Michael Chabon is a Pulitzer Prize–winning author of novels and short stories whose work is characterized by rich language and complex themes including memory, abandonment, fatherhood, and Jewish identity. Chabon set off a controversy when speaking on May 14, 2018, at a graduation ceremony in Los Angeles of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC), the Reform movement’s flagship seminary and training institution.
Chabon attacked Israel’s settlement policy and implicitly its conduct during Hamas’s “protest” along Israel’s border fence with Gaza, which occurred weeks before his address.
I abhor an enclave, too: a gated community, a restricted country club, or a clutch of 800 zealots lodged in illusory safety behind a wall made from the bodies of teenage soldiers, gazing out in scorn and lordly alarm at the surrounding 200,000 residents of the city of Hebron who are manifestly (for this is a fundamental purpose of all walls) Other, and therefore—so goes the logic of the deepest, oldest human evil—less truly human.
He expanded his attack into an argument against Jewish particularism and the boundaries that intramarriage fosters by urging the HUC graduates:
Seize every opportunity to strengthen and enrich our cultural genome by embracing the inevitable variation and change that result from increased diversity.
He emphasized his absolute abhorrence of in-marriage in describing his preferred option for whom his own four children should marry:
So now, today, at this retrograde and perilous moment in history, when ideologues are busily trying to string the world with eruvim of intolerance, were you to ask me if I hope my children marry-in, I would say, Yes. I want them to marry into the tribe that prizes learning, inquiry, skepticism, openness to new ideas. I want my children to marry into the tribe that enshrines equality before the law, and freedom of conscience, and human rights. I want them to marry into the tribe that sees nations and borders as antiquated canards and ethnicity as a construct prone, like all constructs, to endless reconfiguration.
Morin Zaray, a graduate student who attended the commencement ceremony, walked out to protest Chabon’s remarks. The following week, she published an op-ed in the Jewish Journal defending Israel from Chabon’s “black-and-white” attacks:
As I heard Chabon’s simplified takedown of my country, the room began to spin. I turned back to look at my brother, who served in a combat unit in the Israel Defense Forces. He looked sick to his stomach. I got up from my seat and approached my family. I wanted to stand up and scream, but my voice wouldn’t come out. I felt ashamed for being part of this gathering, ashamed that many in the audience were just nodding at this reductionist view of a multilayered and complicated country.
The text and video of Chabon’s address appeared online and inspired reactions from a diverse group of academics and rabbis, including Rabbis Yitzchak Blau and Elli Fischer and professors Steven M. Cohen, Sylvia Barack Fishman, and Jack Wertheimer. They criticized Chabon’s selective portrayal of Judaism while defending the moral complexity of Jewish ritual and Jewish thought. They carefully explained how Chabon’s vision of Judaism, like his vision of Israel’s policies, is “curiously binary, judgmental, and bogus,” in Fishman, Cohen, and Wertheimer’s words, in addition to simply getting a lot of details about Judaism wrong. One of these writers called for HUC to apologize for Chabon’s remarks.
HUC leaders Rabbi David Ellenson and Rabbi Joshua Holo have not apologized. Instead, in a Jewish Telegraphic Agency op-ed, they defended their institution’s invitation of Chabon in the name of vigorous democratic debate. They contextualized Chabon’s extremism as a form of “anger,” directed at particularly impenetrable and morally problematic Jewish barriers. They situated Chabon within a historical debate that began in the 19th century among the founders of the Reform movement about the nature of Jewish boundaries, putting Chabon on the “far universalist side of that debate.” Holo wrote:
He can imagine countenancing the erasure of Judaism through assimilation into the universal mingling of cultures—though he would also mourn its loss. “If Judaism should ever pass from the world, it won’t be the first time in history,” he said. “Nor will it be the first time that an ethnic minority has been absorbed, one exogamous marriage at a time, into the surrounding population.” In doing so, he echoed, perhaps without knowing it, one of the founders of Wissenschaft, Moritz Steinschneider. A fantastically learned scholar of Jewish texts and a pioneer historian, Steinschneider rejected religion and, by extension, Jewish survival as a particularistic enterprise.
