Courtesy Wake Forest University
Dr. Barry TrachtenbergCourtesy Wake Forest University
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Jewish Studies Professor to Congress: No Anti-Semitism on College Campuses, Nothing Wrong With Comparing Israel to Nazis

Wake Forest’s Barry Trachtenberg tells the House Judiciary Committee not to worry about the Jews

Liel Leibovitz
November 07, 2017
Courtesy Wake Forest University
Dr. Barry TrachtenbergCourtesy Wake Forest University

Today, the House of Representatives’ Judiciary Committee will be holding a hearing titled “Examining Anti-Semitism on College Campuses.” The experts assembled to weigh in on this important subject include the ADL’s CEO, Jonathan Greenblatt; Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean of the Simon Wiesenthal Center, and Pamela Nadell, the president of the Association for Jewish Studies. They also include Barry Trachtenberg, the director of the Jewish Studies program at Wake Forest University.

So just how bad is it for Jews on campus these days? To hear Dr. Trachtenberg tell it, it’s just a tempest in a teapot.

“It is a factual distortion to characterize campuses in the United States as hotbeds of new antisemitism,” he wrote in his testimony, which was posted to the committee’s website ahead of time. “A recent study by researchers at Stanford University reported that while depictions of rampant antisemitism are reported widely in the press, they do not represent the actual experiences of Jewish students at the campus level. They discovered that campus life is neither threatening nor alarmist, and this corresponds to my own experiences with Jewish students… Much of the testimony you will hear today is likely to describe alleged incidents of antisemitism, and it may cite studies purporting to prove that antisemitism is at crisis levels. I urge you to be skeptical of such claims.”

Anyone who is seriously interested in a dispassionate answer to the question at hand, as academics ought to be, might’ve mentioned that the Stanford survey, by its director’s own admission, “was based on our limited sample that was not a representative sample of Jews on campus,” or cited that other recent study of campus anti-Semitism, conducted by researchers at Brandeis University last year, that had about one-third of respondents report being witness to “some form of anti-Semitic harassment.”

But whereas Trachtenberg’s attempt to pass off anti-Semitism on college campuses as nothing more than the breathless creation of the irresponsible media is merely intellectually sloppy, the rest of his testament takes a turn for the worse. The State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, he wrote in his testimony, “is far too broad and encompasses what in other contexts would easily be classified as protected political speech against a foreign government. While I agree that using ‘classic’ anti-Semitic [sic] symbols and images is inappropriate (although not illegal), there is nothing necessarily wrong in comparing the actions of Israel to those of Nazi Germany. In fact, comparisons of foreign leaders and countries to Nazism are made regularly. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush famously compared Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler (a comparison also made by President George W. Bush). Given that comparisons of foreign leaders and governments to Nazism occur regularly, creating a ‘special status’ for speech concerning Jews and Israel would only reaffirm otherwise antisemitic claims that Jews are exceptional and therefore need to have a special category of laws that apply only to them.”

Take a moment to let that argument sink in. Is it wrong to compare Israel’s actions to those of Nazi Germany? You hardly need a Ph.D. to know that the answer is unreservedly yes. If you care about facts, or have anything resembling a moral backbone, you realize just how preposterous and unacceptable that comparison really is. And if you’re a serious student of history, you know that there’s a difference between an American president using the Hitler analogy when waging war against a despot with a demonstrable record of genocide and applying it to a democratic state engaged in an existential struggle against enemies determined to destroy it. To ignore these obvious observations, and to conclude that any attempt to protect Jews from hate speech will only further hurt them by making them seem somehow special, is not only disingenuous but morally repugnant as well. Congress deserves to hear from experts who testify in good faith, not anti-Israel partisans who use it as a platform to promote their biased agenda.

Liel Leibovitz is Editor at Large for Tablet Magazine and a host of its weekly culture podcast Unorthodox and daily Talmud podcast Take One. He is the editor of Zionism: The Tablet Guide.