Opinion: It’s hard to trust the nation’s adoption of antisemitism as its cause celebre

Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., talks at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on “Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University’s Response to Antisemitism” on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 17.

Republican Conference Chair Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., talks at the House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing on “Columbia in Crisis: Columbia University’s Response to Antisemitism” on Capitol Hill in Washington, on April 17. Mariam Zuhaib/ AP

By ANDRU VOLINSKY

Published: 05-12-2024 4:00 PM

Andru Volinsky lives in Concord. A version of this column first appeared as a Substack post at: andruvolinsky.substack.com.

As a Jew, I dislike the current focus on antisemitism. I am uncomfortable being singled out because of my religion regardless of whether it is for harm or for extra protection. In part, this is because I do not trust the motivations of those supposedly coming to my aid.

U.S. Representative Elise Stefanik epitomizes the political leaders who use antisemitism as a cudgel to achieve and consolidate political power and who may readily turn against those she claims to protect when the political mood changes.

Stefanik, a five-term Republican member of Congress from the Saratoga Springs area of New York, is the leading inquisitor of elite college presidents who, she claims, do not protect Jewish students on campus. Some presidents, like Columbia University President Minouche Shafik, succumb to the pressure by vowing to get tough. Shafik called in the NYPD the day after her Congressional appearance and more than 100 pro-Palestinian protesters were arrested. More have been arrested since and there are concerns that the NYPD have mistreated protesters in custody.

Stefanik is a Harvard graduate.

Ever since her first election to Congress, Stefanik has been on a straight-line descent from being known initially for her bipartisanship to a Trump acolyte pursuing a bid for vice president. She has been called out by her local newspaper, the Albany Times Union, for stoking the “hate [of] alarmist anti-immigrant rhetoric that’s become standard fare for the party of Donald Trump.”

In December 2020, Stefanik joined 100 House Republicans in an amicus brief that asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 2020 presidential election. She’s not a moderate, currently.

According to the Times Union, Stefanik “alleges that Democrats are looking to grant citizenship to undocumented immigrants in order to gain a permanent liberal majority, or, as she calls it, a ‘permanent election insurrection.’”

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Trump, who now professes a love for Jews, ”has a long personal history of rhetoric that invokes the language of Nazi Germany and plays on stereotypes of Jews in politics.”

As Stefanik makes clear in a press release posted on her website, antisemitism is nothing more than a political pivot point used to attack Democrats. “[T]his is a crisis in higher education…But our university presidents, whether it’s Columbia…Harvard, Penn…UCLA, Michigan, Yale… have failed to protect Jewish students. They have also failed to condemn antisemitism. And let’s be honest, these pro-Hamas riots, this is Joe Biden’s Democrat Party…”

Being honest, I don’t trust the Elise Stefaniks of the world to defend me. I worry it may not always be expedient to do so.

Also, to be honest again, Stefanik and Speaker Mike Johnson are aligned with and dependent upon the support of wingnuts, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, who are protesting the Antisemitism Awareness Act now being considered by Congress because, in Greene’s words, it “could convict Christians of antisemitism for believing the Gospel that says Jesus was handed over to Herod to be crucified by the Jews,” which is one of the grounds that foment antisemitism in the first place. The claim is also roundly rejected by the Catholic Church.

The Antisemitism Awareness Act will allow a politically motivated Department of Education to withhold funding to all but the Hillsdale Colleges and Liberty Universities in this country. Both Congressman Pappas and Congresswoman Kuster voted for the act. They’re also big recipients of money from AIPAC.

It is wrong to equate pro-Palestinian humanitarian protests with antisemitism as leading politicians do.

Gov. Chris Sununu announced his simplistic conclusion on this point when he proclaimed his disgust at pro-Palestinian protests that he considers ”pure antisemitism.” The First Amendment right to express dissent is acknowledged by Sununu, and by President Biden, only as a begrudged afterthought.

What are the protests really about? Let’s not gild the lily.

Robert Reich in his May 3 Substack post put it well. After talking with students and faculty at a number of universities, Reich concluded, “While protest movements are often ignited by many different things and attract an assortment of people with a range of motives, this one is centered on one thing: moral outrage at the slaughter of tens of thousands of innocent people, most of them women and children, in Gaza.

Senator Bernie Sanders voiced a similar conclusion when he said that it is not antisemitic to challenge the conduct of the state of Israel when it has “killed…33,000 Palestinians, wounded 77,000 — two-thirds of whom are women and children…destroyed over 60% of the housing…destroyed the health care system…the infrastructure, no electricity, very little water. And right now, we are looking at the possibility of mass starvation and famine in Gaza.” It’s not antisemitism, “it is a reality.”

None of this is to say that antisemitism is not real. Nor, is the hatred of others limited to Jews.

Professor Heather Cox Richardson reminds us that on May 6, 1882, President Chester Arthur signed into law the Chinese Exclusionary Act that banned Chinese workers from immigrating to the U.S.. Irish Catholics were the subject of discrimination. Women and non-cisgendered people have been victimized. The Korematsu decision allowing the internment of Japanese Americans and Plessy v. Ferguson which enshrined “separate but equal” as the law of the land are among the most embarrassing decisions of the U.S. Supreme Court but both reflected prevailing public opinion.

As a colleague who teaches at Columbia has noted, Jewish donors withdrawing financial support for universities because of perceived tolerance for pro-Palestinian opinions do Jews no favors. Their pressure campaigns, and those of AIPAC, would be better aimed at the Israeli government to stop committing war crimes through the targeting of civilian populations, destruction of civilian infrastructure and the use of famine as a weapon of war.

“Immigration” has become the prevailing political issue of the day. Not the “Old Testament, I was once a stranger and you welcomed me” kind of immigration, but a nasty, punitive approach to immigration. How does this approach, and the ascendence of a certain ex-president, jibe with a heartfelt desire to protect Jewish values?

I worry that it’s only a matter of time before the worm turns and the political opportunity changes. Then, we’d better watch out.