Alleged anti-Semitism at Oxford condemned by Jonathan Sarna

Professor Jonathan SarnaPhoto/Mike Lovett

On Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, the Telegraph reported that Oxford University’s Labour Party enabled and condoned anti-Semitic actions and remarks by some of its members.

“We haven’t heard this kind of language since the height of anti-Semitism in the United States in the 1920s and 30s,” said Brandeis professor Jonathan Sarna ’75, MA’75.
BrandeisNow sat down with Sarna to discuss what’s happening at Oxford and other campuses. Sarna, the Joseph H. and Belle R. Braun Professor of American Jewish History, is an expert on the history of anti-Semitism and the author, editor and co-author of more than 30 books on Jewish history.
BNOW: What’s your reaction to what’s going on at Oxford?

Sarna: It’s reprehensible. There has been talk of international Jewish conspiracies, one of the oldest anti-Semitic canards out there. We’re seeing this kind of behavior at American colleges too. Criticism of Israel has really morphed into old-fashioned anti-Semitism. We haven’t heard this kind of language since the height of anti-Semitism in the United States in the 1920 and 30s.
BNOW: What do you mean by old-fashioned anti-Semitism?

Sarna: The idea that Jews are an all-powerful subversive group, conspiring behind the scenes to shape the destiny of nations, and that they should therefore be restricted and boycotted – unless they publicly renounce their guilt and denounce Zionism and the State of Israel.
BNOW: Are universities doing enough to combat anti-Semitism?

Sarna: There’s going to have to be a lot of soul searching on the part of university administrators. Years ago, they made clear they were not going to accept sexism or racism. It deeply concerns me that some universities fail to view antisemitism in the same light.  Instead, they tolerate an atmosphere blatantly hostile to Jewish students.  It’s one thing to have debates on Israeli policy, but it’s altogether different to create an environment where supporters of the State of Israel feel endangered and anyone who happens to be Jewish is targeted.
BNOW: Is there a way to balance free speech with speaking out against anti-Semitism?

Sarna: Louis Brandeis thought free speech was its own best defense. If you make a persecutory statement you won’t necessarily go to jail, but you also shouldn’t be surprised if the wrath of all decent people descends upon you. In Brandeis’s words, “the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
It takes courage in our time to speak out against those whose statements are appalling and hateful, but that is the best way to preserve freedom of speech. Moreover, freedom of speech does not include the freedom to create  a chilling and hostile atmosphere that stifles  all freedom. One must feel free on campus to discuss the merits and demerits of all kinds of issues.  As Louis Brandeis put it, “the freedom to think as you will and to speak as you think are means indispensable to the discovery and spread of political truth.”   

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