The Bard College de-platforming revisited

Three days ago I wrote about the experience of Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor of the Forward, who claimed in the following article that she had been subject to an anti-Semitic protest while speaking at a panel at Bard College. (Click on screenshot).

In her piece, Ungar-Sargon claimed that she had been informed of an impending student protest of her panel, which was supposed to be on anti-Semitism and include three Jewish people. Ungar-Sargon reported that she asked the students to protest instead an other panel, because hers had nothing to do with Israel, and protesting a simple discussion of anti-Semitism that didn’t mention Israel was, to her, tantamount to anti-Semitism herself. Further, she claimed that Bard College officials had no plan to deal with the protest, that it took place and only belatedly were the protestors removed, and that fellow audience members not only applauded the protestors, but were joined by one of the panelists herself.

In protest of these actions, Ungar-Sargon gave an empassioned speech at the next panel, chastising the “anti-Semitic” protests as well as her fellow academics, whom she saw as complicit in this bigotry, and then walked off the stage (you can see her talk and exit here).

Now, however, virtually all of Ungar-Sargon’s claims have been contested by Bard officials, the participating academics, and everyone else. Their claims that Ungar-Sargon misrepresented the situation appear in four letters to the editor on the same page as the original article (below; click on screenshots), as well as in a longer piece at Jewish Currents (orange screenshot below; click on screenshot).

These counterclaims say that the protestors (members of Students for Justice in Palestine) were protesting the presence of panel member Ruth Wisse, who, they said, made anti-Muslim and Islamophobic comments in the past. Further, Bard officials say that they had a plan on how to deal with protestors, and told Ungar-Sargon and her fellow panelists about it in advance. According to that plan, silent protests were allowed, but not obstructions, and anybody trying to interrupt the panel was immediately removed from the room. And Israel was mentioned in the panel, though perhaps the protestors couldn’t have known that in advance.

The letters:

There is a full video of the panel that was the subject of Ungar-Sargon’s report her (click on the “Who needs anti-Semitism” panel, but it doesn’t show the student protests, so I can’t evaluate claims about them.

This is a summary of the counterclaims about Ungar-Sargon’s report in Jewish Currents:

So we have two opposing views of what happened, but the pushback calls into question Ungar-Sargon’s claim about the nature of the disruption and how Bard dealt with it. Read the letters and the article and judge for yourself. I will link this post to the previous one so readers can be directed here.

However, there’s still some anti-Semitism to worry about. Here’s a statement by Roger Berkowitz (who wrote the first letter above), director of the Arendt Center and the organizer of the conference:

Berkowitz does note that in 12 years of sponsoring talks, no speaker has ever been stopped from speaking, but every speaker who students have sought to de-platform is Jewish. “Insofar as students are protesting people they disagree with, the protest is a political protest and justified,” he says, adding, “Insofar as people are consistently protesting Jews, I think such protests potentially perpetuate antisemitism and do so at a time when antisemitism is rising. It’s something that can lead to more antisemitism if not done carefully.”

This does show the rising anti-Semitism on American campuses, but we already knew about that. On the other hand, I waited two days to write this article because I expected Ungar-Sargon to respond to the four letters to the editor on the same page as her report. She has not done so. Instead, Zonszein, in the report above, says this:

Ungar-Sargon did not respond to a request for comment, but Jodi Rudoren, the newly installed editor of the Forward, stands by the article. “I am very proud to have published the piece, along with the response,” Rudoren tells me. “I believe they help illuminate the very serious problems we are confronting regarding our ability to discuss critical issues, and, yes, help further that discussion. I would welcome additional voices on either what happened at the conference, or the broader questions the pieces confront.”

If Ungar-Sargon is indeed standing by her report, I would have expected her to answer the critics above. And I would have expected the editor to admit any errors in Ungar-Sargon’s reporting rather than just stand by the piece. After all, it’s not just one opinion against another: there are facts at issue, like the claim that Bard College had no contingency plan for the demonstrators.

In the end, one has to take Ungar-Sargon’s piece with a dose of salt, especially in light of her refusal to answer her critics.

21 Comments

  1. GBJames
    Posted October 17, 2019 at 10:07 am | Permalink

    sub

    • JoshP
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 6:54 am | Permalink

      I’m probably showing extreme ignorance, but can someone enlighten me about the meaning of these ubiquitous “sub” messages?

      • Posted October 18, 2019 at 7:23 am | Permalink

        “subscribe”

        If you make a comment on a post, you can get emails when other people comment.

