On Tuesday evening, the Stanford University Student Senate debated a resolution that would commit the school’s student government to combat anti-Semitism. Ironically, what transpired in that debate underscored just how sorely needed the resolution was in the first place.
Objecting to the resolution’s language, student senator Gabriel Knight asserted that saying “Jews control the media, economy [and] government” is “not anti-Semitism.” Therefore, he argued, such wording should be stricken from the resolution’s characterization of anti-Jewish prejudice. Knight’s full statement was captured in an audio recording of the proceedings, obtained by Tablet:
…It says, ‘Jews controlling the media, economy, government, and other societal institutions,’ and it cites this as a fixture of anti-Semitism that we theoretically shouldn’t challenge. I think that that’s kind of irresponsibly foraying into another politically contentious conversation. Questioning these potential power dynamics, I think, is not anti-Semitism. I think it’s a very valid discussion.
Molly Horwitz, a Jewish student senator, said that the incident “brought up a lot of the concerns that the community has had, and it brought up evidence that there is a need for education on anti-Semitism.” It was precisely because Knight and some of the assembled students did not recognize the latent prejudice of what was said, explained Horwitz, that made the incident so troubling. “Some things are buried very deep inside, and people might not necessarily think that they harbor anti-Semitic feelings,” she said.
Horwitz herself made national headlines last year during her election campaign after she alleged that a student group asked how her “Jewish identity” would affect her votes. The group denied the incident, and as the meeting was private, there was no recording to settle the matter. That was not the case this time. “After what happened to me, I’m just very glad that there were more people in the room, and that this was something that’s recorded,” Horwitz said, “because a lot of the time, acts of discrimination on college campuses occur when there is no one to report it.”
For evidence of this, one need only look at the anti-Semitic postings that appeared on the campus’ YikYak, the anonymous online messaging forum, in the aftermath of the Stanford senate debate. For example:
The incident at Stanford brings to mind other recent anti-Semitic outbursts on prominent American college campuses—whether the Oberlin professor who claimed Israel was behind 9/11 and ISIS, or the Vassar guest lecturer who peddled the conspiracy theory that the Israeli military harvests Palestinian organs, an echo of the medieval anti-Semitic blood libel. But the similarity between schools ends there.
At Oberlin and Vassar, the anti-Jewish incidents were met with silence from both students and staff, ultimately forcing alumni groups to step in and condemn what transpired. “With very few exceptions,” observed former Harvard president Lawrence Summers in the Washington Post, “university leaders who are so quick to stand up against microagressions against other groups remain silent in the face of anti-Semitism.” And as Emily Shire wrote in The Daily Beast, “the current student body at Oberlin has been relatively silent about Karega,” the anti-Semitic professor, even as the same students have leaped to condemn slights against other minorities, from culturally appropriated food to critiques of feminism.
But Stanford students, when faced with apologetics for anti-Semitism, took a dramatically different course. In the hours following Knight’s comments, several student senators called on him to resign. “Senator Gabe Knight, through either ignorance or hate, propagated one of the most classic tropes of anti-Semitism hatred,” wrote Senator Matthew Wigler. “He should immediately end his bid for re-election and educate himself on systems of anti-Jewish oppression. This incident, from an ASSU Senator, should give us all pause as we step back and re-evaluate the state of anti-Semitism on campus.”
The next day, the Stanford Daily, the campus paper, withdrew its endorsement of Knight’s reelection campaign. And one of its columnists, Winston Shi, authored a scathing 1,300-word indictment of Knight’s anti-Semitic remark. “As we learned again at the ASSU Senate meeting on Tuesday night,” he began, “anti-Semitism, though stupid, is not the sole provenance of stupid people.” He continued:
I cannot phrase this strongly enough: What Mr. Knight described as “a very valid discussion” are words that have launched pogroms and genocides, destroyed communities for generations and left a tragic stain on the human conscience. Do I think that Mr. Knight intends to recreate the Holocaust? No. Do I think Mr. Knight is responsible for the words he says? Absolutely. It is profoundly unbecoming of an ASSU senator, who is supposed to represent people like you and me, to help perpetuate this myth. It is a statement dredged from the depths of the very worst kind of race-baiting.
Shi pointed out that this was not an isolated incident. Earlier that year, the student senate had attempted to defund two-thirds of the Jewish Student Association’s budget, and gave it only 24 hours to appeal. “The ASSU eventually backed down,” Shi wrote, “but throughout the JSA crisis, it was painfully clear that the Senate had demanded cutbacks from JSA which had not been required from any of the other identity groups on campus.”
Shi closed with a powerful mea culpa:
I’ve worked at The Stanford Daily since my first week at Stanford. I’ve run the Opinions section. I’ve written nearly 180 columns for the paper. I’ve spent three years on the Editorial Board. I have, in other words, been around the Daily block.
The Editorial Board, with my agreement, endorsed Gabriel Knight for Senate on Monday. Gabriel had interviewed well, to be sure. Nothing in his endorsement interview indicated that he would say something like this. But his later actions still reflect badly on The Daily. That decision was probably the single worst decision of my career—and one I can only belatedly retract.
It remains to be seen whether Stanford’s student senate will pass an appropriate resolution addressing anti-Semitism, and whether the student body will return Knight to office. But at a time when other college administrations and student bodies seem paralyzed and unsure about how to respond to outbreaks of anti-Jewish prejudice on their campuses, they might all take a lesson from Stanford students like Winston Shi.
Yair Rosenberg is a senior writer at Tablet. Subscribe to his newsletter, listen to his music, and follow him on Twitter and Facebook.