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Anti-Semitism expert offers best practices for combatting hate
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Anti-Semitism expert offers best practices for combatting hate

Bard Center’s Kenneth Stern suggests retooling social media as a weapon for positive change (Part 2)

Martin J. Raffel
Martin J. Raffel

In Part I (“Defining anti-Semitism,” May 28), I asked Kenneth Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate (BCSH) at Bard College in New York, a series of questions exploring the definition of anti-Semitism and assessing the most dangerous threats to the security of American Jewry. Here, I ask what can be done to meet the challenge of growing anti-Semitism. 

Martin Raffel: What should our public affairs organizations be doing in this environment of heightened anti-Semitism, both with respect to advocating to government officials and working with educators and civic groups?

Kenneth Stern: A lot of what the Jewish organizations do, they should continue — working with government, other NGOs, presenting their opinions in public forums, and so forth. But there is a more urgent step that they are not taking, which requires some courage and introspection. Many times, responses to anti-Semitism are generated by (an understandable) anger, and institutional fund-raising needs. But how many organizations seek out academics from the disciplines associated with the growing field of hate studies to ground their work in testable theories? How do we know if something we are doing is likely to reduce anti-Semitic attitudes or behavior? If anti-Semitism, as I suggest, is a conspiracy theory about Jews that provides an explanation for what’s wrong in the world, what works to reduce that?

Take the campus, for instance. A challenge around Israel is that some in the pro-Palestinian camp refuse to engage with anyone supporting Israel’s right to exist, because that would be “normalizing” the conflict in their view, like having a nice conversation with a Nazi. That helps create an us-vs.-them binary in which anti-Semitism will grow.

But what’s Hillel International’s response? As much as I understand the reluctance of Hillel’s funders to support programs that are critical of Israel, aren’t the guidelines that prohibit co-sponsoring events with groups like former IDF soldiers critical of the occupation [such as Breaking the Silence] self-defeating? That policy only feeds the binary. There’s a Stanford study that suggests Jewish students on some campuses feel as if they are being asked to join the pro-Israel camp or the pro-Palestinian camp, and increasingly saying if that’s the choice, I’m going to avoid campus Jewish life all together.

MR: What can individuals do to make a difference?

KS: First, think. Too often when we are angered or fearful about anti-Semitism expressed or acted upon, we want to stand strong and support our “team.” But what feels good doesn’t necessarily do good. We become self-righteous and moralistic — that’s just human, but it is also blinding. So, whether we belong to a JCC or a synagogue or support one Jewish organization or another, we should first recognize our instinct to demonize those who we define as a “them.” For instance, I suggested to one pro-Israel academic organization that it invite an academic leader supporting BDS to speak. Most of us would disagree with much of what that person had to say. But this would provide an opportunity to hear about the BDS position firsthand, rather than making it into a simplistic cartoon. Our ability to understand the nuances, to consider whether there might be points of agreement, and to respond effectively would be enhanced.

People should also speak out when anti-Semitism is explained away or discounted because of someone’s position on Israel. This happens on the left — imagine the different reactions if some of the tropes about Israel from some progressives had been uttered by a right-wing person (for those who are old enough to remember, imagine Pat Buchanan). And it happens on the right — the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) feted Steve Bannon because he’s an Israel supporter, ignoring his role empowering the alt-right. We should never turn a blind eye to anti-Semitism, especially when engaged in, or empowered by, people who share our politics.

Finally, in a world in which anti-Semitism’s growth is inextricably linked to the increase of “us/them” thinking, we need to speak out when any human being or group of human beings is being demonized or dehumanized as a “threat.” The classic observation that “it starts with the Jews, but doesn’t end with the Jews,” works the other way around too — just think of [Tree of Life synagogue shooter Robert] Bowers, his seeming obsession with “invaders” at the southern border, and his terroristic attack on the Pittsburgh synagogue. If we allow demonization of immigrants, Muslims, or anyone else, we fail as people with a moral compass and empower all hatreds, including anti-Semitism.

MR: There’s so much hate and extremism online, especially on social media platforms. How do we balance free speech with the right of the public to be protected from the dangerous impact of this phenomenon?

KS: That’s a difficult question, especially because the internet and social media are also tools for combating hate and anti-Semitism. The various social media outlets are private companies and set their terms of service. So they can, and should, define what’s appropriate for their platforms. But that’s not going to stop haters from using this new tool — they’ll simply find another service. And let’s not forget that it isn’t the internet that’s the problem, any more than it was the printing press or the radio or television or telephone answering machines (remember hate hotlines?). It’s the ideas.

These are also difficult questions for these companies. After the horrid events of recent months, when terroristic and other violent acts were livestreamed, social media companies are now taking steps to prohibit some violent material. But there’s a downside. One of the Bard students in our summer internship program is working with an NGO in Berlin that uses violent material posted on social media to catalogue evidence of war crimes in Syria. What if that evidence never appears? Further, I was able to warn about a likely attack on government by militia folk days before the Oklahoma City bombing in a detailed report for the American Jewish Committee. That the warning wasn’t heeded by government officials, of course, was lamentable. But the information contained therein helped members of Congress, the media, and law enforcement in the bombing’s aftermath.  While these militias use the Internet to organize and spread hate, their posts also provide a useful window into their ideas, fears, and worldview.

Some people want government to get involved to censor hateful expression, but that’s a huge mistake. Under the First Amendment certain things — harassment, incitement to imminent violence, threats to the president, defamation — can be proscribed, but hateful opinions cannot. History — including the history of anti-Semitism — shows that when a government can suppress opinions, it will suppress opinions it doesn’t like, not the opinions you or I might not like.

That said, we must do better using social media to combat hate. Remember the neo-Nazis that threatened the Jewish community in western Montana two years ago, and who then promised a march through town, armed? The Montana Human Rights Network and I used social media to get people from around the world to pledge money tied to how long the march would last, with funds going to things the Nazis would detest, including hate crime training for police and anti-bias education. The Nazis had free speech, but it had a cost. They ended up not marching. Using social media this way also let people from around the world do something productive and made the Jews in Montana know they weren’t alone. We need to explore other models that have a similar impact.

Martin J. Raffel of Long Branch is former senior vice president at the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.


Related articles: Defining anti-semitism

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