March 22, 2019 at the National Press Club, Washington, DC

Rush Transcript

Dr. Barry Trachtenberg

Challenging the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Pushing Back Against
Jewish Exceptionalist Politics.

Dale Sprusansky: All right. Ladies and gentlemen, once again good morning. Thank you for your patience as we try and stay on time and on schedule today.

Our next panel addresses an issue at the very heart of our country’s identity, the right to free speech. In an effort to control debate about Israel on college campuses and elsewhere, pro-Israel groups have increasingly sought legal measures to limit and even criminalize speech of those concerned about Palestinian human rights. Our two panelists will offer insight into these efforts and will explain how to push back against First Amendment encroachments.

Our first speaker is Dr. Barry Trachtenberg of The Michael R. and Deborah K Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History at Wake Forest University. A scholar of Jewish history and of the Nazi Holocaust, Dr. Trachtenberg earned his PhD in history at UCLA and a postgraduate diploma in Jewish studies at Oxford University. Prior to joining Wake Forest in 2016, he was an associate professor and director of programs in Judaic studies and Hebrew studies at the State University of New York’s University at Albany and interim director from 2010 to 2012 of the university’s Center for Jewish Studies.

He is the author of two books, including the newly released 2018 book The United States and the Nazi Holocaust: Race, Refuge, and Remembrance which he will be signing later today.

On November 7th of last year he testified before a House Judiciary Committee hearing on anti-Semitism on college campuses which sought expert opinions on legislation that, if passed, would legally define anti-Semitism in a way that many fear is designed to curtail activity critical of Israel. Today he will address Challenging the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act: Pushing Back Against Jewish Exceptionalist Politics.

Barry Trachtenberg: It’s truly an honor for me to be invited to speak here today. It’s nice because at Congress they give you a buzzer with just five minutes. So it’s nice to have 18 before the red light appears.

It’s really an honor for me to be on this panel with Rabab who has been a model of scholarly activism on the issue of justice for Palestinians and has been a target of unrelenting campaign to discredit her work. So I’m very proud to be your warm-up act for today.

As we know, for several years there’s been a global campaign to thwart the non-violent BDS movement. This involves governments around the world, including of course Israel and also the UK and France. And many state and local governments here in the United States have likewise declared it as a citizen’s risk being punished for choosing not to do business with Israel. We know that these statutes are a clear violation of free speech guarantees. While they tend to not stand up to constitutional challenge, they’re enacted by politicians who are pandering to what they incorrectly see as American Jewish voters’ monolithic views of Israel. Now, though it’s a non-violent form of protest, the boycott is frequently equated with terrorism and its supporters are cast as extremists and anti-Semites.

Just a quick aside to sort of highlight the absurdity of this legislation - New York State where I used to live, is boycotting North Carolina where I now live, over the bathroom bill that discriminates against transgendered persons. Yet, that same year they passed the anti-BDS legislation saying that boycotts are inherently discriminatory. So there you go.

However, regardless of whether or not this sort of legislation is constitutional, the effect of it is to suppress criticism of Israel and thereby sustaining the occupation of Palestinians. As a consequence, scholars and activists regularly engage in self-censorships, so a reluctance to criticize Israel, for fear of being slandered in some cases or even having their livelihoods threatened and destroyed as we know. The campaign against BDS has also been effective at distracting our attention away from focusing on the brutality of the occupation itself.

As a scholar and activist, [indiscernible] has recently argued: while we argue about the merits of BDS, the occupation only intensifies and too often we don’t recognize our own complicity within it - as American taxpayers whose government sends billions in U.S. military hardware, as scholars whose university sets-up strategic partnerships with Israeli universities and businesses, and speaking for myself as a professor of Jewish history whose professional organizations are likewise implicated in support of the occupation.

Another front in this campaign to restrict freedom of political expression was the attempt by members of Congress in the last year to introduce legislation called the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act which would amend Title VI of the Civil Right Act of 1964 by declaring that anti-Semitism is a violation under it. Though on the face of it, the legislation looks encouraging and one might reflexively be supportive particularly since the rise of the Trump presidency which had emboldened white supremacists to once again target Jewish communities. And it’s for this reason likely that the measure sailed through the Senate in the last legislative session. Yet the truth is that this legislation is also an attempt to suppress student activism and academic speech that is in support of Palestinian human rights.

The effect of this bill is to define opposition to Israel’s anti-Semitism, to equate Judaism with Zionism, and to sanction schools who permit Palestinian human rights activism from occurring on their campuses. Yet, as with legislation against BDS, this act would likely not withstand constitutional challenges. But it too is already shaping how college campuses talk about anti-Semitism and contend with political activism against the occupation.

