Parents Grill Panelists On Colleges, Anti-Semitism

Seth Gordon-Lipkin (left), of the Anti-Defamation League, and Ben Brownstein, of StandWithUs, fielded hard-hitting questions from Howard County parents during a panel about anti-Semitism on college campuses. (Photos by Justin Katz)
Seth Gordon-Lipkin (left), of the Anti-Defamation League, and Ben Brownstein, of StandWithUs, fielded hard-hitting questions from Howard County parents during a panel about anti-Semitism on college campuses. (Photos by Justin Katz)

Howard County parents of high school students grilled representatives from the Anti-Defamation League and StandWithUs during a panel at Howard Community College about what their soon-to-be college students may face when confronted by groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine and Students Against Israel Apartheid.

The April 18 panel called “Peace Takes Two” was organized by staff and volunteers at the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

Representing the ADL, a nonprofit advocacy organization that works “to stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all,” was Seth Gordon-Lipkin, project director of education. Ben Brownstein, Philadelphia-based campus coordinator, represented StandWithUs, a nonprofit that works “to [inform] the public about Israel and to [combat] the extremism and anti-Semitism that often distorts the issues.”

Gordon-Lipkin spoke about the “lines [that] are blurring between what is anti-Semitism and what is bigotry against the Jewish people.”

I think there is a political discourse to be had about BDS but you can only talk about something with two sides talking.

— Seth Gordon Lipkin, project director of education at the Anti-Defamation League

“To modern eyes, classical anti-Semitism is easy to recognize,” said Gordon-Lipkin, quoting Israeli politician Natan Sharansky.

Sharansky’s definition of anti- Semitism, or the three D’s, are the demonization of Israel; delegitimizing or denying Israel’s right to exist; and applying double standards that hold Israel to a different bar compared with other countries.

“We at the ADL think that like any country, Israel’s policies and its politicians can be critiqued; they are open to debate just like the U.S.,” said Gordon-Lipkin. “But there are certain lines that [the ADL] wants people to understand and know when something is going from legitimate political discourse into bigotry against Jews.”

A question-and-answer period followed each speaker’s presentation.

One audience member noted that the movement on college campuses in the 1980s and ‘90s with regard to South African apartheid is strikingly similar to what is being seen today. He challenged Gordon-Lipkin to define the lines between anti-Semitism and political discourse further. The attendee pointed out that while some photos shown during the presentation that used vampire imagery to describe Israel are clearly blood libel, other photos that question Israel’s conduct in the war in Gaza could be seen as legitimate political discourse.

Gordon-Lipkin responded, saying that the tactics of the BDS movement intentionally mimic those used to protest apartheid. However, the comparison between events in the Middle East and what happened in South Africa is not entirely accurate, he said.

“The nature of it is inherently different,” said Gordon-Lipkin. “The concerns with Gaza and the West Bank stem from security concerns, not from systematic racism.”

Then Gordon-Lipkin referred to the double standard within Sharansky’s definition.

“[There is a] lack of equivalency between what groups are protesting against Israel’s actions against Palestinians and their protest — or lack of protest — against what’s going on in Syria,” said Gordon-Lipkin. “What [protestors] consider genocide and what they would not consider genocide is problematic.”

Brownstein, the representative from StandWithUs, spoke about the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and how his organization works with college students to counter the movement as well as defeat legislation that moves through student governments.

Working with pro-Israel organizations and student connections, SWU recently helped to defeat a piece of BDS legislation at Ohio State University by bringing in two speakers to address the issue with a group of undecided student government members. One speaker was a former BDS activist, currently a student at San Diego State University, who now helps to fight against the movement. The other was David Makovsky, a Ziegler distinguished fellow and director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy Project on the Middle East peace process.

In response to a question from the JT about whether or not a legitimate political discourse exists within the BDS movement, Brownstein said groups such as Students for Justice in Palestine put Israel on a pedestal and that, in fact, they are not a pro-Palestinian organization.

“If [it] was pro-Palestinian then [it] would speak about Hamas when they use Palestinians as human shields,” said Brownstein. “If you speak about injustices of Palestinians everywhere, then that’s OK. But what you’re doing by just talking about Israel means you’re just an anti-Israel organization.”

Gordon-Lipkin added, “I think there is a political discourse to be had [about BDS], but you can only talk about something with two sides talking,” which Gordon-Lipkin doesn’t think is happening among organizations.

The panel discussion, which lasted two hours, brought in upward of 50 people, including Michelle Ostroff, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Howard County.

“I’m just so pleased that our community, and in particular parents of high school students, came out for this really important program,” said Ostroff.

Jessamyn Abel, who has two children preparing for college, also attended. She noted the importance of educational institutions being pro-active on the issue.

“Colleges and universities need to realize that Jewish families are watching to see how administrations handle these incidents of anti-Semitism and harassment,” said Abel. “We will choose not to send our children to their colleges if they stand by and do not do something about it.”

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