In our view, even on a universal level, Chabon is wrong. The absence (and vilification) of identity is self-defeating. If you want to be a good universalist, you need to have a solid and particular identity. Judaism has done this throughout its history. Judaism has something to teach the world at a moment when so much political debate surrounds borders and the interface between particular and universal identities.
We are Orthodox rabbis. Yet we see our Conservative and Reform colleagues as allies in our efforts to preserve Jewish peoplehood. In defending our work as rabbis, we speak both to Chabon and to our Reform Jewish communal professional colleagues who heard his message at their graduation.
No matter what flavor of Jew we might be, we are all by necessity partial boundary makers. And, while he pretends to be the contrary, so too is Michael Chabon, and so was Philip Roth, and so is every craftsperson. A great writer draws boundaries between good ideas and bad ones, between good sentences and bad ones. Roth decried his critics’ failure to understand what writing was. For Roth, a writer was not a public-relations operative on behalf of an ethnic group, but someone who spoke to the human condition through characters based on the human beings that he knew best.
Judaism does not see itself as a universal religion, but rather as a particular faith. It does not aspire to convert all non-adherents. However, in accepting their otherness, it does not ignore them. The philosopher Hermann Cohen (1842–1918) explained the crucial role of the other in Judaism’s self-understanding thus:
The fact that a man is a stranger should in no way justify treatment other than that enjoyed by brethren in race. This law (Exodus 22:20), of shielding the alien from all wrong, is of vital significance in the history of religion. With it alone, true Religion begins. The alien was to be protected, not because he was a member of one’s family, clan, religious community or people, but because he was a human being. In the alien therefore, man discovered the idea of humanity.
Judaism has something to teach the world specifically in this regard. True religion helps people discover the humanity of those on the other side of its boundaries. In an age of resurgent ethno-nationalism and open displays of bigotry that shock the conscience, it can be easy to find refuge in Chabon’s facile diagnosis: All boundaries that distinguish between and among people are artificial and deleterious. Chabon suggests that Jewish in-marriage creates a “ghetto of two.”
An endogamous marriage is a ghetto of two; as the traditional Jewish wedding ritual makes explicit, it draws a circle around the married couple, inscribes them—and any eventual children who come along—within a figurative wall of tradition, custom, shared history, and a common inheritance of chromosomes and culture.
In truth, in-marriage is a battle against a much more restrictive ghetto—the “ghetto of one” that increasingly characterizes 21st-century life, with its associated selfishness, indulgence of narcissism, and concomitant loneliness.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently revealed that since 1999 suicide rates across most ethnic and age groups in the United States are up 25 percent. Loneliness, depression, and feelings of despair beset so many people in our atomized world. In our work as rabbis, we care for these ills. Marriage, family, community, and peoplehood (as well as proper medical care) are tools in helping people find meaning and purpose so that they may overcome what ails them. Religion provides the institutional and social structure for a life of meaning and purpose.
As rabbis who work with couples in preparation for their marriages and afterwards, we believe that Chabon fails to understand the true meaning of marriage.
Every marriage, no matter the religious identity of its parts, is a ghetto of two. Ghettos exclude. Marriages exclude. Each couple has its own special memories and its own secret language; this is a feature and not a bug of marriage. Marriages build the souls of those who are supported by loving lifelong companionship. Shared values make this more possible. Marriages are a metaphor for what community can achieve in freeing us from the prison of ourselves—the ghetto of one—in which selfishness and judgment destroy our ability to love and be loved.
Exclusion is central to marriage, but it is threatening to a free society. And we acknowledge that exclusionary visions are rife at every level of our society and government. All of us must stand vigilant in protecting our deepest held values—including respect for the stranger. Yet to cast aside all particularism in pursuit of some utopian one-world identity is to destroy the very foundation of love and social connectivity. It, too, promotes fear.
Chabon worries about how walls and distinctions exclude and distance:
Security is an invention of humanity’s jailers. Anywhere you look it is—and has always been—the hand of power drawing the boundaries, putting up separation barriers and propagandizing hatred and fear of the people on the other side. Security for some means imprisonment for all.
