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Tuesday, July 23, 2024

On tokenism and the denial of antisemitism

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By Elisha Baker – originally published in the Columbia Spectator.

On June 11, as Jews across the world ushered in Shavuot—a holiday commemorating our ancestors receiving the Torah at Mount Sinai on their journey from slavery in Egypt to self-determination in the Land of Israel—Spectator published an op-ed authored by four “Jews against Zionism.” In the piece, the authors accuse Columbia’s Task Force on Antisemitism of existing “exclusively as part of a political project to stoke fear on campus by alleging antisemitism against anyone opposing Zionism.” By repeatedly tokenizing themselves, mischaracterizing Zionism, and using anti-Zionist rhetoric that crosses the line into antisemitism, the four authors reject Jewish experiences and identities that do not align with their own and deny the lived experiences of many Jewish students on campus.

Their op-ed came as a direct response to a May op-ed published in Spectator, in which the task force shares the insights it has gained from its listening sessions. Most notably, the task force points out numerous examples of threats and ostracism faced by Jewish Columbia students since October 7. These four authors reject the task force’s insights and argue that, actually, Jewish students do not face antisemitic discrimination at Columbia. They conclude by saying, “All of us support Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s demands, and none of us feel ‘ostracized or threatened.’” The irony of this declaration is that it only further proves one of the task force’s most prevalent examples of antisemitic exclusion: “It is usually only Israelis and Jews who are asked to assure people, as the price of acceptance, that they are not ‘Zionists.’ That is about as clear-cut a case of discrimination as one can find.” In other words, Israelis and Jews must choose either Zionism or social acceptance.

The four authors have made their choice clear: They reject their People’s right to a state and self-determination in their historic homeland. They have paid what the task force calls “the price of acceptance,” effectively assuring CUAD and the Columbia community at large that they, in fact, are not Zionists. Therefore, when they claim not to have felt ostracized on campus, I believe them. That is because they fit the pro-Palestinian movement’s mold of what kind of Jew belongs.

But do not be fooled by the way these four graduate students have tokenized their own experiences in order to delegitimize mine. They write, “We don’t wish anyone to feel unsafe, but feeling endangered does not always reflect being endangered.” In theory, it is fair to say that feeling unsafe does not always mean one is actually in danger. In this case, however, many of us have felt endangered because we were endangered. For Jewish students who did not pay CUAD’s price of acceptance, Columbia’s campus was not safe. Jewish students were assaulted on campus. Jewish students were told to “go back to Poland,” where our ancestors were massacred by the Nazis. Jewish students were called “inbred” and told we “have no culture.” And it seems like every time I or my Jewish peers call this antisemitism out, a fringe group of anti-Zionist Jews including Fraenkel, Chen-Zion, Liss, and Steinman—the authors of the op-ed—as well as Professor Joseph Howley and Jewish Voice for Peace—gaslight the world into believing that we are lying.

We are not lying. In May, Rivka Yellin, Eliana Goldin, Eden Yadegar, and I wrote an open letter titled “In Our Name: a Message From Jewish Students at Columbia University.” In this letter, we outlined our connections to Israel, Zionism, and Judaism and articulated our experiences with antisemitism. Five hundred and forty current Jewish Columbia students signed it within 36 hours of the letter’s release to the public. As of Thursday, more than 600 current Jewish students at Columbia University have signed. Believe us when we articulate our identities and share our experiences.

Still, these four authors reject our definition of our own identities. They rely on a false definition of Zionism in order to separate it from Judaism and, in turn, to separate anti-Zionism from antisemitism. They write, “Zionism is a political ideology—not an ethnic or religious identity.” Therefore, they claim, “While it may feel painful to be ostracized on campus due to one’s political beliefs, this does not constitute discrimination.”

Such a reduction of Zionism is inaccurate and dangerous. One of the most important points in our letter is about the meaning of Zionism: “We proudly believe in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland as a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity. Contrary to what many have tried to sell you – no, Judaism cannot be separated from Israel. Zionism is, simply put, the manifestation of that belief.” A cursory glance at the Torah or at any Jewish prayer book would reveal the centrality of Israel—including its capital, Jerusalem—in Judaism. Our ethnic roots are in Israel, our ancestors built societies in Israel and were repeatedly exiled, and Israel is our religious and spiritual epicenter. Zionism, the modern iteration of a millennia-old desire to return home, is far deeper than “political beliefs.” Zionism is, as we wrote in our letter, the belief “in the Jewish People’s right to self-determination in our historic homeland,” and it is “a fundamental tenet of our Jewish identity.”

Yet, under a misleading definition, Fraenkel, Chen-Zion, Liss, and Steinman equate anti-Zionism to criticism of the Israeli government. They ask, “If even close to 42 percent of Jewish students on this campus hold critical views of the Israeli government’s actions, and are expressing them, would the task force call us all antisemitic?”’ The answer to this question is simple: No. Holding critical views of the Israeli government is not antisemitic, nor is it anti-Zionist. In fact, as citizens of a liberal democratic state, Israelis are often the first to criticize their own government. To equate anti-Zionism with criticism of the government is to assert that Zionism necessitates conformity with the Israeli government, whether run by the Labor Party or Likud. The equivalent would be saying that believing in the United States’ right to exist necessitates supporting the president, Democrat or Republican. As Americans, we should all know how absurd this idea is.

Understanding Zionism is crucial to understanding anti-Zionism. As Zionists, we have been very clear about what Zionism means: the belief in the Jewish people’s right to self-determination in their historic homeland. Anti-Zionism can thus be defined as the denial of this right, the belief that Jews do not have a right to self-determination in their historic homeland. When Jewish nationalism is singled out as illegitimate and the Jewish state is vilified as uniquely evil, anti-Zionism becomes the newest iteration of antisemitism. As we wrote in our letter, the nature of antisemitism is that it shifts shape, such that “in every generation, the Jewish People are blamed and scapegoated as responsible for the societal evil of the time.” In today’s generation, a huge portion of the Jewish people are accused of being oppressors, colonizers, and genocidal war criminals. As a result, we are apparently fair targets for a Jihadist terror organization and deserving of ostracism and discrimination on our college campuses. Fraenkel, Chen-Zion, Liss, and Steinman proudly repeat this vilification of my Jewish identity and enable the continued ostracism. These are precisely the modern manifestations of antisemitism.


In their article, the four authors accuse the Task Force on Antisemitism of excluding their voices from the conversation about campus antisemitism because of their anti-Zionism. They write that “it seems that the price of acceptance for the task force is that Jews be Zionists.” They are wrong. In reality, it seems that the price of acceptance for the task force is simply that one refrains from discriminating against Jews for their Zionism. On a campus that supposedly prides itself on diversity, equity, and inclusion, is this really too much to ask?

Elisha Baker is a junior in Columbia College studying Middle East history. He is the co-chair of Columbia Aryeh, a student-led Israel engagement group on campus that encourages engagement with a broad spectrum of opinions.

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