The baseless claims made by The Forward’s Batya Ungar-Sargon at Bard College last week feed the dysfunction of the American debate on Israel-Palestine, making it more difficult for Palestinians and their allies to advocate for their rights.
In a strange public controversy last week, Batya Ungar-Sargon, the Opinion Editor at The Forward, published a column claiming that she had been protested by members of Students for Justice in Palestine during one of her panels at a conference on racism and anti-Semitism at Bard College, ostensibly “for being a Jew.”
The article omitted the fact that many of the protestors were Jewish, and were largely objecting to the presence of keynote speaker Ruth Wisse, who has made notoriously racist comments about Arabs. They were also objecting to Ungar-Sargon’s attacks on U.S. Representative Ilhan Omar and her dismissal of the concerns of Jews of color about her editorial decisions at The Forward.
As +972 contributor Mairav Zonszein reported in Jewish Currents on Monday, many other participants at the conference – including the Jewish protestors, fellow Jewish speakers, and Jewish organizers of the event – have revealed that Ungar-Sargon’s op-ed and her departing speech at Bard were grossly misleading and detached from reality. Many of these participants issued their own responses refuting Ungar-Sargon’s account (examples are here, here, here, and here).
This episode is unfortunate yet unsurprising to many observers. In recent years, Ungar-Sargon earned respect in part for actively bringing a diversity of voices to The Forward regarding Israel-Palestine. These included Palestinian writers whose views were radically different from her own, offering them a platform to engage American Jewish audiences that they might otherwise not have interacted with.
However, her theatrics at Bard were illustrative of a baseless and reckless diagnosis of anti-Semitism which — in addition to cheapening a serious accusation — has contributed to a dangerous climate for Palestinians and their allies, including Jews, to challenge individuals and ideas that condone their oppression.
In many ways, the current debacle echoes Ungar-Sargon’s role in the saga around Rep. Ilhan Omar, after Omar criticized AIPAC’s political and financial lobbying of Congress by quipping on Twitter that “It’s all about the Benjamins.” The post drew accusations from Ungar-Sargon of espousing “anti-Semitic tropes” — a narrative that quickly dominated the public discourse, tarnished Omar’s reputation, and has made her the target of relentless political attacks to this day.
Though certainly not the sole source of that crisis, it seems Ungar-Sargon has not questioned whether her interventions in those events were accurate, warranted, or productive. In fact, she doubled down on her position while The Forward fundraised from the uproar. Following this incident, many Jews of color who previously contributed to the site criticized Ungar-Sargon and demanded she apologize to Omar — calls that went unheeded. (Those same contributors also stated that they were misrepresented or disparaged by other editorial choices she made in the newspaper.)
It is of course legitimate for Ungar-Sargon to have her opinions, and it cannot be emphasized enough that combating anti-Semitism is an urgent and vital task in the political left as well as the right. But her misleading analyses appear to be unduly impacting the American conversation around Israel-Palestine, contributing – intentionally or not – to an atmosphere in which the rights and reputations of many activists wanting to speak up about Israel (and Zionism) are increasingly under attack, from colleges to Congress.
It is not just that her positions are being used by the right to silence Palestinian voices. By presenting herself as an “influential voice among American Jewish progressives” (as she describes in her bio), she is arguably also persuading more ‘moderate’ U.S. audiences to buy into the conflation of Israel critics with anti-Semitic hate groups. This, too, feeds the dysfunction of the debate on Israel-Palestine – the very phenomenon she is supposedly challenging – thus making it more difficult for Palestinians to advocate for their rights.
The damage this has caused is not compensated by the claims Ungar-Sargon made about her work in her speech the day after the protest: that she has published more Palestinian op-eds than any other U.S. outlet; or that she has “spent her entire career embedded in the Palestinian community”; or that she has “convinced more Israelis to vote for the Joint Arab List than you will meet in your life.” (Ungar-Sargon was contacted to elaborate on these assertions for this article; no reply was received).
There are countless Jewish writers and analysts, women and men, who come from different or opposing political camps and who have valuable, credible, and grounded takes on these subjects (including here on +972). The dangerous episodes spurred by Ungar-Sargon undermine her claim to being one of them. Instead of advancing the public discourse, she has sadly done much to regress it.