BY SHARI RABIN and JOSHUA SHANES
We serve as two members of the core faculty of the Jewish Studies program at the College of Charleston. In a wide variety of courses we regularly teach students to understand anti-Semitism, its causes and consequences, and about the history and culture of modern Israel. Our deep commitment to this material is what compels us to oppose South Carolina House bill 3643. This bill seeks to instruct state colleges and universities to declare the expression of certain positions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be anti-Semitic and to take appropriate action, if warranted, in order to “protect” Jewish students.
Anti-Semitism — and other forms of discrimination against minority groups — is a real and persistent threat, as recent bomb threats and acts of vandalism at Jewish Community Centers have shown. And yet this bill co-opts well-meaning public concern about these threats, using it to suppress free speech about Israel that will have a chilling effect on the work of faculty like us.
In our classrooms, skepticism and critical thinking are encouraged and nurtured, not forbidden because of contemporary political considerations. Our goal is to encourage free and open discourse on the widest possible range of ideas, including controversial ones. How can we possibly nurture an open environment to consider big questions like the nature of the modern state and competing claims between and within nations if, as the bill indicates, such discourse is deemed anti-Semitic? Must we declare the vast majority of rabbinic intelligentsia of a century ago to be anti-Semitic because they opposed the idea of Jewish statehood? What about Jews today who follow those rabbinic voices, or even passionate Zionists who are persuaded by Zionist arguments that support a withdrawal from the West Bank? (The bill’s main sponsor has publicly accused such Jews of anti-Semitism.) Ironically, under this new law, even one of the most respected Israel Studies textbooks in use —– Alan Dowty’s Israel/Palestine — might be deemed anti-Semitic for defending the validity of both Israeli and Palestinian narratives. (Dr. Dowty is about to be honored for lifetime achievement by the Association for Israel Studies at Brandeis University.)
Modern anti-Semitism encompasses many ideas, but at its heart it is an ideology that sees the entire Jewish people as a single demonic collective, acting in harmony in a conspiracy to subvert others, usually in order to gain profit.
It is misleading, indeed counter-productive, to describe as anti-Semitic political positions that are normative in Israel itself — not to mention the United States — and serve as distraction and fuel for genuine anti-Semitic and racist discourse.
As trained historians and teachers, we have the tools to contextualize these debates and ensure that students are working with reliable information.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is too important to leave to partisan polemics and questionable news sources. This will be the outcome if curious students do not have access to the type of rigorous and wide-ranging conversation that this topic deserves. The notion that this speech is not being criminalized, merely labeled “anti-Semitic”, is misleading to say the least. Indeed, the proposed legislation may lead faculty to avoid these topics altogether, leaving students vulnerable to misinformation and failing to give them the critical thinking skills promised by the college’s mission.
Moreover, where does this end? This law begins a descent down a dangerous and slippery slope into a very deep abyss. It would invite similar laws on behalf of countless political positions, starting with Palestinians themselves. Should we be labeling as racist any discourse that denies the right of Palestinians to national self-determination? Surely not. Students and faculty must be free to explore these questions as well, with every permutation in between.
These are some of the reasons why the man who wrote the definition of anti-Semitism that this bill seeks to tap — language intended to serve as a tool in a very different context — published a column strongly opposing this bill last week. Ken Stern fights anti-Semitism professionally and saw this thinly-veiled attempt at quashing free political discourse not only as misguided, but as an effort that will weaken the struggle against anti-Semitism. We urge readers to read and consider his words.
While we applaud the impulse of our senators and representatives in Columbia to combat discrimination, we urge them not to rush this bill into law. There is no urgency to do so and its effects — constitutionality aside — may be precisely the opposite of some supporters’ good intentions.
Shari Rabin is an assistant professor in the Jewish Studies program at the College of Charleston. Joshua Shanes is an associate professor..