Crying Wolf on Campus anti-Semitism: The Vassar College Talk Was No Blood Libel

Charges of anti-Semitism on campus have become so hyperbolic that most criticism of Israel is considered anti-Semitic. Jasbir Puar's claim that Israel harvested Palestinian body parts was irresponsible and unsubstantiated – but it wasn't anti-Semitism.

Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov
Protesters are silhouetted against an anti-Israel sign during a small demonstration outside the Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, Canada. July 31, 2006.
Protesters are silhouetted against an anti-Israel sign during a small demonstration outside the Art Gallery in downtown Vancouver, Canada. July 31, 2006.Credit: Reuters
Mira Sucharov.
Mira Sucharov

The use of the anti-Semitism charge as a weapon to silence political thought is reaching a new low.

The head of the Canadian Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre for Holocaust Studies was recently quoted in The National Post saying that Jewish university-bound applicants should consider options other than Toronto’s York University. The reason? A recent faculty association executive proposal to divest from weapons manufacturers. The proposal didn't mention Israel by name. According to Aviv Benlolo, Friends of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre President, this is a “campaign of censorship against Israel and the Jewish people.” The organization also issued a statement declaring that in the wake of the proposal, it was “concerned for the safety and security of [York’s] Jewish students and faculty.”

I recently combed through the 2015 report of the Simon Wiesenthal Center on anti-Semitism on American campuses, headlined: "A clear and present danger." Over the 26-page document I did discover a few anti-Semitic incidents over the eight preceding years. (I selected an eight-year period to represent two generations of students at a four-year university or college.)

As the report detailed, at Harvard in 2013, to raise awareness of Palestinian home demolitions, activists slipped mock eviction notices into dorm rooms. There was no evidence to suggest whether Jewish students were targeted. And in 2014-2015 at UCLA, Rachel Beyda, a Jewish student, was barred admission to a judicial position by the student council following accusations that her Jewish heritage made her biased. After an uproar, the administration pressured the council to reverse itself. A similar dynamic played out at Stanford in 2014, when Molly Horwitz was asked, “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?”

The report also noted a “decade” of “increasing hostility” at the University of California-Berkeley in 2015, ” including “vandalizing Jewish property, spitting at Jewish students, threatening violence, and physically assaulting Jewish supporters of Israel.”

Incidents like these should be called out strongly. But every other event chronicled since 2007 in the Simon Wiesenthal Center report described political activity directed against Israel or its policies — not instances of anti-Semitism.

The latest mudslinging debate in the anti-Semitism wars is more nuanced. It concerns a recent talk by gender studies scholar Jasbir Puar at Vassar College, an event which authors of a Wall Street Journal op-ed described as anti-Semitic and a blood libel.

In the talk (of which I received a transcript), Puar made two particularly jarring claims. About the bodies of 17 Palestinian youth that Israel kept for two months at the end of 2015, Puar said, “Some speculate that the bodies were mined for organs for scientific research.” (These youth, it is important to note, had been attacking Israelis. Puar described these Palestinian youth as having been involved in “stabbing” and as part of a “peoples’ rumble” but called their deaths “field assassinations.”)

Puar also suggested that Israel engages in “weaponized epigenetics where the outcome is not so much about winning or losing nor a solution but about needing body parts, not even whole bodies, for research and experimentation.”

Puar did not respond to my requests for comment or clarification regarding her accusations.

While academic freedom is a principle meant to protect scholarly speech from legal censure, there is an equally important norm requiring a scholar to provide evidence when making empirical claims. On this, Puar failed.

But is Puar’s scholarly breach anti-Semitic?

Joshua Schreier, an associate professor of History at Vassar and part of the steering committee of the Jewish Studies Program which was one of the cosponsors, doesn’t think so. He was in attendance at the talk. “It’s really important,” he told me, “to protect free speech and protect academic speech,” adding that “we have a responsibility, as academics, when we talk about speculation, to notewhether it’s substantiated, whether we’re trying to give new life to those rumors, or not. But none of that makes it anti-Semitic.”

Unfortunately, the unsubstantiated charge of using “body parts for experimentation" cuts close to the bone of blood libel myths. It is also uttered in the context of a cultural moment on campuses when most criticism of Israel is inappropriately being cast as anti-Semitic. This surely means that there will be fallout from the talk that will serve to distract debaters from the pressing issues around the ills of occupation. And it also means that amidst the hyperbolic rhetoric about anti-Semitism on campuses, actual anti-Semitism is becoming more difficult to spot it when it does occur.

Meanwhile, hundreds of faculty members from across the United States have issued a statement to Vassar’s president asking her to “write a letter to the Wall Street Journalcondemning in no uncertain terms the unjustifiable attack on Vassar and on Professor Puar.”

For its part, the Anti-Defamation League had nothing more damning to say about Puar's appearance at Vassar than that she has sometimes accused Israel of pinkwashing.

Ian S. Lustick, a professor of political science at University of Pennsylvania, told me by email that he signed the statement “to show solidarity against the campaign to restrict the space of politically correct discussion on anything pertaining to Israel and Palestinians.” About the claim of organ harvesting, Lustick said that “the speculations about horrific Israeli behavior with respect to organ harvesting from Palestinian bodies are as unlikely to be true as they are likely to be circulated as long as Israel refuses to quickly return bodies of dead Palestinians to their families.”

Debate over campus discourse on Israel (and even on things, like armaments, weirdly perceived by some to represent Israel) will continue. Vassar’s president, for her part, has invited parents and alumni to an online forum this week to discuss “current issues and tensions within our community related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

As for whether actions on campuses over the last decade constitute anti-Semitism, the ledger is mixed. Verbal or physical harassment directed at Jews for reasons related to their ethnic or religious identity is anti-Semitism. Same with leveling dual loyalty charges against Jewish students.

But consideration of divestment from weapons companies is not anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israeli policy is not anti-Semitism. Criticism of the occupation is not anti-Semitism. Criticism of violence — whether it is state-sponsored violence or violence carried out by individuals or groups — is not anti-Semitism.

Presenting unsubstantiated claims against agents of a state in a public lecture is irresponsible. And if the symbolism chosen for these non-evidenced charges quacks like an infamous anti-Semitic myth, it will not surprisingly be heard by many as redolent of that scourge. But that does not necessarily make it, in and of itself, anti-Semitism.

Mira Sucharov is associate professor of political science at Carleton University in Ottawa. Follow her on Twitter: @sucharov

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