The anti-Semitism Problem of pro-Palestinian Progressives

Mira Sucharov’s op-ed advanced a familiar cabal: Jews level charges of anti-Semitism to stifle all criticism of Israel. On campus and elsewhere, its effect is to automatically delegitimize most claims of discrimination or marginalization against Jews.

A pro-BDS student at an Open Hillel Conference.
Gili Getz

There is something odd about Mira Sucharov’s apologia for Jasbir Puar’s Vassar College lecture. She admitted many of Puar’s claims were “unsubstantiated.” She admitted they were “irresponsible.” And she even admitted that they resonated with classic anti-Semitic tropes. But not only did Sucharov ultimately conclude that Puar’s talk was not anti-Semitic, she went further, contending that it was outrageous — “hyperbolic,” “crying wolf” — to even suggest that is was. 

Even though Sucharov seemingly conceded that Puar presented a close case for having expressed anti-Semitic contentions (I myself don’t find it so close), she still admitted no space for reasonable disagreement with her own conclusion that anti-Semitism was not in play. Upon concluding that Puar was not anti-Semitic, anyone opposing that very conclusion instantly became part of that familiar cabal: Jews leveling reckless charges of anti-Semitism to stifle all criticism of Israel.

That Sucharov made that leap in this case is the reductio ad absurdum of a very common presumption — that most anti-Semitism claims related to Israel are leveled in bad faith. 

And let’s not hide the ball: This contention is itself anti-Semitic. It boils down to the proposition that most Jews, most of the time, are either pathological liars or so delusional regarding their own experience that their claims of discrimination or marginalization can be dismissed out of hand — and that their claims to identify anti-Semitism are presumptively “smears” or “hyperbole.”

What this accusation of compulsive Jewish overreaction means is that the grounds for calling out anti-Semitism have not only shifted, they are disappearing. You hear an allegation of anti-Semitism against a friend or ally? No need to consider it carefully; it’s fine to respond with a roll of the eyes and a “there they go again”. This retort illustrates the power of the discursive lockbox that Sucharov and others have set up (when, precisely, is it appropriate to ask persons to reconsider as anti-Semitic comments or claims they don’t initially identify as such?). Be that as it may, it is impossible to simultaneously present most Jews as experiencing some sort of mass communal psychosis while also including Jews as equal participants in collective dialogue.

If the philosophy behind Sucharov’s column is oppressive, there’s reason to doubt the empirics as well. The core claim Sucharov makes, that “most criticism of Israel is inappropriately being cast as anti-Semitic,” tends to be assumed more often than it’s proven. I’d suggest that the opposite is equally plausible: That most claims of anti-Semitism are inappropriately dismissed as mere smokescreens meant to deflect all criticism of Israel (Sucharov admitted that her first instinct, prior to receiving a transcript of Puar’s talk, was to assume that this was all “smear and libel”). 

The claim that there is a constant barrage of frivolous claims of anti-Semitic abuse usually boils down to nothing more than “arguments I don’t think are anti-Semitic are nonetheless being called anti-Semitic by others.” This does not itself identify any deliberative malpractice or malign or partisan motivation.

What’s particularly galling is that the form of the argument Sucharov makes is one that should be intimately familiar to her: It is precisely the same framework used to suppress claims of racism or sexism in public dialogue. Black students protesting about police violence? They’re just “playing the race card!” Women challenging sexual violence on campus? You know how “hyperbolic” women are; it’s probably just another epidemic of false rape accusations. Progressives have rightly invested much effort in challenging these prejudicial presumptions, yet for Jews they are often taken to be fair game (Sucharov even found a colleague who framed his support for Puar as a necessary check against the “politically correct”, which really hammers home the right-left convergence).

The objection, of course, is that anti-Semitism charges are a means of censorship (which hardly distinguishes it from the racism or sexism case, where conservatives make the same complaint). Vassar Professor Joshua Schreier articulated his defense of Puar in terms of the academic obligation “to protect free speech and protect academic speech.” 

But how is “free speech” at issue? Professor Puar was not prevented from speaking, and there is no “free speech” right to be free from critical counterspeech. Puar’s critics aren't silencing her: They are asking to be heard as well, by doing nothing more than placing the issue of anti-Semitism into our collective conversation regarding her lecture. This does not stifle criticism of Israel, it simply demands that anti-Semitism be part of the cocktail of considerations included in our discussions about Israel. 

The only way that is a form of “silencing” is if Puar and her defenders would rather take their ball and go home than engage with the issue of anti-Semitism as a valid entrant into the conversation. Such unegalitarian (not to mention childish) bouts of pique should not be viewed as anything but a perceived entitlement to be allowed to talk about Jews without having to listen to them.

This unfortunate spectacle also has implications for Open Hillel, on whose academic advisory board Professor Sucharov sits. Open Hillel claims to seek an “open” discussion of Israel on university campuses. I am a big fan of open discussions (of Israel or anything else), but I’ve long been concerned about whether Open Hillel’s commitment to “open” argument included the right to openly argue that certain discourses, practices or behaviors regarding Israel were anti-Semitic (particularly in cases where Open Hillel members might disagree with the assessment). And if Sucharov is any indicator the answer is no—anti-Semitism claims are seen not as a facet of open dialogue about Israel, but its antithesis. 

We're back to where we started: The claim that calling out anti-Semitism is always a diversionary tactic away from criticism of Israel. The conversation that emerges from that premise can hardly be said to be “open”; it is rather a partial and stilted conversation that preemptively closes off key areas of contestation.

Not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, but any comprehensive discussion about Israel must accept anti-Semitism as a central area of concern. And so it is high time to unpack the assumption of the “quick-trigger anti-Semitism” allegation. It is not an established reality but a social construction; an assumption backed not by empirical data (even AIPAC, the supposed granddaddy of reckless anti-Semitism allegations, has a grand total of 11 mentions of anti-Semitism on its website) but rather by the utility of casting Jews as untrustworthy, irrational, paranoid, and delusional. 

Far from crying anti-Semitism at the drop of the hat, most Jews and Jewish organizations are increasingly gun-shy about even raising the issue. They have long since learned that even in the seemingly clear cases — “irresponsible” and “unsubstantiated” attacks which “cut close to the bone” of the blood libel — the default response still will be to fulminate about oversensitive Jews always playing the anti-Semitism card. This is toxic to both open dialogue and egalitarian commitments. 

Claims of anti-Semitism, like claims of racism or sexism, are not “smears” nor censorship by other means. They’re arguments. They may be right or wrong, but regardless they deserve to be taken seriously. It’s deeply worrisome to see many progressives pull so openly from the right-wing playbook to justify their failure to do so. 


David Schraub is the Darling Foundation Fellow in Public Law and Senior Research Fellow, California Constitution Center, both at the University of California-Berkeley Law School. He blogs regularly at The Debate Link. Follow him on Twitter: @schraubd.