Being silenced or harassed for unpopular speech on a university campus is by now such a mark of distinction that I may be accused of exercising bragging rights in describing a recent incident in which I was involved. The real danger I encountered, however, was different from the one against which I had been warned. Read on.
In January 2019, I received an invitation from Roger Berkowitz, founding director of Bard’s Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities, to speak at its annual conference. The topic: “Racism and Anti-Semitism.” In adopting the name of the German-Jewish philosopher it describes as “the most taught and arguably most influential political thinker of the 20th century,” the Center emphasized Arendt’s insistence on the need for public debate on controversial matters. She had theorized about anti-Semitism as a form of racism, and because I was among those who found this formulation unhelpful, the conveners thought I might provide some valuable critical engagement. For my part, I was readying a second edition of my book on anti-Semitism, Jews and Power, so writing a talk for the conference was a way of getting back into a subject that had become much more pressing since I first published the book 13 years ago. I accepted the invitation and spent many hours preparing the talk.
All the advance arrangements for the conference were handled graciously, and the courtesies accorded me from the moment I arrived at the Bard campus in New York’s Dutchess County went beyond the usual. Though I am by now among the oldest in any academic gathering, the solicitude of my greeters actually made me wonder whether I appeared much more fragile than I felt. Unusually, several members of the administration showed up for my talk. With the dean, a former fellow professor of literature, I conversed about the 19th-century British novel the way academics used to do when I began teaching in the late 1960s.
Despite the pleasantness of our colloquy, I assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that she was there to monitor the proceedings. The previous evening, an email had arrived telling me that though students would be protesting the session, “the vast majority” of those attending the conference would want to hear me, and a “campus policy” had been designed to guarantee that they could:
1. If students protest silently, we simply go on. We allow free speech on all sides. So if they put up a poster or stand in protest, we carry on. I know this can be uncomfortable, but our policy is that as long as the protest does not interfere with the free speech of the speaker, we allow it. 2. If students seek to prevent the talk by chanting or yelling or speaking, we let them speak for a few minutes and then say that we appreciate their right to speak but we’d like to let the speakers speak. 3. If they refuse to allow the talk, we ask the audience what they would prefer, to hear the speaker or the disruption. 4. If none of that works we will have security remove those who are disrupting the talk from the auditorium. The College will not let a few students shut down this conference or your talk. Rest assured, the talk will go on.
The policy seemed to me ridiculous. I mused to the dean that if I ran a school of higher learning, I would include with letters of acceptance a warning to incoming students to consider whether they were ready for college. Unless they could confront material they considered offensive, they should defer for a year or until they matured. In the meantime, however, I intended to present my remarks.
Two panelists had been assigned to my talk, both of whom were also participating elsewhere at the conference—Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of the Forward, and Shany Mor, a political philosopher and research fellow at the Center. They, too, had received the email alerting us to the anticipated protest and, having arrived before me, had been discussing how to deal with it. Batya, who was to chair my session, had tried to forestall the protesters earlier that day by asking them to desist, in return for which she said she would call on them first in the question period. Shany and I objected on the grounds that one does not negotiate with thugs who protest the free exchange of ideas. Shany told us that two years earlier, as he was about to speak to a small seminar on some aspect of political philosophy, a posse of students—perhaps some of the same ones gathering now—swarmed around him, one shoving a phone in his face to record his discomfort. He had refused to proceed then, and he felt angry and apprehensive now.
Ours was the last session on the opening day of the two-day conference. The auditorium was about half full as Batya introduced me and my talk, “Who Needs Anti-Semitism?” I assumed the protest had been abandoned, but a couple of sentences into my remarks, a phalanx of students carrying placards marched into the hall and lined up in one of the aisles and in front of the stage, facing the audience. They positioned themselves between the audience and me, but they did not yet shout, like infants testing parental limits who had apparently studied campus policy and disrupted only to the point of anticipated removal.
