melbourne universities and antisemitism… hmmm…

by tobybee

According to a recently released survey by the B’nai B’rith Anti-Defamation Commission, “Most Jewish students at universities in Victoria have experienced or witnessed antisemitism […] The study found more problems at La Trobe than at Melbourne, Monash or Deakin.” Sounds pretty full-on hey! But then you read the actual results of the survey and find out a few vital points…

Firstly, only 50 people responded to the survey. And these many people who supposedly experience antisemitism at La Trobe? Well, when you get down to page 15 of the 18 page report, you find out that only 7 people responded from that uni saying that they have experienced antisemitism. And I would think that yes, any of us could find 7 Jews at any uni who would state they have experienced antisemitism. After all, these experiences are completely subjective: it’s not as though there is an objective, universal definition of antisemitism which is taken up equally by all Jews (and the report makes clear that no definition of antisemitism was given). Different Jews experience different things as antisemitic. Which isn’t to suggest that the people who responded didn’t experience what they claim, but rather to critique this idea of experience. We are, after all, constituted by our experiences: the act of using our experiences as evidence of something needs to be understood as a productive move. The people who look at a particular word, or symbol, or idea, or slogan, and see antisemitism, do so because their Jewishnesses are discursively constructed in such a way that this equals antisemitism (the experience produces the identity, and vice versa, in an ongoing movement). And this experience of antisemitism further constructs their idea of their Jewishnesses: their Jewishness is, in part, a defensive one, constituted through the frame of victimhood.

Secondly, as is stated in the executive summary, “Most students made no distinction between traditional antisemitism and anti-Zionism. There was a strong crossover between abuse of Israel and abuse of Jewish symbols and individuals. Swastikas and antisemitic graffiti are used by a range of groups to attack Jews and Israel. The questionnaire also uncovered cases of faculty members using their positions to launch polemics against Israel or make antisemitic statements in ways which intimidated Jewish students.”
In short – when you read the whole thing – it becomes clear that the students are labeling political criticism and critique of Israel and Zionism as antisemitism. Which is a very particular view of what constitutes antisemitism (and is perhaps not surprising – in high school I remember being taught that anti-Zionism is just the modern incarnation of antisemitism. These sorts of ideas are difficult to challenge in a lot of people), a view which I think is – for all the obvious reasons – incredibly ill-conceived and negative (to put it mildly).

A lot of the problem, the report claims, is to be found in lecturers who use Israel’s actions as examples in their lectures (which, as a lecturer I would in a general sense have to support – without knowing the precise context, I would say that it’s important that lecturers use current-day and historical examples in order to give their students a political, as well as a theoretical education – as Howard Zinn stated, “From the start, my teaching was infused with my own history. I would try to be fair to other points of view, but I wanted more than ‘objectivity’; I wanted students to leave my classes not just better informed, but more prepared to relinquish the safety of silence, more prepared to speak up, to act against injustice wherever they saw it.”); and a further problem is to be found in the actions of left-wing student groups, in particular Socialist Alternative and Students for Palestine. Which is mostly, I think, a question of politics (although I’ve been on the bad end of a few SA lectures, and what I’ve learnt – like many others on the left – is that sometimes you need to nod and walk away, and not worry what everyone says).

There are a few standout points in the report (unfortunately I can’t link to the report, but it’s a pdf on the front page of the ADC website), but the one that was the kicker for me was their explanation as to why La Trobe is labeled the most antisemitic: “The higher rates of antisemitism at La Trobe are probably explained by demographic differences between the universities. La Trobe’s main campus is in Bundoora, in the northern suburbs, an hour’s travel for the neighbourhoods where most Jewish students live and close to the neighbourhoods with the highest concentration of Muslims students, a population more likely to identify with the Palestinian side of international conflict and perhaps to be influenced by historical tensions between Jews and Muslims. La Trobe has a strong programs supporting Muslim students, such as the Young Muslim Leadership Training Program, and no programs specifically aimed at Jewish students. The situation is reversed at Monash, which is close to Jewish centres of population and has a strong Centre for Jewish Civilisation, although Monash also has a strong program in Islamic studies.”

I mean seriously – in a report on antisemitism, from a group that purports to care about discrimination, you’d think that some attention would be paid to trying to ensure that one group of people, Muslims, aren’t painted as inherently antisemitic. But alas. (and yes, I know that they try to hedge their words, but I think the underlying, implicit claim is quite clear)

So my experience of antisemitism, having been on uni campuses for the last 10 years – including on 3 different campuses (Melbourne, Monash and La Trobe)? While I believe that there is antisemitism on campus – and I’ve definitely heard a few things that have made me wince, and had to deal with some people and situations that made me incredibly angry and left me with no doubt that I was dealing with antisemitism – it’s really not a serious issue in terms of issues of discrimination at a campus level, and I feel like it’s a problem that is much more individual, rather than systemic. Antisemitism is bad, yes, but the stories of such a small group of people shouldn’t lead to the sensationalist headlines and report which the ADC has put out. Show that these few people truly feel that they have experienced antisemitism, sure. But always preface that with the explanation that it’s a such small sample group, and that the definition of antisemitism which the respondents were deploying was, by and large, rather problematic. Which leads to the obvious question of why does such a report exist, and what are the discourses which the questioners and respondents are trying to further…?

*hat-tip to Antony Loewenstein