anti-Semitism in this instance, but it also excuses the college from responsibility to prevent anti-Semitism from arising again. It’s good and all for the college to take a stance against hate, but better is for the college to help Vassar, as a learning community, make nuanced distinctions. 

If the college simultaneously condemns hate and permits the careless pursuit of ideas that–if taken without care–could become hateful, it is excusing itself from responsibility for the system in which hate, predictably, arises on its premises. As long as controversy is welcomed while hate is condemned, people will either shelter from controversy or pursue it recklessly. As with SJP, they have pursued it recklessly (but we see both aspects of this at Vassar). 

There are compelling reasons to pursue controversial ideas like anti-Zionism, but Bradley’s statement makes no effort to help students draw nuanced distinctions between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. If Bradley really wants to protect Vassar as a learning community, she has an obligation to help it make those distinctions.

I do believe anti-Zionist perspectives are valuable. Israel is fallible, and Zionists tend to overlook this. However, anti-Zionism will always risk flirting with anti-Semitism if not undertaken with care. SJP clearly prefered to snowplow through the complexities of the issue. 

This was a mistake, but it is not irredeemable.

At the end of the day, neither anti-Zionism nor Zionism is the best way forward. Both perspectives are valuable, and both perspectives have problematic facets. If SJP ever wants to help Palestinians, and if Zionists ever want to really help Jews, all stakeholders are going to have to engage in complexity and dialogue. Otherwise, all we will have is hollow accusations of anti-Semitism and a vaccuum in which real anti-Semitism can hide. 

What SJP did was a mistake, but disciplinary action is not going to stop the threat of anti-Semitism on Vassar, just as the silencing of extremists never distinguishes their power. SJP owes it to Vassar to take responsibility for their mistake and engage in dialogue rather than in the narcissism they seem to prefer; and the college–as a place of academic freedom and progress–has the obligation to organize that dialogue. Earnestly and humbly engaging in dialogue, no matter the baggage attached to the conversation, will always be the most constructive way forward, and SJP and the college need to recognize this fact.

Israel-Palestine is a debate without nuance, and that makes it poisonous

Editor-in-Chief Andrew Solender

As western society has become more polarized across partisan, demographic, religious and many other divides, people have stopped giving their adversaries the benefit of the doubt. Nuance is taboo in a world where every debate, from Presidential forums to squabbles on the deepest reaches of the twittersphere, is a zero sum game where the only goal is to “own” the other side. Nowhere is this more potent, with more real world consequences, than the Israel-Palestine debate.

Somewhat understandably, the debate about this 70-year-old conflict stokes the enraged passions of people all over the world, some without so much as a tangential relationship to it. Some of these people are unabashed antisemites and islamophobes. But the vast majority are not, and that gets easily lost in the back-and-forth shouting and all-caps tweeting.

It is incredibly easy and subconsciously desirable to assume the worst of your opponent, because doing so turns them into a living strawman: the most absurd, offensive and easily beatable version of their argument. But most of the time, that painting of their argument is simply a distortion. It betrays the humanity of our belief systems with all their complexity and contradictions.

This can commonly be seen in right-wing arguments against the anti-Israel activism of Muslim Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar. Nearly every critique they lob against Israel, its government or its American lobbyists, no matter how banal or widely accepted, is blasted by conservative critics as antisemitic. It is a naked attempt at weaponizing accusations of antisemitism for partisan gain, regardless of whether the statements are truly antisemitic. In reality, there is no criticism of Israel so benign that these women wouldn't be plastered as antisemitic for it.

We saw this replicated on a smaller scale at Vassar on Friday. SJP activists were accused of using a Hamas chant that calls for the destruction of the Israeli state and the mass slaughter of the Israeli people. Yet, "from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free" has been used by a number of pro-Palestinian movements to represent a wide range of pro-Palestinian sentiments. While one can reasonably argue that it is irresponsible to use a chant that Hamas also uses, to say that it can only be interpreted in the most offensive possible light is simply a bad-faith attempt at mischaracterization.

To be sure, the pro-Palestinian side has more than its fair share of bad-faith mischaracterizations, including overwrought accusations of fascism and supporting apartheid and genocide against anyone who even remotely supports Israel. Every side of this debate has a tendency to illustrate it strictly in black and white.

And yet, the criticism of all anti-Israel activism as inherently antisemitic and anti-Palestinian activism as inherently islamophobic is not supported by the data. A Pew Research poll found that while most Americans viewed both the Israeli and Palestinian governments unfavorably, a large majority of Americans viewed the Israeli people favorably, and a plurality viewed the Palestinians favorably. 

This tells us that while there are people who have unfavorable views of Israelis and Palestinians, many more hold negative views of the government but positive views of the people. Thus, a large portion of Americans hold more nuanced views on the conflict than this starkly two-sided debate allows for.

It’s time to stop treating this conflict like it’s all or nothing. While the SJPers and hardcore Zionists are often the loudest voices in the room, they don’t represent the largest groups. Reasonable people, with rightfully nuanced views on this extremely complex issue, should feel empowered to step in and encourage civil discourse, defend truth and prevent politically-motivated violence, harassment.

The Editors

The Editorial Board is comprised of the Editor-in-Chief, Managing Editor, Digital Editor, Communications Officer, Senior Politics Editor(s), Deputy Politics Editor(s), Senior Policy Editor(s), Deputy Policy Editor(s), Senior Campus & Culture Editor(s), Deputy Campus & Culture Editor(s), Senior Financial Editor(s), Deputy Financial Editor(s), and Writing Staff. See the Staff page for more information.