[Editor’s note: The following presentation was delivered by Dr. Catherine Chatterley at the Expert’s Forum of the Interparliamentary Coalition for Combating Antisemitism (ICCA) Conference, which was hosted by the Canadian government in Ottawa, Nov. 7-9, 2010. ]
In her lecture, Dr. Chatterley refers to the Size Doesn’t Matter Campaign 2010 inaugural video that compared Israel to a man’s genitals, and was promoted in 2010 on campuses. The video was produced by the Canadian Federation of Jewish Students and promoted with the apparent backing of Hillels and CIJA (Canadian Council for Israel /Jewish Advocacy). The video depicts a couple in bed with the woman looking at the man’s penis saying she can’t go there because “it’s too small.” The man replies, “I consider this a spot of worship. It may be small, but it’s brought the driest places to life. Baby, this is paradise.” The camera then pans to Israel maps and pocket guides placed strategically on the man’s lower parts. The idea behind the video was to drive young people to the Size Doesn’t Matter website that contained valuable facts about Israel, its culture and innovation and promoted it as a tourist destination. Some people liked the video and others thought it was in bad taste (no punn intended). The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs pulled the video off its website, when it garnered controversy.] See video:
Presentation to the ICCA Expert’s Forum Workshop on Campus Antisemitism
By Dr. Catherine Chatterley, Founding Director, Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism (CISA) http://www.can-isa.com
Rather than attempt to present a sustained discussion of a complex problem in such a short amount of time, I will,
instead, mention four dimensions of our subject that are of significant concern to me as a Canadian scholar
and educator, and particularly as a historian whose specific research and teaching specialization is
Antisemitism and the Holocaust:
1. Form and Content
It might be helpful to separate form from content in order to understand the dynamics at work in some of the problems on campus, problems that may or may not manifest as antisemitic, as the case may be. There are two major worlds on campus that have collided and that collude as well and they require separation and delineation in order to understand them. There is the practice of academic discussion and debate, on one hand, and there is activism and political advocacy, on the other. They are not the same, they do not share the same values and tactics, and I would argue that the latter (activism) too easily bullies the former (reasoned discussion).
Activism has a long and proud history on university campuses and it makes sense that students want to act on what they are learning, particularly if injustice is at hand. The basic moral impulse at work here is idealistic and respectable. It is, in essence, a desire to help right a wrong and to alleviate suffering. However, the form that this impulse takes is often aggressive-both rhetorically and sometimes physically-and it is perceived as threatening by those targeted by such activism. What we see on activist campuses is a venting of rage and frustration over seemingly intractable political problems that one has no actual power to influence or change. And this frustrated rage is directed toward those students and faculty who identify, or are identified, with the target of that rage. So if the Jewish State is the target of one’s rage, Jewish students and faculty become legitimate local targets-proxies if you will-in the struggle against oppression. In this hostile, polarized climate, Jews-students, faculty, alumni, and even administrators-are pressured to publicly identify with one side or the other, and the effects are felt throughout the university structure.
It is possible that this potentially toxic climate-which varies widely from campus to campus and city to city-requires a new charter for all university campuses that outlines the rules of conduct for both academic discussion and campus activism. To have effect, the charter would have to be produced by faculty, based upon consensus, and universally applied to all universities in Canada. Focusing on behavior-form rather than content-may help us to reach agreement on how to return civility to campuses like York and Concordia and to protect the civility that still exists on others like those in Manitoba. I would imagine that all faculty-regardless of their own political perspectives-would agree that the university must be a place that operates within the bounds of professional academic discourse-reasoned, mutually respectful, and based upon an accurate, demonstrative, evidentiary record.
