Harold Kasimow didn’t go to Benedictine College to engage in a debate about Israel and the Palestinians.
Kasimow is a retired professor of religious studies at Grinnell College in Iowa. He is also a child survivor of the Holocaust who escaped death at the hands of the Nazis by hiding in a pit with his family for 19 months, underneath a barn in what is now Belarus.
Though he is careful to tell audiences that he is not a Holocaust scholar, in retirement, Kasimow has begun to travel to schools throughout North America discussing his WWII experiences, as well as promoting better interfaith relations.
But during his appearance at the private Catholic university in Illinois, a pro-Palestinian activist ambushed Kasimow, declaring she was only willing to continue listening to him if he validated her belief that Israel’s existence had caused another Holocaust, with the victims being the Palestinians.
In a video of the exchange that has since gone viral, Benedictine senior Ayah Ali, a member of the school’s chapter of Students for Justice for Palestine, thanked Kasimow for sharing his story but then demanded he acknowledge that the "71 years" of Israel’s existence was a Holocaust perpetrated against Palestinians.
But while Kasimow said he was not supportive of Israel’s government, and called the situation complicated and worthy of greater interfaith activism, he wouldn’t agree that the Jewish state should be eliminated.
Ali’s response was to walk out of the event.
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Kasimow wasn’t there to talk about Israel or to make traditional arguments about how the history of oppression in the Diaspora that culminated in the Holocaust justified the quest to create a Jewish state. But in spite of his narrow, apolitical agenda to promote awareness of the Holocaust and ecumenism, the SJP was still ready to, in effect, "cancel" him unless he didn’t merely condemn Israeli policy but agree that it needed to be erased.
The incident at the school seemed to epitomize the dialogue of the deaf that continues to characterize so many such encounters as well as the particular dilemma faced by liberal Zionists. Eager to build bridges with Palestinians, and other foes of Israel, and to find common ground in the battle against hatred of all kinds, liberal Jews are increasingly finding themselves being asked not merely to eschew support for Zionism but also to shelve discussions of anti-Semitism.
Anti-Semitic as an issue is now regarded as inherently prejudicial to advocates for the Palestinians, because so many in the BDS movement are guilty of anti-Semitic comments and demonizing of Israel and Jews.
As Ali’s viral walkout on a survivor illustrated, those pro-Palestinian advocates also insist on denying Jewish narratives about their suffering and history.
The same problems popped up at Bard College in New York last month when a conference on hate and racism was derailed by the determination of critics of Israel to protest a panel discussion in which three Jews were to discuss anti-Semitism. One of them, Forward op-ed editor Batya Ungar-Sargon, walked out of the gathering because she alleged the colleague and many of the assembled scholars were encouraging the targeting of an anti-Semitism panel with three Jewish speakers for protests.
While the exchanges between the participants and subsequent accusations were confusing, one thing about the incident was clear. Supporters of the Palestinians were not willing to treat the discussion about anti-Semitism as out of bounds for political combat - because they think such discussions are inextricably linked to Zionist propaganda.
The two sides’ competing narratives of suffering and victimhood have always largely defined the conflict between Jews and Arabs over Israel/Palestine.
But in recent years the Palestinians’ desire to not merely assert the legitimacy of their story of dispossession and exile, but to also "defeat" or replace the discussion of the Holocaust, has become more blatant. While advocates for coexistence have long asserted that the path to peace must involve mutual recognition of past suffering, the impulse on the part of Palestinians to insist on the identification of contemporary Jews as the ironic successors to the Nazis guarantees endless strife.
This goes deeper than false arguments that compare the very real suffering of the Palestinians as a result of their defeat in the War of Independence to the Nazi war to exterminate the Jews of Europe. The Palestinians refusal to compromise and accept partition in 1947 came at a high price that was paid by the hundreds of thousands of refugees who were rendered homeless by the conflict.
But now it is not enough to demand that Jews acknowledge the tragedy of the Nakba for Palestinians. A Jewish refusal to treat the Arab disaster as morally equivalent to the Nazi final solution apparently now justifies a walkout on an apolitical Holocaust survivor. The support Ali gained on the Internet for her crude "canceling" of Kasimow provides a troubling context for the incident.
The case for reviving the peace process rests on the notion that common ground exists between Jews and Palestinians who can validate each other’s history enough to envision a future in which a desire for compromise will override the zero sum game aspect of each side’s rhetoric.
But if talks about anti-Semitism and even testimony of Holocaust survivors can’t be heard without it generating demands for returning Jews to a position of stateless powerlessness, then what basis for dialogue is left?
The problem here for advocates of dialogue is that Ali’s attitude and the cheers for it on the Internet validate right-wing arguments that assert that there is no real difference between Palestinian demands and traditional anti-Semitic tropes. This is not just a matter of identifying a cause that rests on denying to Jews rights that are not denied to others.
If anti-Zionists are insisting that Holocaust awareness must be treated as a secondary concern, and that it must be discarded in favor of elevating the Palestinians to a superior victim status, then the quest for dialogue and coexistence truly is a myth.
There may be a path to peace that involves territorial compromise and mutual recognition, but there is no bridging a gap between the two peoples that is built on denial of Jewish history or Nakba supercessionism. If that’s the essence of BDS advocacy, then it is liberal Zionists who will inevitably be forced to walk away from further futile attempts at dialogue.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor in chief of JNS (the Jewish News Syndicate) and a contributing writer for National Review. Twitter: @jonathans_tobin