I found their intrusion intolerably rude and scolded their backs, “You ought to be ashamed!” and then a little more imaginatively began to sing, “They shall be, they shall be removed / just like a log that’s floating down the water / They shall be removed!” I assumed they would be removed, since this was by far the most provocative of the several campus protests I had ever witnessed and we had been assured that no disruptions would be allowed. Instead, the dean came on stage and, taking me gently back to the podium, asked whether I could go on with the talk. I assured her I could do just about anything, but what about the audience? Could they listen with interrupters doing everything possible to distract them? There was polite applause inviting me to proceed.
The video of the event shows only those of us on the stage, not the demonstrators in front of it. During most of the talk, the disrupters only muttered and telegraphed their impatience until, either bored or afraid I was being listened to, one of them began shouting. Only at this point were they escorted out, having clearly accomplished their purpose. Shany called it “a way of poisoning a discussion and marking speakers as objects of hatred.” Batya said they had appropriately attended a talk that was really about them.
So it proved to be. The point of departure in my talk was an opinion piece from the New York Times by Henry Louis Gates Jr. that had been published in 1992. Entitled “Black Demagogues and Pseudo-Scholars,” Gates’s article warned that while anti-Semitism in America was generally on the wane, it was on the rise among black Americans, with blacks twice as likely as whites to hold anti-Semitic views. Gates cited research showing that anti-Semitism was most pronounced “among the younger and more educated blacks,” and as he was then writing as the newly appointed chairman of Harvard’s Department of Afro-American Studies, he was understandably concerned.
When the piece first appeared, I had just accepted and was about to begin a tenured teaching position at Harvard. I was paying close attention to events on campus and knew that earlier that year, Harvard’s Black Student Association had hosted the black studies professor Leonard Jeffries, of City College. Jeffries had denounced Jews for running the slave trade and contrasted the “frigid” whites of the world with the sun-warmed blacks. Also speaking at Harvard, Conrad Muhammad, of the Nation of Islam, had blamed the Jews for “despoiling the environment and destroying the ozone layer.” Gates cited these and other “crackpot” theories being peddled in black academic circles about Jews descending from brutish Neanderthals, and the reemergence of the 19th-century Protocols of the Elders of Zion that portrayed Jews plotting to take over the globe. “Make no mistake,” Gates had written, “this is anti-Semitism from the top down, engineered and promoted by leaders who affect to be speaking for a larger resentment.”
The article gave a crisp description of the power struggle within the black community between those in the tradition of Martin Luther King who wanted to normalize black politics by making common cause with fellow Americans and the leaders who were using Jew-blame to gain adherents and resorting to classic anti-Jewish tactics for a “barricaded withdrawal into racial authenticity.”
The strategy of these demagogues Gates called ethnic isolationism—“they know that the more isolated black America becomes, the greater their power. And what’s the most efficient way to begin to sever black America from its allies? Bash the Jews.”
American Jews, he wrote, could not understand how their political commitment to the civil-rights struggle and the historic black-Jewish alliance could have led to this situation. The brutal truth was that the new anti-Semitism arose not in spite of the black-Jewish alliance but because of it. Transracial cooperation—epitomized by the historic partnership between blacks and Jews—posed the greatest threat to the isolationist movement. The Jews’ liberal drive for equal opportunity and an end to discrimination stood in the way of a politics of grievance that wants equal outcome, restitution, political power. The Jews were accused of wanting tolerance only so that they should be able to dominate.
What most impressed me about Gates’s analysis was his grasp of how anti-Semitism works. Avoiding common tropes about hatred and discrimination, he focused on its methodology and political appeal. I did the same in trying to explain how this movement had grown to become modernity’s most successful ideology, tracing its origins in late-19th-century Germany to an internal struggle like the one Gates describes between proponents of emancipation and those who feared the advent of liberal democracy.1 Finger-pointing at the Jews drew together large segments of the population by directing dissatisfaction toward an already suspect target and blaming a group whose removal would leave room for others. Similar strategies were adapted by political parties of the right and left across Europe, and then by anti-Zionist Arab and Muslim leaders in the Middle East who found that organizing politics against Jews in Israel proved even more effective than organizing against Jews in other people’s lands.