2. Bans and Bagels will not work
The attempt to ban Israel Apartheid Week (IAW) on Canadian campuses does not have the support of faculty, and is in fact seen as a totalitarian tactic to suppress dissent and to censor discussion of the Arab-Israeli conflict. From my own discussions with colleagues, it is clear that even those faculty who reject entirely the fallacious comparison between Israel and South Africa under Apartheid (1948-1994) will never support a ban on campus discussion of any subject matter. However flawed the analogy may be intellectually, the vast majority of faculty are not convinced that the comparison between Israel and South Africa constitutes hate speech. The exception here of course is agitation on campus that specifically calls for genocide or violence against individuals, which is illegal under Canadian law.
It is perhaps important to note that pushing for a ban on IAW has negative implications that both draw from, and feed, the antisemitic imagination. Jewish organizations, Jewish students, Jewish alumni (who are better known as donors), and Jewish lawyers are perceived to be in cahoots to ban critical discussion of Israel, which of course translates into muzzling dissent and censoring “the truth”. Unfortunately, this convinces many that the Israel-Apartheid argument has some validity because it has the Jewish community on the run, as it were; it “proves” to many that Jewish organizations are reactionary and work through elites (this conference itself is largely perceived along these lines by individuals in Canada); and, it convinces some that in fact Jewish organizations are like Israel itself, which in their view is anti-democratic and repressive. This kind of authoritarian policy, it is argued, has no place on university campuses in a democratic nation like Canada.
The attempt to ban IAW on Canadian campuses is a losing battle from my perspective and it actually has the potential to do additional damage by alienating allies on campus and empowering supporters of IAW to portray themselves as members of a “resistance” movement.
The response to IAW by Jewish student organizations has been to stay positive and remain apolitical. Building a shuk(Israeli market), handing out bagels, and promoting the “Size Doesn’t Matter” campaign (whose inaugural commercial had the size of Israel compared to a man’s genitals) are not sufficient responses to the highly politicized and offensive strategies of IAW. These benign attempts to promote Israeli culture may be helpful in elevating the self-esteem of Jewish students (something, no doubt, important and valuable in and of itself) but they backfire with other large constituencies on campus.
When you refuse to engage politically and intellectually there are consequences, and we are seeing them now-IAW and its supporters have “taken the field” on campuses, where Hillel’s retreat from political conversation left a vacuum, and they are adding new fields at new colleges every year. The seriously flawed accusations that underpin IAW events must be addressed head on by reasoned academic presentations given by leading scholars. Otherwise, the Jewish response appears terribly insensitive-cavalier, actually-to the suffering of Palestinians and the real violence affecting both Israel and the Palestinian territories. These are the subjects that young people care about and want addressed-ignoring them is a grave mistake. Calling in lawyers to ban the events also leads many people on campus to view the Israeli side of the debate as intellectually lazy, and this matters on a university campus. What we need instead of bans and bagels is high quality academic programming that both unpacks and counters the Israel Apartheid propaganda that we see on our campuses and actually engages with the difficult and contested reality of the conflict.
IAW is a very smart political strategy on the part of pro-Palestinian activists. Students care about racism and human rights-and so they should. As a result, they are easily and actively mobilized against those labeled racists and human rights violators, for whom there is little sympathy in our contemporary culture. IAW relies on the lack of public and student knowledge about Israel and the complex history of the Middle East, and it also depends upon the widespread ignorance about the system of Apartheid and the history of South Africa. It is relatively easy to make a flawed comparison if people are ignorant about the examples being compared.
Given the fact that Nazism largely fails as a comparison to Israel in the minds of most of us in the West (not so in the rest of the world however), pro-Palestinian activists developed a deliberate strategy to delegitimize the State of Israel by comparing it to racist South Africa instead. Those of us who attended university in the late eighties and early nineties know how powerful and effective the anti-Apartheid movement, including its calls for divestment and boycotts, was on Canadian campuses. Then and now, young people take this anti-racist position home with them (I remember harassing my relatives for buying gasoline at Shell in those years). This is the successful model adopted by pro-Palestinian activists since Durban I (2001) and it requires a thoughtful, engaged, coordinated intellectual response.
