The feature film “Selma” and the fickle nature of identity politics have reminded Jews that it’s easy to be forgotten in the struggle for civil rights. With movie magic, Jewish participation was edited out, left on the cutting room floor like an inconsequential plot.
And the scene can switch abruptly from Hollywood to Westwood, with an ugly pit stop in Norman, Okla. Recently two state universities, UCLA and the University of Oklahoma, provided object lessons that elicited very different reactions to the sensitivities of Jews and African Americans.
At UCLA, a female student nominated to serve on the Judicial Board was grilled before the student council because her Jewish identity and affiliations raised doubts as to her impartiality on matters pertaining to Israel. (Israel was tactfully not mentioned during the interview, but since several California universities, including UCLA, recently passed BDS [Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions] resolutions, the reasons for the council’s concern were widely and by implication understood.) During the first vote she was rejected, but then after heated debate where the openly anti-Semitic implications of its decision were exposed, the board confirmed her.
The UCLA administration, however, took no formal position on the incident. Imagine if a black student’s qualifications had been questioned under the same circumstances.
Meanwhile, at Oklahoma, a bus filled with foul-mouthed fraternity brothers chanted a racist song that put the lie to a post-racial society. The vulgar lyrics would have caused even the KKK to blanch beyond the shade of their pearly uniforms and white supremacy. Oklahoma’s president, David Boren, a former governor and senator, shut down the fraternity instantly and ordered it removed from campus. The two students who led the sing-along were summarily expelled.
In each case, age-old bigotries resurfaced on college campuses where academic freedom, cultural relativism and political correctness agonizingly coexist with all the harmony and goodwill of Shiites and Sunnis.
Because UCLA and Oklahoma are state-funded public universities, the rights to free speech that are guaranteed by the First Amendment do apply, technically, to both situations. Campus speech codes aside, a Jewish student can be insulted, and loutish frat boys have the right to sing a racist song. Indeed, it’s not clear whether the expulsion of the Oklahoma students without due process was even lawful in this case.
Racist speech, delivered off-campus on a bus where no African-Americans were present — and therefore could not have been intimidated, threatened or provoked by the lyrics — is protected under the First Amendment. And Title VI of the Civil Rights Act doesn’t apply to prohibit the song, since the location of the incident and the make-up of the group that was present to hear it didn’t create a racially hostile environment on campus.
Still, one has to admire the moral purpose and rapid verdict of the Sooner president, especially when compared with the languid efforts of his Bruin counterpart, who apparently won’t allow something as trivial as anti-Semitism on campus to disrupt his winter hibernation.
The BDS movement lives, paradoxically, amid all the death taking place in Syria, Iraq, Nigeria and Sudan. Meanwhile, acts of anti-Semitism — swastikas painted on the doors of a Jewish fraternity at the University of California in Davis — appear as reminders that the delegitimization of Israel is just a proxy for what’s really on the minds of those who align themselves with the Palestinian struggle.
Moral hypocrisy is the new ethic, irony the shallowest truth.
Clearly racism trumps anti-Semitism in the hearts and minds of most Americans. A casual anti-Semitic remark, the polite indictment of a Jewish lobby, or the questioning of the dual loyalties of American Jews can pass without a gasp or anyone noting a slur. Anti-Semitic tropes exist on a lower scale of outrage than the n-word, for sure.
The riots and shootings in Ferguson, Mo., dominate the nightly news. Before that, Donald Sterling discovered that his secretly recorded, racist rantings would cause him to forfeit his NBA franchise and provide a tawdry soap opera for a morally revolted nation.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to assemble a minyan that knows the first thing about the Leo Frank murder trial.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. The evil and residue of slavery is an American disease, part of the nation’s DNA, seared into the soil. Not even an African-American president could make it disappear. Racism within these 50 states always demands special handling.
Anti-Semitism … not so much. In the minds of most Americans, bigotry against Jews belongs to other continents where a Holocaust can happen and where Islamists threaten Israel with annihilation.
Jews are a minority only when it comes to demographic numbers, not in public perception. They swim in the fast lane of the American mainstream, privileged white people with no claims to victimhood. Meanwhile, Israel is slandered by those who have actually never bothered to look at a map of the Middle East.
Anti-Semitism will remain America’s second-fiddle prejudice. That’s a status Jews should be able to live with.
Thane Rosenbaum, a novelist, essayist and law professor, is the author of many books including the forthcoming “How Sweet It Is!” He is a Senior Fellow at NYU School of Law, where he directs the Forum on Law, Culture & Society.