By now, these same strategies of grievance and blame have penetrated the United States to such a degree that Henry Louis Gates, a lovely man, would never again write anything like that opinion piece. The identity politics that he once deplored had turned respectable, and what he once feared might discredit his field of Afro-American Studies was now the guiding philosophy of those studies. If that included anti-Semitism, tant pis, say the French: tough luck. Advancing well beyond what Gates described, blaming Israel and its Jewish supporters has since taken over the university, the media, popular culture, and a large swath of the Democratic Party.
After the talk and questions, I was ready for a glass of wine at the promised reception. Several people had come on stage to speak with me, and as I tried to steer them out the auditorium to the reception, two friendly gentlemen came to escort me instead to the waiting car at the back door. I told them that the car had been ordered for a half hour later to give me some time to circulate with the other participants, but they assured me I would do better to leave with them. It took me a moment to understand, and I asked, “Do you mean that there are students waiting to provoke me?” Insisting I had no fear of their gauntlet, I tried heading out in that direction, but they became a little firmer and courteously—solicitously—led me between them out the back door into the waiting car. They had been charged with getting me safely away from any possible confrontation.
If the college hoped to avoid adverse publicity by protecting me from nastiness, it had focused on the wrong party. The conference was barely over when Batya Ungar-Sargon used her perch at the Forward to publish an account of her experience, headed “I Was Protested at Bard College for Being a Jew.”
It referred to our panel on anti-Semitism as the only one with “three Jews” on it to discuss the topic. “But we’re not even talking about Israel,” she had said to the conference organizers. “How does that make sense?” Inviting the protesters to come the next day instead to her panel on racism and Zionism, she said, “Come protest my comments on Zionism. I’ll be talking about the occupation. Bring your signs.” She was trying to maintain the difference so important to liberals between opposing Israel (kosher, legitimate) and opposing Jews (treyf, illegitimate), but once she found herself lumped together with us on that panel, she realized the little storm troop had recognized no such distinction.
“Didn’t they understand that saying we were responsible for the behavior of the Israeli Jews just because we shared their ethnicity was racist?” she wrote. “That making every conversation with Jews about Israel is racist?” Exactly so: One of the students explained that the conversation about anti-Semitism “was already inherently about Israel” and therefore logically racist as well. This was for Batya a bridge too far. Joining her fellow “Jews,” she then scolded other participants at the conference for applauding the students rather than supporting the speaker.
I left the conference early—earlier than I had intended—so my impression of what followed is based on Batya’s account and the ensuing back-and-forth in the press. She left the dinner that evening and quit the conference the following day, “shocked” that some of the faculty and conference speakers encouraged this display of racism against Jews (one even argued that the discussion hadn’t gone far enough and that Palestinians should have been invited to speak on anti-Semitism). Although members of the administration tendered apologies for what was judged after all to be a disruption, Batya and Shany were both dismayed that none of the others had defended me. “I’m horrified by your cowardice, by your self-justifications,” she had said to the audience before leaving. “You, who I called luminaries! Whose books I’ve read!”
Did she appreciate the irony of her complaint? When I was told that she had been invited to chair my talk, I had assumed the conveners hoped that Batya’s prominent leftism and her newspaper’s unceasing attacks on Israel would serve to offset my reputed “conservative” Zionism. Her (now online) paper, the Forward, often opens its pages to those who level the Zionist-racist charge against Israel and its Jewish supporters, pretending that the war against Israel was not directed at Jews. Her awakened consciousness under fire was therefore surprising, perhaps even to her.
But I have Batya Ungar-Sargon to thank, for it was only from her article that I learned the protesters were the Bard chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and that they were protesting against me. I never saw the flyers they circulated, and their signs carrying allegations against me at my session were facing the audience, so I was unable to read them; nor did anyone else make me aware that I was their target. (To this day, I have not been able to obtain a copy of their pamphlet.) I was insulated as carefully as a Zika patient.