3. Serious Collateral Damage
Unfortunately, the battle over Israel and Palestine has expanded to such an extent that it now includes an insidious assault on the Holocaust and on the millennial phenomenon of antisemitism. Ten years ago, a historian of antisemitism and the Holocaust would not be engaged in public discussions of Israel and Palestine-they were separate subjects. Antisemitism was still largely thought to be a Western phenomenon, the product of Christian Europe, and one relegated to fringe right wing parties in North America after the Holocaust-something to monitor, certainly, but nothing to fear, necessarily.
That reality no longer exists.
The very serious problems of Holocaust denial, inversion (which is the portrayal of Israelis as Nazis), and sordid abuse (the grotesque celebration of Hitler’s extermination of European Jewry and the gleeful anticipation of a second Holocaust), are gaining ground in communities around the world and this should be of great concern to everyone who cares about historical truth and about the memory of this outrageous European assault on the Jewish people. Those in Britain and Europe who argue that teaching the Holocaust offends Muslim sensibilities, given the problems in the Middle East, are rolling back the gains we have made in establishing Holocaust Education as part of the curriculum in many Western nations. There appears to be expanding sympathy for this point of view, which increasingly rests on a very negative public perception of Israel and a growing public reluctance to identify with Jewish suffering.
Unfortunately, we can now talk about the existence of a new popular and growing phenomenon I will term Antisemitism Denial. Antisemitism, a subject I have studied formally for 23 years, is now thought by too many people-including some of my own colleagues-to be a non-issue, a figment of the imagination, and a cynical political tool used by the Israeli government and Jewish organizations acting in its service to intimidate people and censor legitimate criticism of Israel.
The accusation of antisemitism is believed to be so powerful, and the consequences of being accused so negative, that critics of Israel like Michael Keefer (a literature professor who teaches at Guelph) have gone on the assault against antisemitism as a contemporary problem, arguing that there is no such thing and comparing this so-called phantom to the “real” antisemitism of the past. In fact, I have been told this same story about antisemitism by my own colleagues, who have suggested that the Institute I created this summer would only be welcome on campus if we did not pursue the subject past 1945. This begs the question of who is actually attempting to politicize the subject of antisemitism and who is actually promoting censorship on campus.
How we deal with the growing assault on the crucially important subjects of the Holocaust and antisemitism is something about which I am deeply concerned, especially given the fact that this period coincides with 1) our loss of the living witnesses to this horrific crime, and 2) an ever increasing coercive pressure to abandon the specific focus on the Holocaust for the more inclusive and therefore popular subject of comparative genocide.
4. Rebuilding the Centre
To conclude my introductory remarks, I would like to state that I believe our approach to the problems under discussion must be self-reflexive, reasoned, and accurate to have the desired effect of re-establishing civility and intelligent academic discussion on the subjects of Antisemitism, the Holocaust, Israel, Palestine, and the conflict in the Middle East.
There is a tendency, all too human I am afraid, to return the ad hominem attacks of one’s opponents. So, we find among those speaking out against campus antisemitism individuals who pillory the left-a truly amorphous term today- or feminists and gay rights activists, who are accused of being “Palestinianized” and therefore corrupted or somehow disqualified. I wonder: would it be fair or accurate or productive for opponents to refer to me as “Jewified”?
The battle over Israel and Palestine has become a new Cold War in the West, especially on our campuses and between friends and colleagues, yet another re-conceptualization of polarized “two solitudes” thinking.
My goal as a teacher and a scholar, and as Director of the Canadian Institute for the Study of Antisemitism, however frustrating and seemingly impossible it may appear today-is to try to help rebuild the middle ground. The centre is always where human beings find compromise and this conflict is no different. We need to encourage intelligent discussion and debate that employs meaningful, ethical, and accurate language to describe what are truly difficult, complex, and contested histories.
People need to take responsibility for their own personal feelings of rage and frustration and they must be encouraged to exercise self-control in multicultural public spaces. To this effect, we must put in place a new consensus on academic and activist conduct for Canadian university campuses that preserves civility and safety for every individual and upholds the rigorous standards of professional academic enquiry.