This legislation was prompted by growing activism on college campuses that challenge the Israeli occupation by groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace who are often working to pass BDS resolutions on their campuses. Backers of this legislation - such as the Anti-Defamation League, AIPAC, the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Christian Zionist groups - have disingenuously portrayed campuses as ever more hostile and dangerous to Jewish students and that American universities are hotbeds of anti-Semitism because of threats from pro-Palestinian activists. They’ve produced a set of “academic studies,” and I put that in quotes, that purport to document the rise of anti-Semitism on campuses.

Yet a close reading of most of these studies demonstrates that in each of them the researcher’s definition of anti-Semitism includes activities that are critical of Israel and American complicity in the occupation. Given that student activism against the occupation is on the rise, these studies are more accurately read as a testament to the tenacity of pro-Palestine students than arising anti-Jewish hatred.

To be clear, tax on Jewish students for being Jewish are unquestionably repellant and must not be tolerated. The truth is that the old racism and religiously-based anti-Semitism, such as what we saw in Charlottesville this summer where torch-bearing marchers carry Nazi and Confederate flags and chanted you Jews will not replace us and murdered a protester, is still present in the United States and requires vigilance and persistence resistance.

However, as their testimony before Congress attests, the backers of this bill care very little about combating white supremacy for that would put them at odds with the current administration and supporters in Congress. It’s not what this legislation addresses. It’s primarily concerned with curbing political speech that threatens the continuing occupation of Palestine.

The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act relies upon the State Department’s classification of anti-Semitism which is itself appropriated from the working definition of anti-Semitism of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia, a definition that was created for the purposes of research and not governmental policy. As well-intentioned as the State Department’s concern for anti-Semitism may be, it defines anti-Semitism so broadly so as to include criticism of Israel as a Jewish state, declaring Israel to be a racist state, or by refusing to accept that Israel is an expression of Jewish self-determination.

Even the author of the original working definition, the free speech advocate Ken Stern who is opposed t

o the academic boycott of Israel, has testified that the definition was not drafted and it was never intended as a tool or to target or to chill a speech on a college campus. In fact, the State Department’s definition upon which the legislation was based is so poorly constructed that it is entirely unusable. For example, it insists that in instances of anti-Semitism it’s: “accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide than to the interest of their own nations.”

This of course is one of the founding premises of Zionism. It’s also one of the founding premises of the pan movements that emerged in the beginning of the 20th century, so just Pan-Germanism or Pan-Slavism. Later we saw Pan-Arabism or Pan-Africanism. The first half of the 20th century in particular showed us that, as with other marginalized groups, Jewish citizenship in any particular country cannot so easily be taken for granted. The founders of Zionism consequently concluded that regardless of where in the world they live, Jews have more in common with one another than they do with non-Jews. Such arguments can be traced back to the founder of Zionism himself, Theodor Herzl, who argued in his seminal 1896 book The Jewish State that anti-Semitism is capable of effective modern existence. And Jews are a people, one people, and that for that reason it’s useful for us to be loyal patriots.

Elsewhere the definition states that denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination and denying Israel the right to exist is an example of anti-Semitism. This of course ignores the plurality of views that exist within the Jewish community regarding Israel. As much as the ADL, AIPAC and other groups testifying to Congress would like to assert, they’re unequivocally not the spokesperson for all of American Jewry - a majority of whom feel that the U.S. should not support Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.

Indeed, since the first stirrings of Zionism in Europe, groups of Jews in America rejected Jewish nationalism. For some it was a matter of faith. For others it was out of loyalty to the United States. For others it was out of a commitment to universalist ideals of equality and human rights. For many Jews today, and since 1948, the state of Israel is decidedly not an expression of Jewish self-determination. For another, the question of Israel’s right to exist is not the same thing as its right to exist as a Jewish state if that existence is predicated on the displacement and oppression of the non-Jews within its borders.

Given the flaws in the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, it has no place in campus speech codes. Although discussions around Israel and Zionism may often be uncomfortable for its supporters and detractors alike, something that I witnessed in my classes in most semesters, it’s the responsibility of students and educators to foster dialogue and not to limit it, to understand the historical implications of our speech, and to allow for the meaning and definition of fraught [sounds like] terms to develop and change as a consequence of informed deliberation and debate.

It is profoundly difficult to create a definition of anti-Semitism that can be used for legislative purposes. The root of the current debates on anti-Semitism lies on the seemingly impracticable problem of how to critique Jewish collective power in a way that does not immediately resonate with a long history of anti-Semitism. Throughout the last thousand years of European history, Jews are regularly characterized as an incommensurate and exceptionist element who sought to undermine the established religious, political, or economical order. They’re accused of being killers of Christ and are seeking to repeat this offense with the murder of innocent Christian children. Such accusations at time led to blood libels, pogroms, forced conversions, and exile.

