Joshua Shanes on Kenneth S. Stern
Rightwing lawmakers and other outside actors have sought to “protect” Jewish students from the threat of antisemitic speech, including most criticism of Israel or anti-Zionist perspectives. Political use of the International Holocaust Remembrance Association (IHRA) definition of antisemitism to prosecute speech at college campuses has gained ground, and this includes its definition of unfair criticism of Israel (vaguely defined) as antisemitic.
Ironically, one voice that they assiduously avoid is the chief author of the IHRA definition, Kenneth Stern, who has stood up as a vocal opponent against such legislation, accusing its advocates of weaponizing a sociological tool to suppress criticism of Israel or pro-Palestinian speech of any kind. After countless opinion editorials, Stern has now produced a comprehensive volume about “the conflict over the conflict” where he seeks to answer a straightforward question: “What is it about the Israel/Palestine conflict that makes people nuts?”
His answer is that Israel and Palestine touch a core of Jewish and Palestinian identity that make it difficult for either advocates or detractors of the Jewish State to allow the other side to speak, let alone actually listen to them. His solution – the clarion call of the book – is to defend vigorously everyone’s space to speak, to deconstruct any notion of college as a “safe space” and allow all voices to be heard. Part memoir, part history, part paeon to the value of academic freedom and free speech as the lifeblood of learning and free society, Stern explores through his decades-long professional career how we can most effectively facilitate rational conversations about emotional issues that touch our core identities.
Stern – a long-time veteran of the struggle against white nationalism – is one of the founders of the academic field of “hate studies,” which explores how humans demonize and dehumanize others and considers ways in which this can be combatted. The book opens with a concise introduction to the field, a great resource for outsiders, and argues that too many of us approach topics like Israel/Palestine based on our identity – especially when tethered to a sense of social justice – rather than on logic and reason.
Social evolution bred us to be both ethnocentric and xenophobic, he argues, and because attachment to Israel serves as the essential boundary marker of Jewishness for many Jews, it ends up defining the group and its enemies. Symbols (“often of no intrinsic value”) obtain outsized importance as partisanship increasingly demands absolute allegiance, while both sides obsessively assume the other is receiving preferential treatment and overstate the extent of the other’s influence. In short, he concludes, “the campus battle over Israel and Palestine is fueled by identity, sacred symbols, moral impulses, and an ‘us vs. them / good-bad” binary.’” It should serve instead as an ideal topic to teach students how to think about such controversial and charged issues.
The key to accomplish this goal is the central contribution of the book, a vociferous defense of free speech and academic freedom on all sides. It is a compelling defense of this classical liberal belief. Censorship, he argues, shuts down ideas that would challenge students’ preconceptions and force them to articulate their own beliefs better, or else adapt and accept where they are wrong. Moreover, once the door to censorship is opened, inevitably it is your own speech that will be shut down as well. Censorship of “hate speech” – and he denies this even exists as a legal category – is also self-defeating. It brings attention to those ideas that they might not otherwise have earned and it implies they are too strong to be defeated in open debate.
This defense of free speech also brings a conflict with student safety that Stern recognizes but needs to address more thoughtfully. He mocks notions of “trigger warnings,” “safe spaces,” or “microaggression.” He wants the campus experience to make students uncomfortable, to feel disturbed. Students and faculty must be free to speak their minds without constraint, he writes. Yet Stern also repeatedly acknowledges the problem of verbal harassment, intimidation and threat, which undermine the ability of students to learn and thus must *not* be tolerated. Where is the line between the permitted and the forbidden? He describes training over 200 college presidents in how to manage bigotry on campus through a “steadfast commitment to academic freedom and free speech,” but how exactly was that bigotry managed? The book acknowledges the conflict between these goals, but nowhere did I see a clear definition of the permitted and the forbidden. Since this issue is the core of the “conflict over the conflict,” it’s a lacuna that needs more attention.
