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Enduring Disagreement: Defining Anti-Semitism in the Modern World

News & Features | February 25, 2019

CW: Racial violence

On the afternoon of Tuesday, February 12, Tufts students received a community message from President Monaco describing some “profoundly disturbing and hurtful” posters discovered on the exterior of the Granoff Family Hillel Center. The message announced plans to investigate the situation and expressed support for all members of the Jewish community. Many students responded to this message with understandable confusion: what, exactly, did these offensive posters say? And which details, or lack thereof, informed the rather pointed choice made by President Monaco to refrain from describing this event explicitly as anti-Semitic? This, many have deduced, would have been the obvious implication of the incident, given its “derogatory,” if vague characterization, and the targeting of Hillel, a center for Jewish life on campus.

The next day, the Tufts Daily released its coverage of the event, including photographs of the posters in question and interviews with Hillel leaders and community members. The Daily’s reporting, which helped to demystify some of the initial uncertainty surrounding Monaco’s message, revealed the posters to have been based partially on political artwork by Emory Douglas, the Minister of Culture of the Black Panther Party, from 1967 until the organization’s disbandment in the 1980s. Douglas was known during his tenure for his use of political cartoons to criticize American imperialism and White supremacy. The posters found at Hillel, which depicted cartoon pigs as military imperialists representing the United States, were reappropriated from their original publication to single out the relationship between the US and Israel. “Destroy Israeli Apartheid Forces and Amerikkkan pigs which fund it. Free Palestine,” one poster reads in capital text.

Rabbi Jordan Braunig of Tufts Hillel described what it was like to arrive at work on Tuesday morning. “It didn’t take me long upon entering Hillel to recognize that something was up. I was told by somber-faced colleagues that when they’d arrived that morning there were posters around the building portraying pigs. I took a deep breath and sat down.” He said the situation made him feel “unmoored, unsteady, unsure.”

Though there is the related fact that many observant Jews refrain from eating pork for religious and cultural reasons, there is little evidence to support a claim that pigs have any particular history with anti-Semitic imagery. The imagery of pigs has been used throughout political movements primarily to represent fascist leaders and police officers. However, many have pointed to an element of dehumanization in the posters’ portrayal of pigs, some of which were reportedly posted on Hillel windows facing inwards—by any measure an unsettling message of hostility, and starkly reminiscent of Nazi propaganda depicting Jews as subhuman.  

Most students seem to agree unequivocally with this sentiment. Katelyn Mullikin, a member of Tufts Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), concurred that the posters represent an act of anti-Semitism. “Making generalizations of any group is always wrong, including generalizing about the Jewish community,” Mullikin said. “By only placing posters that critique the Jewish community on Hillel, a Jewish community center on campus, there was clear anti-Semitism in the act.”

On Thursday, Monaco released another message to the community. The update announced that since Tuesday, “additional information has come to light regarding this incident that makes it clear that this was a deliberate anti-Semitic act.” According to the Tufts Daily’s reporting, this additional information was initially discovered by their own investigative journalists and communicated to Rabbi Naftali Brawer of Tufts Hillel, who did not yet have the full story. That “at least one of the posters called for the destruction of ‘Israeli Apartheid forces,’” was apparently unbeknownst to both Brawer and the Office of the President at the time of the first university-wide message. 

How this exact sequence of events unfolded is unclear; the author of the Tufts Daily article, Daniel Nelson, confirmed in an email to the Tufts Observer that Rabbi Brawer provided him with the photographs in the published article, including one that plainly shows the caption Nelson later reports was overlooked by Brawer. It begs the question: how could all of the Hillel staff and responding TUPD officers have missed this seemingly large detail, only to be pointed out later by a Tufts Daily reporter? Evidently this piece of information was significant enough for Monaco to rephrase his statement. The entire investigation process and the reasoning behind Monaco’s revised analysis has not yet been explained—the Tufts Observer was unable to reach Rabbi Brawer or President Monaco’s office in time for the publication of this article. Regardless, Hillel officials and students alike seem to share Monaco’s eventual conclusions. At this time, no individual or group has claimed responsibility for the posters.

The marked ambiguity in the University’s response to the situation on campus is indicative of a common difficulty when it comes to defining anti-Semitism today. Recall the recent political debacle that included widespread declarations of shame and wrongfulness—from both sides of the aisle—when freshman Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, the first Somali-American elected to Congress, said that American political support for Israel is “all about the Benjamins.” Omar was referring to the involvement of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in American politics. The organization spends millions of dollars each year lobbying for US policy changes that benefit Israel; in addition, its members, donors, and lobbyists contribute money to both Democratic and Republican political campaigns. In 2018, the non-profit arm of AIPAC, the American Israel Education Foundation or AIEF, organized multiple all-expenses-paid trips to Israel for Democratic and Republican members of Congress, pitching these trips as “educational” opportunities. 