He fails to appreciate how such boundaries also include, provide support, and protect. We understand that walls create risks of racism and exclusion. Judaism addresses these ills, as well. The Book of Genesis speaks of all humanity being created in the image of God, even as the Book of Exodus speaks about those who are uniquely bound together by the covenant of Sinai.
We work to create Jewish communities with thick and positive Jewish identities. We must have content and meaning in Jewish life other than simple perpetuation. Like Chabon, we do not want a closed and “tribalist” Judaism. If the only Jewish value that is important is marrying someone Jewish, then that indeed ought to be questioned. In modern North America, Jewish continuity for its own sake, without any content, will not perpetuate itself—in this, Chabon is right.
In Israel, criticism can be (and is) legitimately directed at the inevitable failures of imperfect people to live up to a religious ideal. The words of prophets such as Isaiah and Jeremiah reflect the long tradition of social and political critique among our people. By all means, a writer like Chabon should explain how Israel must more carefully respond to the humanity of its neighbors, even if they are its enemies. Such a writer will be far more successful if he or she does not present wildly ungenerous interpretations of Israel’s motives. Such a writer should acknowledge the humanity and present fully-rounded characters in evoking the personages of those he or she criticizes. Sentences like “I have never seen a sorrier and more riotous group of convicts than the Jews of present-day Hebron” are both counterproductive and untrue. Such words are also walls. Chabon says that he wants to break down walls, but he has only replaced one set of walls with different walls.
As rabbis who critique our people’s shortcomings from our pulpits, we have this advice for Chabon: Acknowledge Israeli fears and vulnerability and not just Israeli power. Presume the good faith and good will of the Israeli people, even if you believe its policies may be wrong. People are far more likely to listen to you if you listen to them.
Chabon wrote a novel called The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. In the real world, we rabbis are the real Yiddish Policemen. It is our mission to look out for the spiritual safety of our people. With that in mind, we ask Michael Chabon, “Please step away from the ledge and please take your future grandchildren with you.” Judaism is not a game of messianic chess from which one may resign when unfulfilled; it is a life resource that contains wisdom that will make your children healthier and happier people in the here and now—not to mention granting them access to crucial material for their future novels. Don’t deprive your grandchildren. (We say this because, let’s face it, guilt is the only weapon we Yiddish Policemen actually carry.)
Finally, we must decry Chabon’s failure to understand the work of a rabbi or a Jewish communal professional. Pretending that he is Ronald Reagan speaking to Mikhail Gorbachev, Chabon charges a graduating class of Jewish communal professionals with the following:
Knock down the walls. Abolish the checkpoints.…
Allow us to explain the chutzpah in exhorting young leaders that their task should be to preside over the destruction of that thing to which they have committed their lives. The Talmud tells the following parable:
One time, the evil empire of Rome decreed that Jews may not engage in the study and practice of Torah. Pappos ben Yehuda came and found Rabbi Akiva, who was convening assemblies in public and engaging in Torah study. Pappos said to him: Akiva, are you not afraid of the empire? Rabbi Akiva answered him: I will relate a parable. To what can this be compared? It is like a fox walking along a riverbank when he sees fish gathering and fleeing from place to place.
The fox said to them: From what are you fleeing?
They said to him: We are fleeing from the nets that people cast upon us.
He said to them: Do you wish to come up onto dry land, and we will reside together just as my ancestors resided with your ancestors?
The fish said to him: You are the one of whom they say, he is the cleverest of animals? You are not clever; you are a fool. If we are afraid in the water, our natural habitat which gives us life, then in a habitat that causes our death, all the more so.
Chabon has assumed the role of that fox. He asks graduating students to abandon the particular environment that will sustain them in favor of an uncertain and possibly fraudulent future in which he acknowledges that Judaism (and all that it has to teach the world) might cease to exist. Aftselakhis—really?
What then is the task of a rabbi?
Allow us to tell another fish story (This one is from David Foster Wallace):
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
The job of a rabbi is not that of the older fish reminding everyone about the existence of water. Our job is to make sure that the water is there.
What is water?