The heart of the book surveys the history of efforts at suppression of speech and scholars, first describing the campaign against Israel and its supporters – focusing on the 2001 Durban conference and the mostly failed efforts to build an academic boycott of Israel. The book then surveying the opposing campaign to suppress speech criticizing Israel or supportive of Palestinians generally. Two chapters (four and five) clearly document instances where antisemitism under the guise of anti-Zionism threatened Jewish students and academics, while the next two (six and seven) emphasize where the so-called “pro-Israel” camp has gotten it wrong. He hopes readers across the political spectrum will recognize the futility and negative consequences of trying to shut down views they find offensive and he offers a compelling case for this solution.
Stern is particularly frustrated at the “weaponization” of his “working definition” of antisemitism, which he designed as a tool for data collection – tracing the ebbs and flows of antisemitism in Europe – and “was never intended, and should not be used, to silence academic discussions – even unbalanced ones.” Regarding the “Antisemitism Awareness Act,” later turned into law by the Trump administration’s 2019 executive order, Stern does not mince words: “It poses one of the most significant threats to the campus today, and to Jewish students and faculty.”
For those unfamiliar with his earlier articles, Stern here carefully documents the problem of weaponizing the IHRA definition and the ways in which Kenneth Marcus and others abused his work, since the law already protected Jewish students from harassment. Their real goal, he demonstrates, was to suppress speech that favored Palestinians or otherwise countered Israel’s perspective, especially from the Right, and would thus worsen rather than alleviate the problem of intimidation.
“I am a Zionist, I told the [congressional] committee. I don’t know how this internal debate should be decided, or even if it can. But one thing I knew – Congress shouldn’t be deciding this issue, and if it adopted the definition, it would. Jewish students who were pro-Israel would be protected more than they should be under the law from expressions that were anti-Israel, while harassment of pro-Palestinian Jewish students would be harder to prove.”
In fact, Stern warned that such legislation – now an Executive Order – would paradoxically undermine Israel’s case by leading faculty to avoid teaching Israel altogether, for fear of backlash if they taught it openly and fairly. (Full disclosure: I expressed the same concern in my critique of the Executive Order, which also noted how it was paradoxically fueling antisemitism and pandering to antisemitic pastors like John Hagee and Robert Jeffress.)
He focuses considerable attention at “shadowy” McCarthyite groups like Canary Mission and Amcha for blacklisting academics and even students who cross ambiguous lines in criticizing Israel, openly equating Palestinian advocacy with antisemitism and thereby attempting to shut it down. Even Hillel comes under his microscope for engaging in a parallel strategy of “anti-normalization” as the Palestinians they critique. Students can take it, he insists.
“Hillel should have enough respect for its students to explain to its funders why voices considered hateful of Israel shouldn’t be excluded but rather sought out. … Or Hillel can say it is no longer a big tent for Jewish students who want to wrestle with all things Jewish as they’re becoming young adults, and it instead is yet another pro-Israel advocacy organization. But it can’t have it both ways.”
His exposure of Hillel’s duplicity was not gratuitous. Stern repeatedly emphasizes and documents the role of outside actors – politicians, rabbis and Jewish organizations – interfering in the academic process, both to criticize their interference but also to highlight his argument that the motivation was ideological and emotional, disconnected from logic, reason and reality. For example, he cites a number of instances in which he questioned such groups about the extent of anti-Israel activity on campuses and then exposed their irrationally exaggerated sense of its strength.
It is not the students themselves pushing this agenda, he concludes, but “outside actors on both sides” weaponizing them and having “a destructive impact on the campus and its mission, frequently doing things out of zealotry and self-righteousness that also undermine their stated goals.” These groups must instead “take risks, show leadership, [and] demonstrate what debate looks like.” Even BDS, which he vociferously opposes, is not a real threat but rather a bogeyman, a “sacred symbol for pro-Israel Jews; context and nuance, let alone facts become irrelevant. …Being strong in denouncing BDS is what’s valued, it feels good. But viewing any entanglement with BDS as equivalent of being a Nazi does no good; in fact, it can cause great damage.”