Omar’s stance is consistent with her history of calling out the influence of special-interest money in politics. Some have rushed to defend the Congresswoman’s statement; to others, the criticism was a show of blatant anti-Semitism. This is not the first time Omar, one of the first two Muslim women elected to Congress, has been accused of religious bigotry—an earlier tweet of hers from 2012, which also criticized the actions of Israel, has been called anti-Semitic as well.

The idea of Jews controlling money is part and parcel of anti-Semitic ideology. The stereotype stems from the Middle Ages, when many Jews were moneylenders and faced criticism from the Christian church. The trope has persisted through the centuries and today many anti-Semites espouse conspiracy theories claiming that Jews control the global economy. In 2009, a survey of several European countries found that 31 percent of adults blamed Jews for the 2007 economic crisis. In October 2018, then-House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy, a Republican who has notably criticized Omar’s remarks, posted a tweet insinuating that three prominent Jewish Democrats were attempting to “buy” the midterm election. Republicans at the time remained mostly silent about McCarthy’s perpetuation of this anti-Semitic stereotype.

More recently, politicians across party lines have deplored Omar for her comment. Democratic party leaders, including Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, issued a joint statement describing Omar’s “use of anti-Semitic tropes” as “deeply offensive.” President Trump separately called for Omar to resign from both the House Foreign Affairs Committee and her position in Congress. Fellow freshman Democratic Congressman Max Rose responded saying, “Congresswoman Omar’s statements are deeply hurtful to Jews, including myself.” McCarthy has promised to “take action” against Omar if others don’t, and Omar responded to the backlash by saying she “unequivocally apologize[s]” for her tweet.

Part of the backlash Omar has faced stretches beyond professional condemnation from colleagues and journalists—overwhelmingly, Omar has been hit with a wave of racist and Islamophobic hatred as a result of her statement. Luther College Professor Todd Green, who specializes in the study of Islamophobia, explained in a recent interview how this type of backlash is part of a larger pattern which pits Jews and Muslims against each other.

 “Much of this controversy has been driven by Islamophobia, particularly the belief that Muslims by default are anti-Semitic and that the rest of us must assume the worst of them,” Green said. “Omar has received far more attention for her tweets than prominent White Christian politicians have for their overt promotion of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. We should not back down from asking why the different treatment for Omar.”

Because the image of money-hungry Jews has been used throughout history to justify their global extermination, articulating inoffensive criticism of Israeli lobbyist groups seems almost impossible. Still, many have flocked to Omar’s side in an effort to draw a line which distinguishes anti-Semitic remarks from legitimate criticism of Israel and its government. Journalist Glenn Greenwald, whose tweet Omar initially responded to, has since stated: “Of course everyone knows that [AIPAC money matters]. And to call that anti-Semitic is just obscene.” Paul Waldman, a writer for the Washington Post, argued that “what this whole episode has mostly revealed is how insanely narrow the debate over the subject of Israel is in Washington.”

To Mullikin, it’s clear that Omar’s tweet demonstrated a critique of money influencing politics, and that the influx of racism she’s gotten in response is incomparable in scale to what was owed to her initial tweet. “The attacks against Ilhan are attacks against her person and character based on her religion and the color of her skin,” Mullikin said. “That is racism. That is Islamophobia. Black activists who stand in solidarity with Palestine have and will continue to be the targets of false accusations of anti-Semitism.”  

Tufts senior Cecilia Rodriguez, co-president of Tufts Democrats, also found the Democratic Party’s reaction to Omar’s tweet frustrating. “I think that calling out AIPAC as an isolated act is valid,” she said, “but there’s obviously a very fine line between that and anti-Semitism.” She continued, “The response to the Omar tweet is definitely guided in part by [politicians’] own campaign finance and donors.”

In a similar vein, it has raised complicated, personal issues for the Tufts Jewish community that the posters at Hillel referred to Israel as an apartheid state. Rabbi Jordan explained that “for some, the distinction between anti-Israel critique and anti-Semitism is clear, for others it feels like a blurred line, yet for the vast majority of people I spoke with last week, the targeting of a Jewish communal space felt like a violation.”