In the more recent centuries Jews were characterized simultaneously as usurpers of national identities, as disloyal citizens, capitalist schemers, and revolutionary subversives. Such allegations led to discriminatory legislations, riots, expulsions, and physical violence. In the early 20th century Jews were branded as a biological and racial threat, and entire armies rose up to exterminate them. In each of these moments Jews were imagined as a united group that possessed power and authority far beyond their actual numbers.

Yet in 1948, with the founding of Israel as a solution to anti-Semitism, the situation changed dramatically. For the first time, a significant number of Jews identifying as a national group gained actual and not imaginary power. Today the state of Israel has borders, police, courts, military, a nuclear arsenal, political parties, and a marginally democratic system at least for its Jewish citizens. Like all other states, its actions are and must permit it to be a matter of public debate and discourse both within the Jewish community and outside of it.

Yet speech that’s critical of Israel strikes many still as inherently anti-Semitic. The problem in part is that we’re still learning how to talk about Israel’s actual power and repeated claims to represent Jews all over the world in ways that do not immediately echo much older and anti-Semitic depictions of imaginary Jewish power. This is in part because of the long history of anti-Jewish hatred in the West. But it is also because, as we see in legislative initiatives, such as the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in a move to stop BDS, to characterize any speech that’s critical of Israel as intrinsically anti-Semitic has been a highly effective tool employed by those who uncritically support every action of Israel and seek to stigmatize its critics.

Considering the multiple and constantly shifting forms of anti-Semitism that have emerged since the term anti-Semitism first appeared in Germany at the end of the 19th century, it’s wrong for Congress to establish legal authority on the definition of anti-Semitism that’s so contested. To insist that Israel cannot be protested or objected to, to mandate that Jewish collective power cannot be analyzed or debated, or to conclude that Jews because they were once victims of one of humanity’s greatest genocidal crimes are somehow immune from becoming perpetrators of acts of violence against other people would only reinforce the anti-Semitic belief that Jews are fundamentally different people.

Moreover and perhaps most dangerously of all, attempts to broaden the definition of anti-Semitism to encompass phenomena that are clearly not anti-Semitic can only make it more difficult to recognize, isolate, and oppose actual anti-Semitic hatred when it does appear. Although it appears that the legislation in Congress has stalled, it may be that its advocates will still get their way.

Last month Congress affirmed the appointment of Kenneth Marcus, an Israel Lawfare strategist - the group that has been targeting Rabab - as head of the Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights. Over the objection of Democrats and civil rights organizations and attorneys, Marcus will now be in a position to implement the State Department’s definition and continue his decades’ long effort to suppress academic speech and campus activism that’s critical of Israel.

To conclude, in the invitation letter we were asked to offer some signs of hope in these difficult times. It’s true, we were. So the first piece I want to say is that during the break I checked my phone and I saw the news that Bibi Netanyahu was just questioned today for five hours by the police. So I take that as a good sign, you know. On the eve of the AIPAC conference, that seems to be a good thing. And, you know, Shabbat shalom for that.

But I think if we’re serious about defeating actual anti-Semitism, we also have to commit ourselves to ending the occupation of Palestine. These are intertwined issues. These are intertwined struggles. We have to recognize that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist in a vacuum and to stop thinking of it in these exceptionalist ways. Instead we need to see the history of anti-Semitism as part of the modern world’s legacy of racial discrimination and persecution. The present moment is no exception. Instead of perpetuating a narrative of Jewish exceptionalism by declaring that somehow the only country we cannot criticize on college campuses is Israel, we might instead draw from earlier periods of American history when Jews linked their faith to that of other oppressed people.

Just as Italian and Jewish workers organized together to form labor unions, as Jewish philanthropists and community leaders contributed to the founding of NAACP, as Jewish college students participated in voter recruitment drives and desegregation campaigns with African Americans in the South, and religious figures helped foster post World War II Jewish Christian dialogues in the name of mutual understanding, Jewish Americans have an opportunity to forge alliances in the name of combating hatred and intolerance.

It was a coalition of Palestinian rights organizations, both Arab and Jewish, that came together to stop the advancement of the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act in the House. The very next day, on November 8th, a petition with over 20,000 signatures was delivered to the Anti-Defamation League by Jewish Voice for Peace demanding that the ADL stop facilitating police trainings between Israeli and American law enforcement officials. That same day Lawfare’s suit against Rabab was thrown out by a judge who recognized the weakness of their complaint. So there are reasons to hope. We will keep fighting and continue working side by side with one another to create bonds of solidarity. Thank you.

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