The historian Paul Johnson wrote: “No people has ever insisted more firmly than the Jews that history has a purpose and humanity a destiny…. The Jews, therefore, stand right at the center of the perennial attempt to give human life the dignity of purpose.” This is what Rabbi Akiva was talking about. This is our water.
It is not just fish who need water. All animals (even foxes) need water to live. While we may be employed by our congregations, we rabbis serve our society (Jew and non-Jew), speaking to (and caring for) the human condition by preserving the (Divine) message and mission of the Jewish people through time. We build and maintain distinctions (and support the modern State of Israel) to achieve this goal.
To hold their form, liquids such as water require containers, i.e., boundaries. To break those containers isn’t simply “not good for the Jews.” It’s not good for humankind.
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Saving Judaism from Michael Chabon
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With the demise of the filibuster for judicial nominations, the Senate has become a more partisan body. Members of the opposition party no longer have to take difficult votes to confirm presidential nominees, and so they no longer have to moderate their rhetoric to avoid the appearance of hypocrisy. Many expected, therefore, that Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearings would tempt Democrats to engage in theatrics and hyperbole. Few, however, foresaw just how recklessly the Judiciary Committee’s Democratic members would behave.
The sordid performance to which Americans were privy was not the harmless kind that can be chalked up to presidential ambitions. Right from the start, Democratic committee members took a sledgehammer to the foundations of the institution in which they are privileged to serve.
Sen. Cory Booker made national headlines by declaring himself “Spartacus,” but the actions he undertook deserved closer attention than did the scenery he chewed. Booker insisted that it was his deliberate intention to violate longstanding Senate confidentiality rules supposedly in service to transparency. It turns out that the documents Booker tried to release to the public had already been exempted from confidentiality. Booker was adamant, though, that he had undermined the Senate’s integrity. You see, that, not transparency, was his true objective. It was what he believed his constituents wanted from him.
Booker wasn’t alone. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse appeared to share his colleague’s political instincts. “I want to make it absolutely clear that I do not accept the process,” he said of the committee’s vetting of Kavanaugh’s documents. “Because I do not accept its legitimacy or validity,” Whitehouse added, he did not have to abide by the rules and conventions that governed Senate conduct.
When the committee’s Democratic members were not trying to subvert the Senate’s credibility, they were attempting to impugn Judge Kavanaugh’s character via innuendo or outright fabrications.
Sen. Kamala Harris managed to secure a rare rebuke from the fact-checking institution PolitiFact, which is charitably inclined toward Democratic claims. “Kavanaugh chooses his words very carefully, and this is a dog whistle for going after birth control,” read her comments on Twitter accompanying an 11-second clip in which Kavanaugh characterized certain forms of birth control as “abortion-inducing drugs.” “Make no mistake,” Harris wrote, “this is about punishing women.” But the senator had failed to include mitigating context in that clip, which would have made it clear that Kavanaugh was simply restating the arguments made by the plaintiffs in the case in question.
Later, Harris probed Kavanaugh as to whether he believed the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which has never been explicitly ruled unconstitutional, was wrongly upheld by the Supreme Court. Despite calling the decisions of this period “discriminatory,” Kavanaugh declined to elaborate on a case that could theoretically come before the Supreme Court. This, the judge’s detractors insisted, was “alarming” and perhaps evidence of latent racial hostility. In fact, it was an unremarkable example of how Supreme Court nominees tend to avoid offering “forecasts” of how they will decide cases without having heard the arguments—a routine deemed “the Ginsburg Rule” after Ruth Bader, who perfected the practice.
Over a week later, Harris had still not explained what she was getting at. But she doesn’t have to. The vagueness of her claim was designed to allow Kavanaugh’s opponents’ imaginations to run wild, leading them to draw the worst possible conclusions about this likely Supreme Court justice and to conclude that the process by which he was confirmed was a sham.