That changed once a debate over the events opened in the Jewish press. Apologists for the protesters denounced my “history of bigoted remarks toward Palestinians and Muslims” and my “horrifyingly racist anti-Palestinian, Islamophobic as well as anti-black views,” omitting only the wells I had poisoned and the blood I had drawn from murdered Arab children. Nonetheless, though the aggression against me was ugly and the cosseting tender, once I learned what had happened, it was depressingly clear to me that I had more to fear from my protectors than my attackers.
Case in point: In a response to Batya’s article, political studies professor Samantha Hill reported that while attending services on the Bard campus on Yom Kippur, the day before the conference, she had been told by students that they were planning to oppose my presence. They were all Jewish, some of them members of SJP. One of the students pulled out her computer and read a statement attributed to me on Wikipedia: “Palestinian Arabs [are] people who bleed and breed and advertise their misery.” Hill wrote:
I told them that personally and politically, I did not agree with everything Wisse had said, but she had a right to speak. I made my case as the assistant director of the Arendt Center. I said professor Wisse is 83. She’s a survivor. She has dedicated her life to the Yiddish language. It is not responsible to protest her. I told them this is a panel about anti-Semitism and the protest will be seen as anti-Semitic.
The students proceeded with their mostly nonverbal protest and were removed when they verbally interrupted Professor Wisse’s talk…
Where to begin? First of all, I am a survivor of Harvard, not the Nazis, and neither my age, my experience, nor my lifetime in Jewish Studies was relevant to what the students were thinking or planning. If any student in my orbit had ever offered an opinion on the basis of an excerpted “gotcha!” quotation on a Wikipedia page—on a computer on Yom Kippur no less—I would have asked for an essay several thousand words in length based on its source for the purpose of demonstrating why no such reference is ever to be trusted. I dismiss as a Googling ignoramus anyone who cites that misrepresentation of what I had written, but students don’t need facts or arguments when they have institutions to coddle them.
“It is our job as professors to teach students how to think, not what to think.” “Rather than building walls, we are proud to create an open forum where people with different opinions can come together to stop and think.” These are some of the conclusions that the kindly Professor Hill draws from the Bard incident, perhaps intending to extend even greater protection to “protesters” than the college already has in place. Had she shown more faith in their ability to think, she might have set up a meeting between me and the protesters, insisting that so-called students have the courage to face me with their arguments. Showing me their backsides merely proved what they are substituting for brains.
The indulgence of this anti-intellectualism was the first of Bard’s mistakes. Honest students and teachers will always find their way to one another, but colleges that replace the teachings of our civilization with academic tasting stations are no longer engaged in higher education. Moreover, the students were almost certainly steered to SJP and sicced on me by faculty ideologues who look for converts rather than truth. They and the parrots they train fear no demotion for their ignorance or censure for their boorishness, knowing they will never be required to learn anything about the subject. “Openness” is an excuse for moral and intellectual indifference that replaced the cultivation of good citizenship.
The conveners deserve credit for addressing anti-Semitism in the current academic climate, but the disrupters, in their way, inadvertently exposed problems with the conference that might otherwise have gone unnoticed. The program notes quoted Hannah Arendt’s idea that “political anti-Semitism is more than ‘Jew-hatred’; rather, it is a pseudoscientific ideology seeking to prove that Jews are responsible for all the evils of the world.” Arendt called anti-Semitism a form of racism, and anti-black racism an ideology like anti-Semitism. But the Zionism-is-racism Resolution, passed at the United Nations a month before Arendt’s death in 1975, had turned her equation upside down. It accused Jews of the racism to which they were themselves subject. In leading the U.S. effort to prevent this inversion, New York Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan called the Resolution’s passing “a day of infamy,” deliberately echoing the phrase President Roosevelt had used for the attack on Pearl Harbor. It took American diplomats 16 years before they could muster the votes to repeal it. But this righted wrong had so little effect that Bard students felt free to tout Zionism=Racism signs.
