George Mason disputes anti-Semitism label

Students Against Israeli Apartheid with the Mason Patriot sports mascot. Students Against Israeli Apartheid Facebook page
Students Against Israeli Apartheid with the Mason Patriot sports mascot.
Students Against Israeli Apartheid Facebook page

Is anti-Zionism equal to anti-Semitism? Is criticism of Israel the same as Jew-hatred?

These questions are being asked at college campuses across the country, including locally at George Mason University in Fairfax, in light of two recently released reports detailing a disturbing level of anti-Semitism at GMU and other universities, despite criticism by some of these surveys’ methodology and results.

When the David Horowitz Freedom Center, a foundation that describes itself as combating “efforts of the radical left and its Islamist allies to destroy American values and disarm this country,” compiled a list of the 10 campuses with the worst anti-Semitic activity, George Mason University was on the list – much to the surprise of many involved in the university community.

The other report, from Trinity College and the Louis D. Brandeis Center for Human Rights Under Law, surveyed 1,157 self-identified Jewish students at 55 colleges across the country and found that 54 percent experienced or witnessed anti-Semitism on campus during the first six months of 2013-2014.

“I don’t think that we’re in the top 10 compared to some other campuses that are in America,” said Dana Blumenfeld, 19, a sophomore business management major at Mason who sits on the executive board of Mason’s Hillel. “I think the issue with Mason is we have a very, very diverse community. Very diverse. So with social media it might look like it’s one way but really, I don’t really feel unsafe. I’ve never really felt unsafe so I don’t think we’re [in the] top 10.”

That sentiment was echoed by other Jewish Mason students interviewed by Washington Jewish Week. That Mason is diverse. That anti-Semitism isn’t a problem for them personally. And that anti-Semitism is mostly fueled by social media.

Arielle Flax, 21, a senior theater major at Mason, said that she wears a Star of David necklace and does not feel persecuted on campus.

“I don’t feel like I’ve been attacked on this campus at all for being Jewish. So I think it’s a pretty safe space Judaism-wise. It is a very diverse campus. There is always going to be difference of opinion with whoever you talk to,” said Flax.

However, Flax said she has been called names when she has joined online discussions about Israel on social media and on a GMU Facebook community page. She said she was called a “Zionist pig” and “dirty mule” for what she said was talking about Israel in a moderate way.

“I never said anything bad about Palestinians. And people tell me I hate, I want to kill Palestinian babies because I merely said that there are two sides to every story. Even being moderate gets you attacked. And I’ve been called names by certain people for standing up for Israel but also they would attack my Judaism like I’m a brainwashed Zionist or like I’m just a brainwashed silly Jewish American Princess, which is ridiculous. So I have been called names by certain individuals at this school but the school itself is not perpetrating these incidents,” said Flax.

The administration and at least one faculty member interviewed by WJW disagreed with the list and expressed concern that it has damaged Mason’s reputation.

“We do not agree with this list. It does not fairly represent George Mason University or the students that we serve,” said university spokesman Michael Sandler. “Mason is proud to be one of the most diverse universities in the world, with students from 130 nations and all 50 states. This notion of diversity and inclusion is central to our mission to support academic freedom. It’s what makes Mason a great university for all of our students, faculty, staff and alumni.”

Yehuda Lukacs, associate provost for international programs and director of the Center for Global Education, said he fundamentally disagreed with the attempt to associate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. He has dual citizenship, Israel and the United States.

“I’ve been here over 20 years and I would say if you want to put anti-Semitism on a scale from zero to one hundred, then George Mason ranks at zero. There is zero anti-Semitism here,” said Lukacs. “There is no anti-Semitism, I don’t believe, directed toward students, faculty or staff. So I look at the attempt to paint George Mason University as a hotbed of anti-Semitic activity as malicious attempt at some kind of an ideological right wing indoctrination that aims to fuse anti-Semitism with anti-Israel activities which I strongly disagree with.”

According to the State Department, “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews” that includes demonizing and delegitimizing Israel and applying a double standard toward the Jewish state. The Anti-Defamation League defines anti-Semitism as “the belief or behavior hostile toward Jews just because they are Jewish.” The ADL states that “disagreement over policy toward the State of Israel has created opportunities in which the expression ‘Zionist’ — support for Israel as the Jewish homeland — is often used as an anti-Semitic code word for ‘Jew’ in mainstream debate.”

Rabbi Hershey Novack, co-director and spiritual leader of Chabad at Washington University in St. Louis, sees a serious methodological flaw in the Brandeis-Trinity survey because anti-Semitism was self-identified by the respondents.

“If the definition of anti-Semitism is not clear to the participants in the study, and each participant is allowed to arbitrarily decide what might be anti-Semitic in their own eyes, well then the study has a fatal, or near-fatal, flaw,” said Novack. “Being that many young American Jews may have never experienced anti-Semitism, relying on self-defined anti-Semitism suggests that this was a poorly crafted study.”

However, once there is a perception that a school contains anti-Semitic activities, the consequences can be very real, according to Lukacs.

“A parent will read about it and will not do a great deal of research and say, ‘Oh, this is not a place I want to send my son or daughter.’ And I think that the damage has been done already because we’re talking about in the Internet age, this information is shared,” said Lukacs. “I was hearing from a number of colleagues all over the country about it. This list made itself quickly available among Jewish academic circles around the United States and I presume around the world. And the question of perception is really what matters. And it’s unfortunate.”

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