Harris may not have been alone in appealing to this shameful tactic. On Thursday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein shocked observers when she released a cryptic statement revealing that she had “referred” to “federal investigative authorities” a letter involving Kavanaugh’s conduct. It’s human nature to arrive at the worst imaginable conclusion as to what these unstated claims might be, and that’s precisely what Kavanaugh’s opponents did. It turned out that the 35-year-old accusations involve an anonymous woman who was allegedly cornered in a bedroom by Kavanaugh and a friend during a high-school party. Kavanaugh, the letter alleged, put a hand over her mouth, but the woman removed herself from the situation before anything else occurred. All were minors at the time of this alleged episode, and Kavanaugh denies the allegations.
Some thought it was odd for Feinstein to refer these potentially serious allegations to the FBI this week and in such a public fashion when the allegations contained in a letter were known to Democrats for months. The letter was, after all, obtained by Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo in July. But it doesn’t seem confusing when considering the facts that the FBI all but dismissed the referral off-hand and reporting on the episode lacks any corroboration to substantiate the claims made by the alleged victim here. It is hard not to conclude that this is an attempt to affix an asterisk to Brett Kavanaugh’s name. Democrats will not only claim that this confirmation process was tainted but may now contend that Kavanaugh cannot be an impartial arbitrator—not with unresolved clouds of suspicion involving sexual assault hanging over his head.
Ultimately, as public polling suggests, the Democratic Party’s effort to tarnish Kavanaugh’s reputation through insinuation and theatrics has had the intended effect. Support for this nominee now falls squarely along party lines. But the collateral damage Senate Democrats have done to America’s governing institutions amid this scorched-earth campaign could have lasting and terrible consequences for the country.
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While the nation’s attention is focused on the Carolina coast, something very odd is happening across the country in Sunspot, New Mexico.
Sunspot is hardly a town at all–the nearest stores are 18 miles away. It’s actually a solar observatory 9,200 feet up in the Sacramento Mountains. It is open to the public and has a visitor’s center, but don’t visit it right now. On September 6th, the FBI moved in and evacuated all personnel using Black Hawk helicopters. Local police were told to stay away. The only explanation being given by the FBI is that an unresolved “security issue” is the cause of the evacuation.
The sun is the only astronomical body capable of doing major damage to planet earth without actually hitting us. A coronal mass ejection aimed at the earth could have a devastating impact on satellites, radio transmission, and the electrical grid, possibly causing massive power outages that could last for weeks, even months. (It would also produce spectacular auroras. During the Carrington Event of 1859, the northern lights were seen as far south as the Caribbean and people in New England could read newspapers by the light.)
So, there are very practical, not just intellectual reasons, to know what the sun is up to. But the National Solar Observatory right now is a ghost town, and no one will say why. Such a story should be catnip for journalists.
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It's not paranoia if they're really out to get you.
Americans awoke Thursday morning to a familiar noise: The president of the United States waxing conspiratorial and declaring himself the victim of a nefarious plot.
“3,000 people did not die in the two hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico,” Donald Trump declared on Twitter. He insisted that the loss of life in the immediate aftermath of 2017’s Hurricane Maria topped out in the low double-digits and ballooned into the thousands well after the fact because of faulty accounting. The president did not claim that this misleading figure was attributable to flaws in the studies conducted in the aftermath of last year’s disaster by institutions like George Washington University or the New England Journal of Medicine but to a deliberate misinformation campaign orchestrated by his political opponents. “This was done by the Democrats in order to make me look as bad as possible,” Trump insisted.
If, for some mysterious reason, Trump wanted to attack the validity of these studies, he might have questioned the assumptions and biases that even their authors admit had an unavoidable effect on their confidence intervals. But Trump’s interest is not in accuracy. His desire is to shield himself from blame and to project his administration’s failings—even those as debatable as the disaster that afflicted Puerto Rico for the better part of a year—onto others. The president’s self-consciousness is so transparent at this point that even his defenders in Congress have begun directly confronting the insecurities that fuel these tweets.
Donald Trump has rarely encountered a conspiracy theory he declined to legitimize, and this tendency did not abate when he won the presidency. From his repeated assertions that Moscow’s intervention in the 2016 election was a “hoax,” to the idea that the FBI shielded Hillary Clinton from due scrutiny, to the baseless notion that “millions and millions” of illegal-immigrant voters deprived him of a popular vote victory, all of this alleged sedition has a common theme: Trump is the injured party.
