At Columbia, Jewish Students Like Me are Caught in a Culture War

| Talya Wintman for New Voices |

With the release of the Trump peace plan, it’s been made even clearer that the two-state solution is no more than a platitude — and international activism for Palestinian human and civil rights is more important than ever. However, as a prelude to this politically expedient deal, President Trump announced an executive order which risks conflating Palestinian solidarity activism on college campuses with antisemitism, making it even harder to proceed. I would know, because my own university has been embroiled in a Title VI allegation since December.

About a month ago, I discovered a Title VI complaint had been filed against my university with the Department of Education (DOE) by the Lawfare Project, alleging systematic antisemitic discrimination through Palestinian solidarity advocacy at Columbia University. This is the first complaint of its kind since Trump’s December executive order adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Agency’s (IHRA’s) antisemitism definition to Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

I am a Jewish student in a Middle Eastern Studies department. Difficult conversations about Israel-Palestine have been a formative part of my college education. The fact that the same conversations would for another student amount to hate speech should speak to the danger of politicizing the IHRA’s broad definition of antisemitism to potentially cut back on federal funding for universities.

With all the news coverage on Trump’s executive order, we’ve paid less attention to the organization that is filing these Title VI complaints, the Lawfare Project. While the Lawfare Project has been intent on fashioning itself as a bipartisan civil rights group, Brooke Goldstein, the organization’s executive director, has a track record far more sinister than her organization’s public image lets on.

Goldstein has compared Ilhan Omar to the KKK’s David Duke. She has linked Huma Abedin to Al Qaeda and the Muslim Brotherhood. She willfully neglects to call out white supremacist antisemitism disseminated from the highest office. Make no mistake, as Goldstein’s regular Fox News appearances with Tucker Carlson make clear, this is not about antisemitism. It’s a culture war.

In my four years at Columbia University following the Trump administration’s crusade against Middle Eastern Studies departments across the country, I’ve come to understand that the Department of Education “law-fare” targeting pro-Palestinian activism is not about antisemitism or other threats to young American Jews. On the contrary, it risks curtailing our most basic civil liberties and diminishing the quality and rigor of our education.

These cases seek to exploit Jewish generational trauma as a wedge for the GOP, and in doing so they also present the Israeli electorate with a sense of threat and isolation to justify a brutal military occupation and boost Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s poll numbers.

American Jews are fearful of persecution and assimilation — not unlike other minority communities — and we often project these fears, as well as our hopes, onto Israel as an extension of ourselves and our community. This abstraction of a universalized Israel and Jewish peoplehood under siege pulls at the heartstrings of my grandparents and many in our community. The perceived precariousness of our continuity, our inherited trauma, and our relative success, however, have conscripted us into a culture war that pits right-wing populism against institutions of learning and has no bearing on the rising tide of antisemitism in our country.

Despite the outrage, the fuss, and the millions spent by Evangelicals, American Jews, and Israel’s Ministry of Strategic Affairs to fight the Boycott, Divest, Sanctions movement (BDS) at universities like Columbia, Gilad Erdan, the Member of Knesset charged with running the Israeli ministry fighting Israel’s delegitimization, has stated, “[BDS] has had no real influence on the State of Israel or its economy.”

Since the 1970s, economic boycott of Israel has been restricted across the US by the Office of Antiboycott Compliance, augmented by many individual state laws including New York’s 2016 executive order. Even nominal settlement boycotts in Europe have been threatened with legal action.

Meanwhile, foreign direct investment in Israel is at an all-time high. Israel is engaged in trade with China, Gulf economic rapprochement, and natural gas deals with Egypt. All this, while Israel continues to operate with impunity in the occupied territories, regulating whatever exists of a Palestinian civil economy.

There is something deeper than fighting “delegitimization” that attracts Israeli Public News broadcasters, Lawfare lawyers, and pundits to my college campus. This is about Jewish fear and its exploitation by the right. In the Israel delegitimization debate, we make mountains out of molehills and cynically conflate criticism of Israel as a threat to Jewish peoplehood.

When civil rights cases are brought against campus protests, discussions, and lectures, they serve to increase the perceived level of threat. Jews in my community look with alarm, seeing a threat to their children, continuity, and whatever tenuous status we’ve achieved in the United States.

It’s what keeps my grandfather up at night when he forwards me Algemeiner’s Worst Colleges for Jewish Students ranking, where Columbia – nearly a quarter Jewish and with a joint degree program with the Jewish Theological Seminary – routinely hovers in the top five.

I would like my community to trust me enough to confront new uncomfortable ideas with me. I would also like the Department of Education to allow me to learn without imposing a paternalistic and overly broad IHRA guideline on my university studies. And finally, I would like to be able to discuss generational trauma with my grandparents, apart from the culture war playing out in Congress, the Department of Education, and on my very own college campus.

Using restrictions on Palestinian solidarity activism as a stand-in for confronting antisemitism inherent in white supremacy exposes the hollowness of this administration’s actions. In my eyes, Trump’s attempts to curtail civil liberties on my college campus and to disenfranchise Palestinians through his peace plan are connected.

These Title VI complaints reinforce Trump’s cynical plan. They are meant to restrict international solidarity activism and nonviolent economic levers in a time when Palestinian and Israeli peace activists need it most. As Trump continues to sow division in our community, we must remember : the nativism and white supremacy he continues to espouse are part and parcel of the antisemitism targeting us.