Anti-Semitism or legitimate criticism?
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, former president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, thinks it’s time to throw out the old measures of anti-Semitism, especially when it comes to discussions about Israel on college campuses.
The problem on campuses today is that there is no consensus on what Ehrenkrantz calls the core question: “whether criticism of Israel equals anti-Semitism.”
That’s because in the past, three types of anti-Semitism could be easily identified, labelled, and measured: demonization, double standard, and delegitimization. “If you crossed the line into one of these three Ds, you crossed into something that is anti-Semitism,” he said.
But, he said, “we are in a new era,” in which even Jews can’t agree when a critic of Israel crosses a line, and those critics say the loose application of the term “anti-Semitism” is being used to curtail free speech.
Ehrenkrantz comes to his knowledge of the issue through his experience at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, where he served as interim Hillel director from January to June 2015.
He will share his thoughts on the issue at Bnai Keshet in Montclair, where he served as rabbi from 1988 to 2002, on Saturday, Nov. 14, during Shabbat morning services.
“Although it varies from campus to campus, it is difficult to be involved in Jewish life on campus without confronting this issue,” he told NJJN.
As to what constitutes fair criticism of Israel, Jews themselves do not agree on the answer, he said. Asked where he thinks the line is, he responded, “Where I think the line is crossed is not that important. If I can’t convince a neutral observer, say an academic administrator, how will it help the situation if I jump up and down and yell anti-Semitism?”
There are some easy cases, he said, like those that pick up on the old tropes of demonization, or that suggest Jews do not have a right to self-determination.
But most cases are not so clear cut, even among Jewish observers.
“Expressions of anti-Semitism can come through criticism of Israel, and we would be naive to think there’s no such thing as anti-Semitism today. Does that mean if we see any form of criticism of Israel in any fashion, we have anti-Semitism?” he asked. “There are people who think the line is constantly being crossed…, while others say they do not see anti-Semitism.
“And from the other side, people believe their criticism of Israel comes from legitimate, thoughtful sources. They say, ‘Why, when I am using sources and arguments I find reasonable, am I getting tarred with the brush of anti-Semitism?’”
He added, “If we in the Jewish community cannot come to a consensus, it’s difficult to expect those outside will agree with measures we’ve articulated but cannot agree on.”
The conflict is a result, from his perspective, of trying to use outdated measures for today’s issues. “We haven’t developed the measures for what I will call the new anti-Semitism,” he said.
A good place to start is a new definition for anti-Semitism developed in 2005 by the U.S. State Department with the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (now the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights), Ehrenkrantz said. That definition includes: denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor; applying double standards; using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis; comparing contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis; and holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the State of Israel.
(The definition also includes the statement that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.”)
The definition, which was composed with input from B’nai B’rith International and the American Jewish Committee, is also endorsed by other American-Jewish groups and is used in reports by the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Ehrenkrantz would like to see this definition developed and articulated further.
In the meantime, however this issue plays out on various campuses, Ehrenkrantz views the controversy as an opportunity. “If a student cares about Israel, whether on the Left, the Right, or in the middle, this presents an opportunity to exercise leadership and grow into adulthood and take responsibility for their campus community.” He added, “Students will make mistakes, but we learn from mistakes.”
He urged outside Jewish organizations to provide resources and then step out of the way and allow students to develop their own responses. “Any organization that forces a particular response because it knows that response is correct does not respect the students,” he said.
Coverage of youth and higher education made possible by a gift to the Friends of NJJN Fund from the Florin Family Foundation.