The oddest thing about all this is that these are the golden days. Trump-era Republicans will look back on this as the halcyon period in which all of Washington’s doors were open to them. The president’s ostensible allies control every chamber of government. The power his adversaries command is of the soft sort—cultural and moral authority—but not the kind of legal power that could prevent Trump and Republicans from realizing their agenda. That could be about to change.
The signs that a backlash to unified Republican rule in Washington was brewing have been obvious almost since the moment Trump took the oath of office. Democrats have consistently overperformed in special and off-year elections, their candidates have outraised the GOP, and a near-record number of Republicans opted to retire rather than face reelection in 2018. The Democratic Party’s performance in the generic ballot test has outpaced the GOP for well over a year, sometimes by double-digits, leading many to speculate that Democrats are well positioned to retake control of the House of Representatives. Now, despite the opposition party’s structural disadvantages, some are even beginning to entertain the prospect of a Democratic takeover in the Senate.
Until this point, the Trump administration has faced no real adversity. Sure, the administration’s executive overreach has been rejected in the courts and occasionally public outcry has forced the White House to abandon ill-considered initiatives, but it’s always been able to rely on the GOP majorities in Congress to shield it from the worst consequences of its actions. That phase of the Trump presidency could be over by January. For the first time, this president could have to contend with at least one truly adversarial chamber of the legislature, and opposition will manifest first in the form of investigations.
How will the White House respond when House Oversight and Reform Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings is tasked with investigating the president’s response to a natural disaster or when he subpoenas the president’s personal records? How will Trump respond when Judiciary Committee Chair Jerrold Nadler is overseeing the investigation into the FBI’s response to Russia’s meddling in the 2016 election, not Bob Goodlatte? Will the Department of Homeland Security’s border policies withstand public scrutiny when it’s Mississippi’s Bennie Thompson, not Texas’s Michael McCaul, doing the scrutinizing? How will Wall Street react to a Washington where financial-services oversight is no longer led by Jeb Hensarling but Maxine Waters? If the Democrats take the House, the legislative phase of the Trump era be over, but the investigative phase will have only just begun.
In many ways, this presidency behaved as though it were operating in a bunker from day one, and not without reason. Trump had every reason to fear that the culture of Washington and even many of the members of his own party were secretly aligned against him, but the key word there is “secret.” The secret is about to be out. The Trump White House hasn’t yet faced a truly adversarial Washington institution with teeth, but it is about to. If you think you’ve seen a bunker mentality in this White House, you haven’t seen anything yet.
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Podcast: Google and Kavanaugh.
Will Google survive the revelations of its political bias, or are those revelations nothing new? We delve into the complexities of the world in which important tech companies think they are above politics until they decide they’re not. Also some stuff on the Supreme Court and on polls. Give a listen.
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Smeared for doing the job.
When then-presidential candidate Donald Trump famously declared his intention to be a “neutral” arbiter of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian territories and put the onus for resolving the conflict on Jerusalem, few observers could have predicted that Trump would run one of the most pro-Israel administrations in American history.
This year, the Trump administration began relocating the U.S. embassy in Israel to the nation’s capital city, fulfilling a promise that began in 1995 with the passage of a law mandating this precise course of action. The administration also declined to blame Israel for defending its Gaza border against a Hamas-led attack. Last week, the administration shuttered the PLO’s offices in Washington.
The Trump administration’s commitment to shedding the contradictions and moral equivalencies that have plagued past administrations has exposed anti-Zionism for what its critics so often alleged it to be.
This week, Department of Education Assistant Secretary of Education for Civil Rights Kenneth Marcus announced his intention to vacate an Obama-era decision that dismissed an alleged act of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University. Marcus’s decision to reopen that particularly deserving case has led the New York Times to publish an article by Erica L. Green full of misconceptions, myths, and dissimulations about the nature of the anti-Israel groups in question and the essential characteristics of anti-Semitism itself.