Linking racism and anti-Semitism in the conference title made it impossible to address the way the claim of “racism” was being weaponized by Arab-Muslim groups and the post-Soviet left to promote anti-Jewish aggression. To subsume anti-Jewish politics under another category such as racism was to prevent action against it. The conference made no attempt to identify, much less investigate, the ideological warfare that Arab propagandists, Islamists, Middle East scholars, radical leftists, intersectionality activists, and other aggressors were waging against Israel and the Western democracies for which it is a stand-in. In fact, if the conveners thought they might get away with treating anti-Semitism in today’s college climate by combining it with racism, the grievance groups had seen right through the ruse and organized their protest against the only session devoted to exposing them.
Unlike racial prejudice, which is straightforward, anti-Semitism works through inversion: It holds Jews responsible for the aggression against them. Among the general framing questions of the conference—which included “What is racism?” “Is anti-Semitism a form of racism?” and “Is equality possible in a world where prejudice exists?”—there was only one with built-in bias: “Is it anti-Semitism to criticize the state of Israel?” The question is fraudulent because Israel is not being “criticized” but blamed for the Arab-engineered plight of the Palestinians. Arab countries covering more land than the United States deny Jews their single homeland and blame Jews for denying Arabs theirs. Anti-Semitism is about its owners, not its foils. The conference ought to have asked whether Arab and Muslim leaders could ever accept the principle of coexistence.
That others repeat some of the same mistaken language of the conference merely proves that bad ideas drive out the good—to the very depths of evil. The war against the Jewish state is not a generic cause like climate change, or women’s right to abortion, or part of a general attempt to impose political correctness on matters of gender, race, and class. It is a genocidal assault against a particular people. Blaming Israel for Arab plight is an article of theological and political faith to much of the Arab and Muslim world. Rather than educate to reform and ameliorate that misdirected political charge, universities have welcomed it as just another point of view. Schools that forbid other forms of hatred and pass speech codes monitoring slights to all other minorities are only too happy to allow all those other repressed forms of antagonism to emerge in this acceptable form. They know that unlike other threatening groups, Jews—and Jewish professors—are more likely to join their accusers. Who needs anti-Semitism? The grievance brigades and their liberal college protectors.
As for the revelation that most of Bard’s SJP are themselves Jewish, there has always been a correlation between the level of anti-Jewish hostility and the number of Jews who defect or join their antagonists. Whereas many groups typically threaten others, Jews under attack often turn against their own. Anti-Semitism in Europe generated thousands of converts to Christianity and an even larger number of socialists and Communists, some of whom used their claims of political supersession to attack their fellow Jews. The growth of anti-Zionist Jews in America and of Jews who ascribe to anti-Jewish causes is the most reliable measure of how successfully the war against the Jews is currently being waged. In a grotesque cycle of causality, Jewish habits of accommodation inspire the anti-Jewish politics that then destroy Jewish moral self-confidence. Jewish apologists in Eastern Europe were called mayofes yidn for the song their Polish overlords made them perform for their amusement; today’s mayofes choirs sing out on every major American campus.
I am grateful for the protection given and the courtesy shown by members of the Bard faculty and administration, but it is intolerable that my security should come at the expense of the infinitely more endangered people of Israel. And not only Israel. No one can say “we did not know” what anti-Israel forces intend because anyone with access to a computer or library can locate the platforms and sponsors of groups such as BDS National Committee, National Students for Justice in Palestine, Electronic Intifada, Palestine Right to Return Coalition, and their ties with neo-Nazi movements in Germany, all of which aim to take down Israel and the civilization it represents. We know the attraction, especially to academics and would-be intellectuals, of inversions like “Zionism-racism” and the harm they intend. Free speech comes with the responsibility to crush the criminality that spreads under its protection.
1 See my article “The 20th Century’s Most Successful Ideology,” in the February 1991 issue of Commentary.