Commentary: Don't shut down debate about Israel and antisemitism

Jonathan Zimmerman, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Op Eds

I was a professor for 20 years at New York University, which has campuses around the world. I taught at NYU’s Shanghai; Abu Dhabi, UAE; Accra, Ghana; and Tel Aviv, Israel, campuses.

Guess which one student protesters want to shut down?

The Tel Aviv campus, of course. The war in Gaza has reinvigorated demands to shutter the site, on the grounds that Israel barred entry of Palestinians following the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas. Protesters have also argued that academic relationships with Israel make NYU complicit in the “genocide” of Palestinians and in “settler-colonialism” in Tel Aviv, which is built on“stolen land.”

Let’s pause to remember that China has placed more than 1 million Uyghurs in “re-education” camps, that the UAE exposes guest workers to deadly heat conditions and that Ghana imprisons people who engage in same-sex love. But the protesters imagine Israel’s sins as different — and worse — so they want to close the program there, while the other NYU campuses get a free pass.

At Columbia University, likewise, students have called for the university to end its dual-degree program with Tel Aviv University. Columbia also has a dual-degree program with a school in Hong Kong, where the Chinese government has jailed pro-democracy activists and journalists. But we haven’t heard a peep of protest about it. Everything — and I do mean everything — is about Israel, which is held to a different standard.

That’s what could happen under the Antisemitism Awareness Act passed by the House of Representatives earlier this month, which encodes the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism into federal anti-discrimination law. The IHRA says that “applying double standards” is an example of hatred against Jews.

So if the Senate approves the bill and President Joe Biden signs it, protesters calling for NYU and Columbia to close their Israel programs might trigger a Department of Education investigation, which could in turn lead to the withdrawal of federal funds from both institutions.

So what? Why should a school allowing antisemitism get any taxpayer dollars at all?

Here’s why: Put simply, we disagree about what constitutes anti-Jewish hatred. And if we enshrine one definition, we’ll preclude debate over it.

That’s what advocates for the bill want, of course. But our entire university system is premised upon dialogue, discussion and the free exchange of ideas. And this measure is a dagger at the heart of that ideal.

If my colleagues or students think that academic programs in Israel should be shut down, I want to hear why. I also want to know why they think Zionism is racism, Israel is a colonial state and Jews exert too much power in national and international politics.


All of those claims would arguably become illegal under the new law. So would cartoons published recently by one of my colleagues at the University of Pennsylvania, who depicted Israeli and American men drinking blood from wineglasses labeled “Gaza.” That would almost certainly violate the IHRA prohibition on “symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel).”

And, speaking of killing Jesus, that explains why some far-right members of the House opposed the bill: If it passes, GOP Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene argued, it “could convict Christians of antisemitism for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews.”

Never mind that most theologians and historians now reject that interpretation of Scripture, or that Jews have suffered hugely over time because people believed it. Greene is entitled to her own belief, and the rest of us shouldn’t prevent her — or anyone on our campuses — from expressing it.

If the measure passes, film classes might be barred from screening Mel Gibson’s 2004 movie “The Passion of the Christ,” which likewise blamed Jews for Jesus’ death. And they might even be precluded from hearing comedian Lenny Bruce’s famous riff on the subject.

“Alright, I’ll clear the air once and for all, and confess,” Bruce said jokingly. “Yes, we did it. I did it, my family. I found a note in the basement. It said, ‘We killed him, signed, Morty.'”

I still laugh when I hear that line. But it’s not hard to imagine an anxious university administrator prohibiting it, if this awful bill becomes the law of the land. I don’t want to live in a country where the government enumerates the things you can’t say, even when I think they’re antisemitic. And if you think otherwise, talk to my friend Morty. He’ll set you straight.


Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of“Whose America? Culture Wars in the Public Schools” and eight other books.


©2024 Chicago Tribune. Visit at chicagotribune.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.


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