In reporting on Marcus’s move, Green declared the education activist and opponent of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement a “longtime opponent of Palestinian rights causes,” a designation the paper’s editor felt fine printing without any substantiating evidence. You could be forgiven for thinking that BDS itself constituted a cause of “Palestinian rights” and not an international effort to stigmatize and harm both Israel and its supporters. If you kept reading beyond that second paragraph, your suspicions were confirmed.
Green contended that Marcus’s decision has paved the way for the Education Department to adopt a “hotly contested definition of anti-Semitism” that includes: denying Jews “the right to self-determination,” claiming that the state of Israel is a “racist endeavor,” and applying a double standard to Israel not “expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.” As Jerusalem Post reporter and COMMENTARY contributor Lahav Harkov observed, this allegedly “hotly contested definition” is precisely the same definition used by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance. In 2010, the IHRA’s working definition was adopted almost in total by Barack Obama’s State Department.
Green went so far as to say that this not-so-new definition for anti-Semitism has, according to Arab-American activists, declared “the Palestinian cause anti-Semitic.” So that is the Palestinian cause? Denying Jews the right to self-determination, calling the state of Israel itself a racist enterprise, and holding it to nakedly biased double standards? So much for the two-state solution.
Perhaps the biggest tell in the Times piece was its reporters’ inability to distinguish between pro-Palestinian activism and anti-Israeli agitation. The complaint the Education Department is preparing to reinvestigate involves a 2011 incident in which an event hosted by the group Belief Awareness Knowledge and Action (BAKA) allegedly imposed an admissions fee on Jewish and pro-Israel activists after unexpected numbers arrived to protest the event. An internal email confirmed that the group only charged this fee because “150 Zionists” “just showed up,” but the Obama administration dismissed the claim, saying that the organization’s excuse—that it expected heftier university fees following greater-than-expected attendance—was innocuous enough.
Green did not dwell on the group, which allegedly discriminated against Jews and pro-Israeli activists. If she had, she’d have reported that, just a few weeks before this incident, BAKA staged another event on Rutgers’s campus—a fundraiser for the organization USTOGAZA, which provided aid to the campaign of “flotillas” challenging an Israeli blockade of Gaza. USTOGAZA’s links to the Turkey-based organization Insani Yardim Vakfi (IHH), which has long been associated with support for Hamas-led terrorist activities, rendered the money raised in this event legally suspect. Eventually, as Brooke Goldstein wrote for COMMENTARY, even BAKA conceded the point:
After community members demanded that Rutgers, a state-funded university, hold an investigation before handing over any money to USTOGAZA, the school responded by offering to keep the money raised in an escrow account until a suitable recipient could be found. In June 2011, BAKA sent out an e-mail admitting the University had, after “much deliberation” and despite their initial approval, “decided that they are not willing to release the funds to the US to Gaza effort” due to concerns of being found liable for violating the material-support statutes.
Rutgers prudently limited BAKA’s ability to participate in on-campus events after these incidents, but the organization that took their place—Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP)—is no better. The Times quoted officials with the Center for Law and Justice who praised Marcus’s move and cited SJP as a source of particular consternation, but the reporters did not delve into the group’s activities. If they had, they’d find that the organization’s activities—among them declaring that “Zionists are racists,” supporting anti-Zionist individuals despite credible accusations of child abuse, and endorsing Hamas’s governing platform, which labels the entire state of Israel “occupied territory”—fits any cogent definition of anti-Semitism. This is to say nothing of the abuse and harassment that American Jews experience on college campuses that play host to SJP’s regular “Israel apartheid weeks.”
Some might attribute the Times’ neutral portrayal of groups that tacitly support violence and people like Omar Barghouti—an activist who “will never accept a Jewish state in Palestine” and has explicitly endorsed “armed resistance” against Jews, who he insists are “not a people”—to ignorance, as though that would neutralize the harm this dispatch might cause. But the Times piece has emboldened those who see Israel’s Jewish character as a threat both to its political culture and our own. That worrying sentiment was succinctly expressed by New York Magazine’s Eric Levitz: “You don’t have to be a staunch supporter of the Palestinian cause to question Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.”
The benefit of the doubt only extends so far. Even the charitably inclined should have discovered its limits by now.