Hepner Hall at San Diego State University
Iconic Hepner Hall at San Diego State University. Photo by Chris Jennewein

On March 30, San Diego State University announced an enhanced partnership with the Anti-Defamation League to “develop an innovative professional learning community for … recognizing and responding to antisemitism.” Many may welcome this development given the persistence of antisemitism and the ADL’s status as a watchdog group against antisemitism. 

On closer examination, however, this partnership will likely chill political discourse, undermine inclusiveness, and marginalize advocates for Palestinian dignity among the Jewish and non-Jewish communities.

To be sure, there is a problem of antisemitism. Recently at SDSU, a vandal sprayed swastikas on a college dorm and a student troll wrote “The world doesn’t need the Jews” on a Jewish fraternity’s social media memorial for a recently departed member.

I, too, was subjected to antisemitism in 2017, including threats of violence, in response to a Facebook posting that went viral. Yet, and this speaks to the problem of delegating anti-antisemitism to the ADL, the group did not condemn this incident. My record as an outspoken critic of Israel and supporter of Palestinian rights made me the wrong kind of victim.

In fairness, the ADL does commendable things in the areas of civil rights. Yet its laudable mission has been undermined by a long record of aggressive partisanship for Israel. In 2018, the ADL’s director Jonathan Greenblatt joined a US delegation to Israel, led by Ivanka Trump, celebrating the relocation of the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

Delivering the benediction was pastor John Hagee who warned in 2003 that the “anti-Christ” will be a “homosexual” and “at least . . . partially Jewish.” The ADL did not rebuke Hagee, concluding apparently that his championing of Israeli policies outweighed his bigotry.

The ADL, however, freely maligns critics of Israel who have expressed no animus toward Jews. It now targets campus activists for Boycott, Divestment Sanctions campaigns, whose three goals are the end of the occupation, full equality for Israel’s Palestinian citizens, and implementation of the right of return for Palestinian refugees. Rather than seeing such goals as principled positions to be debated on their merits, the ADL categorically declares all BDS advocacy as antisemitism.

Speaking to the UN in June 2016, Greenblatt proclaimed BDS an “irrational hatred of the Jewish people,” demanded that “university presidents and administrators use their influence . . .  to articulate . . . how evil . . . BDS really is,” and honored “those who use naming and shaming” of BDS supporters.

There is every reason, then, to expect the ADL learning program at SDSU to integrate Israel-partisan advocacy into its education on antisemitism. Its website makes no distinction between antisemitism and anti-Zionism, and warns that “anti-Israeli expression and campaigns help create an environment that makes anti-Semitism more acceptable and more probable.” The web page “How Can I be Prepared for Anti-Semitism and Anti-Israel Bias on Campus?” focuses on Israel-related activities, which include:

  • Anti-Israel divestment resolution introduced
  • A professor appears to present only one perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict
  • “An academic department sponsors an anti-Israel speaker

Accordingly, SDSU-sanctioned ADL learning programs will likely discredit sponsors of BDS resolutions and demand that all classes addressing Israel-Palestine and all department-sponsored speakers be vetted for evidence of bias against Israel, which, per ADL logic, evinces antisemitism.

The effect will be to delegitimize dissenting Jewish voices, Palestinians, and others who embed Palestine-solidarity within visions of anti-militarism, anti-imperialism, and anti-racism. Such programs will also discourage candid and probing dialogue between students of distinct backgrounds and life experiences.

Indeed, one month before ADL director Greenblatt’s address to the UN honoring those employed in “naming and shaming” BDS advocates, a far-right Israel-partisan group plastered flyers across the SDSU campus that named and charged seven SDSU student supporters of BDS, all but one Muslim, as perpetrators of “Jew-hatred” and allies of “Palestinian terrorists.” Greenblatt was well aware of such activity taking place at multiple campuses. The targeted students did not see this action as “inclusive.”

Chilling critical speech on Israel in the purported name of anti-antisemitism is particularly problematic in light of recent events. Although the ADL deems it antisemitic to apply the label “apartheid” to Israel, the country’s most respected human rights group, B’Tselem, has recently done so in a comprehensive report, which concludes that Israel “uses laws, practices, and organized violence to cement the supremacy of one group over another.”

Presently, Israel has ignited another deadly skirmish by ordering the expulsions of Palestinians from their homes in East Jerusalem and firing tear gas and rubber bullets inside the compound of the sacred Al-Aqsa Mosque. As in prior large scale conflagrations in 2008-09 and 2014, Palestinians have suffered the overwhelming bulk of deaths, injuries and displacements. Under ADL-preferred guidelines, it will become very difficult to discuss such developments on campus.

Why, then, has SDSU ceded such authority to the ADL? One factor is a corporate, human resources logic with regard to diversity and inclusion, which emphasizes representational diversity and omits underlying structural forces or broader issues of social justice.

To address antisemitism, SDSU simply deferred to an establishment Jewish organization and ritualistically proclaimed this would advance “inclusiveness” and “social justice.” Consequently, SDSU has squandered an opportunity to integrate anti-antisemitism with appreciation of the Palestinian experience and regard for systemic and comprehensive social justice within San Diego, the United States, and the world.

In the 1890s, Germany’s Social Democratic Party rightfully condemned populist attacks on supposed Jewish wealth and power as a “socialism of fools.” Regrettably, SDSU has adopted an anti-antisemitism of fools.

Jonathan Graubart is a professor of political science at San Diego State University and member of SDSU’s new task force on antisemitism. His most recent publication is “Reimagining Zionism and Coexistence after Oslo’s Death: Lessons from Hannah Arendt.” Arendt Studies, Vol. 3, pp. 69-91, 2019. He is completing a book manuscript titled, “Reimaging Jewish Dissent in a New Dark Age: Lessons from the Original Zionist Pariahs”


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