For a freshman-year English course, I wrote my final essay on whether BDS (Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions) rhetoric results in anti-Semitism on university campuses. Although there had been several anti-Semitic incidents at the University of Michigan, they appeared to be isolated, so I had to turn to other university campuses for data and blatant examples. This made my paper harder to write but made me proud to be a Michigan Wolverine.
I’m now a senior. Over the course of my past three years on campus, I’ve witnessed nascent anti-Semitism develop, and so, unfortunately, my upper-level writing final will be a cinch.
Last December, the Central Student Government passed an anti-Semitic-tinged proposal authored by SAFE, the University’s Students for Justice in Palestine’s chapter; it called on the university to investigate divestment from companies that do business with Israel. Though the proposal was soundly rejected by administration, anti-Semitic incidents on campus followed.
Since the start of this academic year, two faculty members rescinded their offers to write a letter of recommendation when they learned it was for a study abroad program in Israel, the Jewish state. A speaker in a required lecture projected an image of Adolf Hitler and the prime minister of Israel together with the caption “Guilty of Genocide” across their foreheads. Sadly, these incidents are only the tip of an iceberg.
Recently, I attended an event on campus titled “CMENAS Teach-In Town Hall: What is BDS? And Why Does it Matter?” I went there to learn more about the diverse opinions that surround this deeply complex topic and engage in a meaningful conversation about BDS. Instead, I learned why anti-Semitism is surging on this campus.
Although at the beginning of the event, University of Michigan Professor Samer Mahdy Ali took a moment to recognize the lives of the 11 people tragically murdered at The Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, he never acknowledged that the killer told officers after the attack, “I just want to kill Jews.” He spoke for a few minutes about the tragic loss of lives. He cited trends of mass shootings in America. He went so far as to say this shooting was particularly tragic because it occurred in a house of worship; but he never acknowledged that what motivated this deranged killer was anti-Semitism. Not once did he mutter the word “anti-Semitism.”
The anti-Semitic undertone of the event continued. It featured a panel of three speakers, all BDS supporters. They reaffirmed each other’s claims. There was no debate. If the goal of this event, dubbed a “teach-in,” was to educate the university community about BDS, shouldn’t other views have been presented?
Indeed, the one-sided nature of the event was illustrative. While BDS touts itself as a nonviolent Palestinian social justice movement, its true ambition is most clearly explained in the words of its co-founder, Omar Barghouti, who calls for Zionism’s “euthanasia.”
The event’s first speaker, Susan Abulhawa, a Palestinian-American writer, began her presentation reading a slew of Israeli laws she opposes. Rather than explaining her critique, Abulhawa merely read the list and collectively likened them to the worst since the “Nuremberg and Jim Crow Laws.” Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, who slaughtered six million Jews, is anti-Semitism.
Throughout the event, a slideshow played behind the stage, displaying images of wounded and dead Palestinians at the hands of Israeli soldiers and of ruins in Gaza. My heart ached more and more after each photograph. But these pictures, like the panelists’ views, only depicted half the story. They showed a Palestinian crippled on the floor with a gunshot wound in his leg; they didn’t show the Israeli he stabbed to death in a terror attack in Tel Aviv. They showed the utter destruction of a school in Gaza; they didn’t show the terror tunnel that was dug beneath it to infiltrate Israel and carry out terrorist attacks on innocent civilians.
We weren’t given all the facts.
Since I arrived on campus in August 2015, Israel has experienced a wave of terror perpetrated by Hamas in the south, Fatah in the east, and individuals, many of them very young, inspired by vicious anti-Semitic incitement in Palestinian social and traditional media and egged on by the Palestinian leadership.
Since August 2015, there have been: 195 stabbing attacks and 144 attempted stabbings; 202 shooting attacks; and 68 vehicular (ramming) attacks. These Palestinian attacks resulted in 70 innocent dead people, and 1,037 wounded. In addition, riots and other types of attacks occur almost daily: rock-throwing (7,856), roadside/pipe bombs (265) and Molotov cocktails/grenades/fire kites/balloons (2,163). In the south, since August 2015, Hamas and other Gaza terrorists have shot 776 rockets and mortar bombs into Israel.
None of this was referenced at the “teach-in”; the wider context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was ignored entirely. Doing such at a university-sponsored event just propagates prejudice against Jews and Israel to a misinformed student body.
When we pretend that anti-Zionism has no connection to anti-Semitism, we allow and encourage anti-Semitism to grow. This is what’s most frightening about anti-Semitism today — not its existence, but the nature of its existence: the anti-Israel camouflaged cloak that conceals its bigoted core. When modern anti-Semitism is masked beneath humanitarian civil rights causes and criticism of Israel, we have a hard time recognizing the inherent bigotry.
This is why I and other Jewish students are calling on the university to adopt a concrete definition of anti-Semitism. We cannot address a problem without a definition of what it is. The U.S. and 30 other countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s working definition of anti-Semitism. Universities should, too. With a tailored, formal definition, universities can accurately identify and therefore productively respond to anti-Semitism on campus. This is not a cure, but it is a first step.
My campus has an anti-Semitism problem. It’s time for #umichIHRA.
Jessica Jakoby, a graduate of The Jewish Week’s Write On For Israel program, is a senior at the University of Michigan.
This piece is part of “The View From Campus” column written by students on campus. If you would like to contribute to it, email firstname.lastname@example.org for more info. We are grateful to The Paul E. Singer Foundation for supporting the Write On For Israel Program.