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The “Swindlers”: How Wake Forest Is Not Woke When It Comes to Israel

Swindle: verb (used with object), (Merriam Webster Definition website)
1. to cheat (a person, business, etc.) out of money or other assets.
2. to obtain by fraud or deceit.

A small group of Wake Forest University (WFU) Jewish students were accused of foisting a “swindle” on the University. The charge was leveled by Michaelle Browers, the Program Director for Middle East and South Asia Studies at WFU. She was talking before a nearly-full auditorium in the WFU Student Union as a participant in a panel discussion titled “Free Speech, Free Palestine” on February 27th, 2019. I was in attendance along with four other concerned community members to show our solidarity with the Jewish students, who were now being accused. It was a very charged atmosphere, indeed. Let me explain how we got to this place.

Several months earlier, the WFU Student Government passed a “Resolution on Antisemitism” that had been sponsored by the WFU Students Supporting Israel (SSI) organization.  It largely adopted our State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism and stated that the Student Government would not associate with any programming that matched its criteria for anti-Semitism.  The subsequent “Free Speech, Free Palestine” panel was a response to this resolution. The panelists and its organizers objected strongly to the Student Government’s statement and asserted that labeling the following actions as anti-Semitic curtailed their right to criticize Israel:

• Accusing Jews of exaggerating the Holocaust for self-serving purposes, or of being more loyal to Israel.

• Using classic anti-Semitic tropes to characterize Israel or comparing Israelis to Nazis.

• Blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions.

• Applying double standards only to Israel.

• Denying Jewish self-determination and the right for Israel to exist.

The panelists included the moderator Tanisha Ramachandran from WFU’s Department for the Study of Religions; two other professors, Dr. Browers, and Barry Trachtenberg, WFU Director of Jewish Studies; as well as Alisia Alexander, a self-identified, Christian Peace activist. All four wore “End the Occupation” badges illustrated with a Palestinian flag.  The organizers and sponsors of the event were never clearly identified.

The program opened with a highly inflammatory six-minute video summary of the conflict produced by the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace. It depicted Jews as insensitive oppressors, who ethnically cleansed and further subjugated the “indigenous Palestinian victims.” It was jarring to view such a non-scholarly piece of propaganda in a university setting.

It was during the proceedings that Dr. Browers called the resolution on anti-Semitism a “swindle,” and it was the Jewish students who were being accused. Presumably without conscious intent, Dr. Browers had just used a traditional anti-Semitic trigger. The depiction of the ”Jew as a swindler” is an age-old slur, and is perhaps best exemplified by the fictional characters, Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice and Fagin in Dicken’s Oliver Twist. The Nazis gave the word “swindler” its most heinous expression, stating Jews are by nature swindlers and criminals.  This slur persists today in the anti-Semite’s arsenal.

Dr. Browers told us that the Student Government resolution was unnecessary – “designed solely to discriminate against disfavored political expression.” Her labeling it as purely “political” seemed hypocritical given the highly political nature of the panel itself. She reprimanded the Jewish students for their supposed disruptive and divisive behavior in the weeks leading up to the panel event. But she offered no specific justification for her accusation. She called the students who supported her perspective “courageous”. But truly, it was the SSI students who showed real courage as they stood up for their convictions despite their vulnerability related to the power differential between faculty and students. Additionally, they received no institutional support at this event.

The presence of Barry Trachtenberg — the lone Jew on the panel — aided the organizers to deflect charges of exclusion of Jewish participation. Dr. Trachtenberg has a strong history of activism in opposition to Israel and in favor of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. He described the European manifestations of anti-Semitism and whitewashed the history of anti-Semitism in the Middle East. According to Dr. Trachtenberg, hard feelings between Jews and Muslims developed primarily because of the establishment of Israel.

The panelists behaved as protagonists in the conflict against Israel, rather than as educators. They displayed little academic rigor. Rather, they started with an ideological assumption — in this case Israel’s guilt — and then presented only information, true or not, that confirmed their bias. Their clear intent was to stigmatize Israel, in hopes of either ending its existence or completely remaking it to fit their ideal. Such antagonism coming from the academy serves only to inflame university students in their hatred towards Israel. They offered nothing substantial regarding how to actually improve the lives of Palestinians or how to set a course for co-existence for two peoples. Their plotline begins and ends with Israeli culpability. It’s as if the Palestinians have no responsibility and no self-agency. It is a recipe to perpetuate the conflict, not solve it.

During the Q&A the panelists gave credence to the equivalence of Palestinian terrorism and IDF security tactics. They also seemed to endorse the accusation of Israeli Pink Washing — that Israel cynically tries to deflect criticism by touting its gay-friendliness.

In a memorable exchange, Phillip Yurchenko, the SSI president, asked why there was “no one representing the pro-Israel students’ perspective.” Dr. Browers mocked him by saying that there was indeed a Jew on the panel, referring to Trachtenberg.

Leading up to the event there had been a strong effort to get more balance on the panel. Multiple WFU community members sent e-mails requesting that Professor Randall Rogan, a non-Jew from the Department of Communications, get a seat on the panel. These appeals were rebuffed. That night, the panel even refused his request to ask a question at the conclusion of the event.

Ironically, as measured by concern for actual Palestinian well-being, Randall Rogan was probably the most pro-Palestinian professor in the room.  Rogan teaches an even-handed course on the conflict at WFU. In his work, he frequently travels to the West Bank, where he evaluates and facilitates efforts to build Palestinian society and to forge effective relationships between the two peoples. He is an honest observer of the conflict, who exemplifies critical thinking without a blinkered ideological viewpoint. Thoughtful supporters of Israel indeed share his vision of a Palestinian society prospering with dignity and at peace with its neighbor, Israel. But this panel’s intent was to ensure that proselytization against Israel could continue unabated at WFU.

To this observer, the “swindled” individuals were actually the students who pay for indoctrination by an anti-Israel cohort of Wake Forest professors. They are not taught a scholarly approach, nor how to think critically about the conflict. Those who stray from the party line, as demonstrated at this event, are maligned and excluded. This happened in a university setting that says it values tolerance, inclusion and the free exchange of ideas. I fear that Wake Forest is far from being alone in this betrayal of students’ trust.