It may not be obvious, but there is a connection between the current controversy surrounding three Rutgers University professors, and the 30th anniversary of Freedom Sunday, the massive rally in Washington, D.C., in support of the right of Soviet Jews to emigrate and practice their religion.
Some 250,000 people attended the rally for Soviet Jewry on Dec. 6, 1987. Most were Jewish, but there were also a substantial number of non-Jewish allies in the crowd. Speakers included the late Rev. Dr. Arie Brouwer, general secretary of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the USA (NCCC); the late Cardinal William Keeler, a member of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops; and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), a civil rights icon.
The plight of Soviet Jews — especially the “Refuseniks,” who were denied exit visas and persecuted just for asking to leave their country of birth — had become a humanitarian cause, a moral concern, embraced by a cross-section of the American political establishment and civil society. When the Jews advocated for our Soviet brethren we were surrounded by allies of all political and religious stripes.
Today we are dealing with three questionable professors at our state’s leading public university — two, Michael Chikindas and Jasbir Puar, stand accused of expressing anti-Semitic viewpoints and another, Mazen Adi, was a prominent member of a government that engaged in ethnic cleansing and other war crimes.
Mainstream Jewish organizations, such as the American Jewish Committee (AJC), Rutgers Hillel, and the Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey, have denounced what they regard as Puar’s and Chikindas’ anti-Semitism, and raised questions about the appropriateness of hiring Adi. And they have looked for an appropriate response from
Instead, in a recent town hall meeting, Rutgers Pres. Robert Barchi stressed the professors’ freedom of speech — which wasn’t being questioned — rather than exercising his freedom of speech to repudiate the professors’ writings. Then, late last week, Barchi published a letter in Rutgers’ newspaper, The Daily Targum, citing reports that “a Rutgers professor had posted hateful and bigoted comments about the Jewish community on his Facebook page.” Without using Chikindas’ name, Barchi wrote that the professor’s page “contained a series of posts that I believe perpetuate reprehensible lies and stereotypes about Judaism that are as old and hateful as the protocols of the Elders of Zion.”
A step in the right direction? Sure, but why not name the professor in question? Barchi declined to name Puar or even reference her abhorrent writings. (Her newest book, “The Right to Maim: Debility, Capacity, Disability” [Duke University Press, 2017], accuses Israel of mining organs from deceased Palestinians.)
In the same letter, Barchi did not hesitate to condemn Pres. Donald Trump for retweeting a series of anti-Muslim videos. (I recognize that the controversy surrounding Adi poses a whole other set of issues, and his absence of from a letter condemning anti-Semitism is understandable.)
Just as we were surrounded by allies in the fight for Soviet Jewry, we would be similarly bolstered by allies in our battle against anti-Semitism. Such support comes easier when the anti-Semitism is of the classic variety — e.g., blood libel, use of crude stereotypes, painted swastikas, and attacks against Jews and Jewish institutions. Chikindas’ posts on his Facebook page check all the appropriate boxes, including cartoons of hook-nosed Jews and conspiracy theories like the ridiculous claim that Jews were responsible for the Armenian genocide. To wit, the Alliance to Advance Interfaith Collaboration at Rutgers, consisting of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish clergy, issued a statement condemning Chikindas’ multiple Facebook posts.
But when it comes to Israel as a target of anti-Semitism, the task of recruiting allies is significantly more challenging. I acknowledge that there is a fine line between harsh (even unjustified) criticism of Israeli policies and attacks on Israel that rise to the level of anti-Semitism. It’s not easy for Jews to define, either, and we often argue about it among ourselves. And it’s even more difficult for our non-Jewish friends to gauge.
That said, this should not deter us from making the effort to clarify the distinction between criticism and rhetoric that delegitimizes Israel. The University of California Board of Regents wrestled with this issue in 2016, and unanimously adopted a policy statement which included the following excerpt: “[o]pposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture. Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.” Maybe Rutgers should undertake a similar process.
The New School in New York City didn’t help clarify the line between criticism of Israel and delegitimization when it sponsored last week’s discussion on anti-Semitism with Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), an organization outside the Jewish mainstream, one that does not support the fundamental right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state.
The current nature of American society serves as an additional barrier to securing the kind of allies we had during the Soviet Jewry days.
“Sadly, we live in a day and age where the idea of common good is diminished” said Keith Krivitzky, CEO of The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey. “It’s all about my group’s wants or rights or interests. And while I’m a big fan of particularisms, there is a danger to advocating too much for yourself.”
On the other hand, anti-Israel groups like JVP and Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) don’t seem to have difficulty forming alliances with progressive groups. The glue holding these coalitions together is the concept of intersectionality — a shared experience of discrimination and oppression. Most of the groups sought out by JVP and SJP tend to be on the far left; historically, the Jewish community’s sweet spot for building alliances has been on the political center and moderate left. That remains the case today, though there are signs of erosion in those alliances.
Going back to Freedom Sunday’s anniversary, I am acutely aware that dealing with the Israel/Palestinian issue is far more complex than defending a persecuted Jewish minority against the “evil empire” (Pres. Reagan’s term) of the Soviet Union.
Robert Lichtman, chief Jewish learning officer at the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ and former staffer at the Greater New York Conference on Soviet Jewry, agreed that in some ways the Soviet Jewry cause and the controversy at Rutgers are analogous. He said it’s troubling that today’s outcry has largely been limited to Jewish groups.
“If the only one crying that the sky is falling is the one upon whom the sky is falling, there is a problem,” Lichtman said. “Any observer with an eye to see and a heart to feel should be moved to act. …. That seems to be missing as Jewish students are bearing the brunt of campus activism in the face of hatred.”
As Martin Luther King Jr. said, “When people criticize Zionists they mean Jews, you are talking anti-Semitism.” The challenge is to get our non-Jewish friends to understand this, so they will stand with us the way they did 30 years ago.