Anti-Semitism smear against Bard students backfires

A woman from shoulders up

Batya Ungar-Sargon falsely accuses students of protesting her “for being a Jew.” (via Twitter)

An update has been added at the end of this article.

Batya Ungar-Sargon, the opinion editor of The Jewish Daily Forward, claims she was protested by members of Students for Justice in Palestine at New York’s Bard College just “for being a jew.”

An indignant Ungar-Sargon at one point walked off the stage at a panel where she was due to speak.

Hers is a grave accusation, undoubtedly calculated to bring the disciplinary wrath of the college, if not of the federal government, on the heads of the students.

But it is not true. Even a prominent former official of the American Jewish Committee, a major Israel lobby group, is saying this.

What’s especially significant is that the former official, Kenneth Stern, is the original author of a controversial definition of anti-Semitism that is now widely being used to smear and silence critics of Israel.

Ungar-Sargon was at Bard last week for a conference on racism and anti-Semitism. One panel featured Ungar-Sargon with Ruth Wisse and Shany Mor.

Earlier this year Ungar-Sargon played a key role in smearing Congresswoman Ilhan Omar as an anti-Semite and inciting racist and Islamophobic attacks on her, including from President Donald Trump.

Wisse is a right-wing Harvard professor who is notorious for dehumanizing Palestinians as a “people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery.”

Mor is a former senior official of Israel’s national security council, a key part of Israel’s apparatus of oppression and occupation against Palestinians.

“No evidence of it”

Stern writes that he was in “all the rooms” where Ungar-Sargon claims anti-Jewish protests took place.

“I have seen and written about anti-Semitism from pro-Palestinian activists, and testified in front of Congress about it,” Stern states. “But it does little good to make that charge, as here, when there is no evidence of it.”

“As much as I disagree with SJP’s point of view, I did not think their actions at Bard warranted condemnation,” he adds.

He says that Ungar-Sargon “was right to note that the panel the students chose to protest was all Jewish, but her leap to the conclusion that it was protested because it was all Jewish, or that perhaps there should have been some special dispensation from protest because it was all Jewish, is misplaced.”

“It was exceptionally clear to me as an audience member that these students protested because they strongly disagreed with Wisse’s views not because of her Jewishness,” Stern says.

“Indeed, some of the banners they held contained quotes from Wisse drawn in large letters.”

Stern, now director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate, notes that many of the protesters were themselves Jewish and asserts that “the protest was about ideas, not the ethnicity of the speakers.”

He dismisses as “mind-boggling” a claim by Ungar-Sargon that bringing Israel into a discussion on anti-Semitism is inherently racist.

In a series of tweets, Akiva Hirsch, one of the students involved in the protest, also refuted Ungar-Sargon’s accusations, noting that the protest was about racist views expressed by the speakers.

Hirsch said that the reasons the students decided to protest against Ungar-Sargon included that “you have made a name for yourself by silencing Black Jews, and we don’t take kindly to that.”
Another witness, London Review of Books editor Adam Shatz, also refuted Ungar-Sargon’s claims:
Ungar-Sargon did gain support from Bari Weiss, however.

Weiss, now a New York Times editor, is notorious for her role as a student in a relentless campaign to get Palestinian and Arab university professors fired by smearing them as anti-Semites for criticizing Israel.

Chilling free speech

What is particularly notable about Kenneth Stern’s intervention is that he was the lead drafter of a definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the US State Department.

A nearly identical version is known as the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.

Free speech advocates have long warned that the definition conflates criticism of Israel and its racist ideology Zionism, on the one hand, with anti-Jewish bigotry, on the other.

Israel and its lobby have pushed governments and institutions around the world to use the definition to police speech deemed too critical of Israel, a campaign of censorship eagerly joined by the European Union.

Ironically, one of the people who has warned most strongly about the threat to free speech from the flawed definition is none other than Stern.

He has denounced efforts to turn the definition into a “vehicle to monitor or suppress speech on campus.”

He has warned that the intention of those seeking to enshrine the definition in law is “to have the state define a line where political speech about Israel is classified as anti-Semitic, and chilled if not suppressed.”

No one should doubt that anti-Jewish bigotry is real and lethal.

It has too recently motivated horrific murders of Jews by neo-Nazis in the United States and in Germany.

But this anti-Semitism is coming from the white supremacist, Islamophobic and anti-Semitic far-right, not from organized, mainstream Palestine solidarity campaigns, or from the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement.

Indeed, the BDS movement is avowedly anti-racist and urges vigilance to prevent anyone from using it as a cover for any agenda other than winning freedom for Palestinians based on universal human rights principles.

But Ungar-Sargon and other bad faith actors are not interested in any of that.

Their goal is to bolster the Israeli government’s smears and lies that people who support an end to Israeli occupation, apartheid and settler-colonialism are simply motivated by hatred of Jews.

It was Ungar-Sargon’s bad luck that Stern was in the audience and willing to expose her falsehoods.

But it should not take such a witness in order for us to see clearly how defamatory and false accusations of anti-Semitism are now the Israel lobby’s first resort in its effort to shut down free speech and shield Israel from accountability for its crimes.

Update, 15 October

Shahanna McKinney-Baldon, the moderator of the panel featuring Ruth Wisse, is demanding an apology and retraction from The Forward for claims made by fellow panelist Batya Ungar-Sargon.

“Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of The Forward, misrepresented my actions at the conference in a column published Saturday night,” McKinney-Baldon writes in a letter to the Jewish publication.

The Forward not only mischaracterized my actions, but publicly identified me as perpetuating anti-Semitism, without talking to me about it first and without giving any kind of picture of who I am.”

McKinney-Baldon identifies as a Jewish African American.

Ungar-Sargon accused McKinney-Baldon of “egging on what was a blatantly anti-Semitic protest.”

“Now I am in the position of having to defend myself, not for my remarks at the conference, but due to mischaracterization of what was a side conversation with a single distressed student between sessions,” McKinney-Baldon states.

As the article above on this page explains, there was no “anti-Semitic protest” – that is a fabrication by Ungar-Sargon. There were however protests against racist views expressed by panelists.

McKinney-Baldon recounts an incident just before the panel in which she found Ungar-Sargon accusing a Jewish student of anti-Semitism for wanting to protest Wisse, a Holocaust survivor.

“The student referred Ungar-Sargon to their flyer, which referenced Wisse’s well-documented prior bigoted statements about Palestinians,” McKinney-Baldon states.

But Ungar-Sargon persisted in trying to silence the student, according to McKinney-Baldon.

“I turned to the student, shook my head, and said I disagreed,” McKinney-Baldon writes.

She affirmed that the student had a right to protest a “controversial speaker” even if the speaker is a Holocaust survivor.

Ungar-Sargon also urged the student to protest a panel the next day, one on Zionism, in which McKinney-Baldon herself was scheduled to speak.

“I was uncomfortable that Ungar-Sargon was encouraging the student to protest our panel the next day, where I planned to share deeply personal reflections on how racism in the Jewish community has affected me and other Jewish people of color,” McKinney-Baldon says.

“I didn’t want to be protested when I already felt vulnerable as one of only two Jewish people of color speaking at an entire conference on racism and anti-Semitism.”

So according to McKinney-Baldon’s account, it was Ungar-Sargon who was “egging on protests.”




After Ungar-Sargon's ridiculous charge of anti-semitism I have almost entirely given up reading the Forward. As a Jew who supports human rights for Palestinians and opposes Zionism's racism, I was offended. Whether or not she was sincere in her remarks, she reflects the unfortunate bias of conservative Jews.