 Tufts junior Molly Tunis, a member of Tufts Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP), seeks to complicate the reception of the incident and commented on the importance of unpacking the nuances of this situation. “Not enough people really understand what anti-Semitism looks like and how it operates,” she said. “The parts of the posters that were problematic were the exclusive placement at Hillel and the appropriation of Black Panther cartoons by anonymous people who undoubtedly were not affiliated with the Black Panther Party. At the same time, the messages that advocated for Palestinian freedom are not alone anti-Semitic.”

 While anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism can and do occur at the same time, they are not, in their essence, one and the same. Zionism, a term first articulated by Theodor Herzl in 1897, is a political ideology that asserts the right and need to establish an exclusively Jewish state in the land that is now Israel. The first official steps towards the realization of this vision with the Balfour Declaration some 30 years later were the direct result of British attempts to retain imperial influence over the region. Since then, conflict has continued for decades through a military occupation and multiple violent wars. Many anti-Zionists see modern political Zionism as a project of settler colonialism which necessitates the continued expulsion, killing, and disenfranchisement of Palestinians. To others, the ideals of Zionism are vital to the safety and survival of the Jewish people in defense against global anti-Semitism.

 At Tufts, the conflation of anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism is common, according to Tunis. Put simply, “the distinction is important because one represents a form of bigotry while the other represents a political ideology that advocates for liberation,” she says. “People [are] conflating Hillel with Judaism and Judaism with Zionism.” Tufts Hillel makes no effort to speak on behalf of all Jewish students, and welcomes open dialogue about all issues relating to Israel. But still, the connection between Hillel and Zionism is not imaginary; the organization’s official “Standards of Partnership” stipulate that campus Hillel groups may not associate or work with any other individual or group that questions Israel’s right to exist as an exclusively Jewish state, including those who support the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement (BDS) led by Palestinian Civil Society. “Hillel is steadfastly committed to the support of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state,” reads the foremost statement on the Hillel International webpage for “Campus Israel Activities.”

 It is worth noting that alternative Jewish spaces on campus like Alt-J and JVP, which fall outside the umbrella of Hillel organizations, were not targeted by the posters. Despite the hostile way it was communicated, this fact makes a direct political commentary on Hillel’s association with Israel. Furthermore, this critique, like Omar’s of AIPAC, should not, as a result, be dismissed across the board. Hillel’s policy has a real impact on students.

 No one [is talking] about the fact that Hillel also makes [some] people feel unsafe and unwelcome or that there is thriving Jewish community elsewhere,” said Tunis. “When I see that the largest Jewish center on campus specifically prohibits people with views like mine or who have the potential to disrupt their programming, it makes it very easy for me to feel unwelcome and confused. Jewish students can and should critique Hillel’s views on Israel and their ‘Standards of Partnership.’”

 Separating anti-Semitism from anti-Zionism is complicated, but all the same, it is undeniable that anti-Semitism has been on the rise in the US, especially in the two years since Donald Trump was elected president. American Jews have experienced a rise in anti-Semitic defacement of synagogues, seeing swastikas and anti-Jewish slurs graffitied on and around their places of worship. For example, Jewish comedian and activist Ilana Glazer was forced to cancel a get-out-the-vote event at a synagogue after anti-Semitic graffiti was found on the building, which included the phrase “Die Jew Rats” and mentions of Hitler. In 2017, a White supremacist group chanted “Jews will not replace us” during a now-infamous march in Charlottesville. And last year, 11 Jewish people were murdered at a Pittsburgh synagogue by a man who would later explain to police that he “wanted all Jews to die.” This massacre is the most deadly attack against Jews in American history. 

During a time of emotional exhaustion, fear, and vulnerability, Jewish students at Tufts will look to each other for support in spite of differences. “As a Jewish community at Tufts, we can always be doing more to create spaces where real disagreement can come to the fore without feeling like an existential threat,” said Rabbi Jordan. “Jewish tradition holds that there are some types of disagreement (machloket) that are for the sake of something higher. This disagreement, the sages teach, will endure; only Jews would hold up enduring disagreement as the ideal form.”

 While Jewish communities mourn, seek safety, and attempt to heal, the question remains: how can one appropriately and respectfully denounce the actions of the state of Israel, the only official Jewish state in the world, without their statements being received as anti-Jewish rhetoric? With White supremacy and hate crimes on the rise, for Mullikin, the importance of resolving this issue cannot be emphasized enough. “When we get it wrong,” she says, “Jewish people are hurt by the advancement of anti-Semitism and White supremacy which work hand in hand; Black women are falsely accused of anti-Semitism, placing them in the line of fire from power elites like Donald Trump; the actual White supremacists and anti-Semites in America continue to gain power. This is what’s at stake. We owe it to everyone, particularly marginalized communities, to get this right.”