Abusing the term ‘anti-Semitism’

April 21, 2015, 8:35 a.m.

Judaism is an important part of my identity. As a high school student, I served on my synagogue’s board of trustees and worked at its Hebrew school. I am now involved in Stanford’s Jewish community, so I was horrified this past week to hear the story of SOCC’s interview with Molly Horwitz and the events that followed. But my horror was not directed at SOCC. Rather, I was shocked at what I believe to be the completely inappropriate response to the incident.

Regardless of whether Molly’s accusations are true, they do not qualify as anti-Semitic. Anti-Semitism is a real problem that causes physical, emotional and financial harm to scores of people around the world, including here at Stanford. Bringing in the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) and The New York Times to cover frivolous complaints like this one trivializes anti-Semitism, diluting it to the point of meaninglessness.

Let’s assume the allegations are true. According to Molly’s op-ed, a SOCC interviewer asked her, “Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?”  Molly then writes, “Did me being Jewish mean I wasn’t qualified to serve on Senate?” If this were the implication of the question, we would indeed have a major problem on our hands. But it’s quite a stretch to claim that the questions are equivalent or that one implies the other, and Molly fails to explain the logical acrobatics she used to reach this conclusion.

The fact is, divestment is an important issue for SOCC, and it would be bizarre for a group not to ask candidates about their views on important issues before issuing endorsements for those candidates. Of course, the more controversial part of the question was its opening (“Given your strong Jewish identity”). But this is also perfectly reasonable.

It is true, as Molly points out in her op-ed, that Judaism and Zionism are not synonymous and should not be equated; I myself do not feel a personal connection to the state of Israel. But divestment is still a major issue in the Jewish community, and the vast majority of Jewish student groups opposed divestment. SOCC’s question does not presume that Jews are incapable of serving communities of color in the ASSU. It merely acknowledges that much of the Jewish community strongly opposes part of SOCC’s platform. It is a specific question asking her position on a specific issue and has nothing to do with her being competent or “qualified.” Could the question have been phrased better? Absolutely. Was it anti-Semitic? I don’t think so.

The other allegation was that SOCC had candidates sign a contract preventing them from associating with the Stanford Israel Alliance and the Jewish Student Association. This sounds bad, although it appears to be untrue (multiple candidates were endorsed by both SOCC and JSA) and, frankly, still does not qualify as anti-Semitism. It was not alleged by any reliable account that the contract prohibited “affiliation with Jewish groups” in general, as the New York Times article on this story so clumsily implies, but rather that it prohibited certain kinds of affiliation with specific groups on campus, both Jewish and non-Jewish, that officially endorsed opinions which conflicted with those of SOCC, a reasonable requirement for candidates wishing to represent SOCC’s platform.

The handling of this case was atrocious all around. Molly Horwitz called the ADL. The Stanford Review published an article before obtaining all the facts. It later issued corrections and updates, but the damage had been done. News organizations worldwide, ranging from Buzzfeed to The Times of Israel, had already picked up the story.

Jews have historically faced persecution around the world, and anti-Semitism remains a problem today. We Jews have plenty of opportunities to play the victim card. This was not one of them. Crying wolf on anti-Semitism stifles legitimate open discussion and renders the term “anti-Semitism” severely weakened. Additionally, turning this insignificant incident into an international news story is divisive for Stanford and alienates us from other minority groups, especially students of color. As Jews, we must be vigilant in fighting anti-Semitism on campus. We must be equally vigilant in fighting the abuse and misuse of the term.

— M. Hetfield ‘18

Contact M. Hetfield at moseslh ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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