Stern describes other models of education and advocacy that will overcome this destructive tribalism and concludes, finally, “If Jewish organizations want to reduce antisemitism on campus, rather than try to suppress pro-Palestinian speech, they should instead invest in education – teaching about antisemitism, about hatred, and about how to have difficult discussions.”
Readers will appreciate Stern’s balance between these two competing forces vying to shut down their opponents. In both cases – in his opposition to the executive order as well as to the academic boycott of Israel – Stern promotes a consistent ideology of free speech and academic freedom. That said, I believe he needs to grapple more with the flaws in his definition of antisemitism and their predictable application to these new arenas. To be sure, some of its points are clearly examples of antisemitism. For example, blaming Israel for global problems is a clear extension of the antisemitic myth of the international Jew vying for global domination. Other points, however, are much less clear.
Nations are modern constructs and it took Zionists decades to convince Jews – let alone the rest of the world – to think of themselves as constituting one. Indeed, many Jews still deny it. Moreover, many of the same people who insist upon this equation see no equivalent sin in predicating that state on the denial of Palestinian national sovereignty. Many deny the existence of the Palestinian nation itself. Stern knows these are issues that must be studied and debated in the classroom, not prohibited with threats, but his definition sets up the problem in a way that he has still not repudiated.
Similarly, the extremely ambiguous equation of criticizing Israel by a “double standard” as antisemitic opens up almost any criticism of Israel to that charge. There are always worse countries and people have many reasons to focus on one country or one issue over another. Was it a double standard for American politicians to focus on the cause of Soviet Jewry in the 1970s, or South Africa in the 1980s, despite the existence of far worse injustices all over the world? These were issues that moved Americans for a variety of reasons. Now that Stern sees his definition weaponized, it would have strengthened his case to reconsider some of the more examples, even if he intended them only for data gathering.
Stern’s “both sides” approach, at times, struggles. His early comparison of Zionist and Palestinian narratives of 1948, for example, correctly notes their incompatibility. Its short history of Zionism, however, was very problematic, particularly its emphasis on pre-modern antisemitism, which he presents as ever present “throughout history,” a repetition of the famous “lachrymose” theory of Jewish history that has long been discarded. Jumping from 1144, to the Russian pogroms, to Herzl to 1948 in two pages misrepresents the actual history of Zionism, which was less a response to antisemitism – or even about Palestine itself (!) – and more an effort at reconstructing Jewish identity following the breakdown of traditional Jewish society, the rise of secularism, and the era of secondary nationalisms in East Central Europe. In any event, if the purpose of this chapter was to highlight the incompatibility of these competing national myths – that is, sacred narratives that define the national movements – it would help to open with that point and indicate the ahistoricity of both narratives rather than relegate that fact to a footnote.
Similarly, Stern persuasively argues that 1948 sits at the center of the conflict in terms of these competing narratives, but he needs to incorporate the context of Israel’s later decision to absorb the West Bank without extending civil rights to its Palestinians, which threw the conflict back to its origins. The argument discounts the centrality of the on-going colonial occupation of the West Bank, let alone Gaza. Arguing that “this is still a battle over 1948” is thus true to an extent – certainly for Palestinians who want a comprehensive peace that addresses refugees and for Rightwing voices behind Israel that insist Palestinians will never accept two states – but the critical role of the post-1967 occupation is missing.
Despite these shortcomings, this book makes a vital contribution to our understanding of how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict plays out on campuses and in politics. More broadly, it contributes to our appreciation of the vital necessity of academic freedom and free speech as the bedrock of a free society. It does so through a fascinating personal narrative – including huge block quotes of primary sources that will prove extremely useful to students and scholars – and with the gravitas of a scholar who has been fighting and leading in these trenches for many decades. Stern may not have solved the conflict – or the conflict over the conflict – but he has given readers the background and tools with which to fight it far more intelligently and rationally. Anyone engaged in these debates should make it their business to read him.