  2. Diana MacPherson
    Posted October 17, 2019 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    Sub

  3. Posted October 17, 2019 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    there are no brands or logos where it matters, amen

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 17, 2019 at 11:42 am | Permalink

      there are no brands or logos where it matters …

      At a white-elephant gift exchange? 🙂

  4. Posted October 17, 2019 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    I just checked Ungar-Sargon’s twitter account. She appears to be standing by her article, vaguely implying that the letters “confirm” her version of events.

    It’s okay to make a mistake, if she has, but just admit it for heaven’s sake.

  5. Jonathan Gallant
    Posted October 17, 2019 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    Let me get this straight. The protests were OK because they were “really” only against the presence of Ruth Wisse, a distinguished Harvard scholar of Yiddish literature. Protesting the mere presence of Professor Wisse because her views are not identical to those of Linda Sarsour is OK?

    • Posted October 17, 2019 at 11:37 am | Permalink

      In my view, yes, they’re allowed to protest what they want: that’s free speech. I think the students were misguided, and perhaps some COULD have been anti-Semitic, but surely protests are OK. I wouldn’t have allowed signs in the classroom, though.

      But the question my post was about is whether Ungar-Sargon overreacted, and whether the anti-Semitism she perceived was genuine anti-Semitism versus dislike of those who criticize Islam or Palestine (both could have been in play, of course).

      • Saul Sorrell-Till
        Posted October 17, 2019 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

        I appreciate the fact that you followed up this story. Others might have neglected it or swept it under the rug on the basis of ideological bias.

    • Ken Kukec
      Posted October 17, 2019 at 11:38 am | Permalink

      I think it’s pretty much OK to protest pretty much anyone pretty much anywhere for pretty much any reason. What’s not OK is to disrupt a speaker so as to prevent others who wish to listen from hearing a speaker speak.

      Free speech ain’t beanbag, to paraphrase Finley Peter Dunne’s Mr. Dooley.

    • Posted October 17, 2019 at 11:54 am | Permalink

      It is claimed she has made Islamophobic comments about Palestinians. In her Wikipedia bio, someone writes inter alia:

      …Wisse is bothered by the “failure of nerve” of American Jewish intellectuals and their “squeamishness about the shootings and beatings meted out to the breeders.”

      Note the quotation marks. But upon checking, the “failure of nerve” are Wisse’s words, while the second inflammatory quotation are actually Alexander Cockburn’s words interpreting Wisse’s 2010 Commentary article. And we all remember his polemical style.

      I have been hampered from further research on this by paywalls. But I going to complain to Wikipedia that the paragraph on criticisms of Wisse in her bio grossly misrepresents her words.

      • Adam M.
        Posted October 17, 2019 at 1:47 pm | Permalink

        You can do better than complain to Wikipedia. You can correct the article yourself. Just click that “Edit” link at the top of the section.

        Not wanting to do a rewrite, I simply added the parenthetical “(as Cockburn puts it)”.

      • JezGrove
        Posted October 17, 2019 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

        I was unable to thank you on Wikipedia for that edit, as you made it anonymously – so here I am to say “Thanks”!

  6. Posted October 17, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Permalink

    Empassioned? Impassioned sounds better.

  7. JezGrove
    Posted October 17, 2019 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

    It would be good if Ungar-Sargon responded to the counterclaims. I was initially impressed when watching her powerful performance at the subsequent panel, but now feel like I might have been played for a fool.

    • Saul Sorrell-Till
      Posted October 18, 2019 at 7:44 am | Permalink

      The fact that you write about your subsequent scepticism and admit to feeling like you were taken in(after all, plenty of people would just ignore this counter-evidence because it’s not ideologically convenient, or they would attack the people questioning her version of events) is evidence that you are most definitely not a fool.

      The ability to alter, on the fly, one’s judgement according to new evidence is a very good thing.

      🙂

      • Diana MacPherson
        Posted October 18, 2019 at 9:13 am | Permalink

        Ha and the “e” is there in judgement. 😄

  8. Vicky Denman
    Posted October 18, 2019 at 10:46 pm | Permalink

    What a shame. Most of the people that I know from Bard are Jewish with the exception of John Zuill and Albert Geiser. The rest of them, Robert Meyerowitz, Ivan Stoler, Ivon Katz, Peggy Young (the list goes on) and they are the smartest, most sensitive people that I have ever met. I am so tired of the way the Jews have been persecuted. This country would be nothing without them.


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