Op-ed: Why the President’s Statement Matters — Lessons from Deborah Lipstadt’s ‘Antisemitism: Here and Now’

University President Anthony Monaco and four of the university’s highest-ranking administrators recently published an unprecedented statement addressing an award given to Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP). In the statement, the administrators expressed their concern that elements of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions, a movement the group promotes, are antisemitic. Many students were understandably shocked. Why would President Monaco walk back an award given to a progressive student organization advocating for justice and how could anyone reasonably consider elements of the organization’s platform to be antisemitic? To many, the stereotypical antisemite waves a Nazi flag, espouses racial supremacy and believes theories about Jewish power over various aspects of society. The vast majority of Tufts students do not fit that description. Why then did the administration still decide to denounce the award?

It will help to describe how antisemitic attitudes often manifest themselves. In her book, “Antisemitism: Here and Now” (2019), Deborah Lipstadt, esteemed professor of modern Jewish history and Holocaust studies at Emory University, explains that antisemitic theories about the world reduce “complex issues to the simplest denominator and infuse them with heated exaggerations, suspicions, and fantasies that have no connection to facts.” According to Professor Lipstadt, throughout history those bearing antisemitic world views have used spurious theories to wrongly hold Jewish people uniquely responsible for society’s problems.

For the past two years, SJP has promoted “End the Deadly Exchange,” a campaign that bears many of the characteristics expressed by Professor Lipstadt. Its goal is to link educational trips to Israel, which prepare American law enforcement officials to respond to terrorist incidents, to instances of racist, brutal and militarized policing around the country, including at Tufts. The campaign emphasizes the fact that many trips like these are sponsored and facilitated by American Jewish organizations such as the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). Organizers of the campaign claim to raise awareness about the tactics and strategies police officials are “really learning” from Israelis, including practices like “extrajudicial executions,” “police murders” and the racial profiling of people of color.

One example the campaign highlights in its attempts to link Israel and the ADL to police brutality is the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown by an officer in Ferguson, Mo. According to a promotional video for the campaign, “former St. Louis County Police Chief Timothy Fitch trained with the Israeli military three years before Michael Brown’s killing and the Ferguson uprising.” Put differently, the police chief attended an ADL-sponsored counterterrorism seminar in Israel that, according to the ADL, does not involve any military training. As lawyer Andrew Mark Bennet points out in The Forward, Fitch retired three years after the trip. More than half a year later, Michael Brown was fatally shot “by a police officer who worked for a different police department than the one Fitch led.” It is a far stretch to suggest that the ADL or Israel was involved in the killing of Michael Brown based on the fact that the retired police chief of a different police department once went on an ADL-sponsored trip.

Those representing “End the Deadly Exchange” at Tufts have used the same faulty reasoning to imply that trips to Israel cause police shootings elsewhere in the United States. A banner displayed by students on the Tisch Library patio showed on one panel a map identifying the locations of police shootings in 2019. An adjacent panel identified the locations of police departments that had a member participate in a sponsored trip to Israel. A video on Facebook overlays a caption:LOTS OF OVERLAP BETWEEN POLICE SHOOTINGS AND POLICE DEPARTMENTS WHO WENT ON THIS TRIP.” The implied conclusion is simplistic to a fault: It assumes that because there is overlap between locations where officers went on trips and locations where police shootings have occurred, the trips must have contributed to the shootings. 

A correlation between two variables does not imply a causal relationship. Using similar logic to those promoting this campaign, one could display a map of the locations of traffic stops made by police officers across the United States and conclude that, because there is overlap between cities where traffic stops occur and those where officers have visited Israel, ADL seminars cause the police to pull more people over. Both claims rely on the same reasoning, yet one would not be inclined to assume that ADL trips influence the frequency of traffic stops. The theory that ADL-sponsored trips contribute to police shootings is therefore far from a foregone conclusion.

The campaign neatly fits many of the hallmarks of antisemitism that Professor Lipstadt describes. It takes a complex societal issue (racist, militarized policing in the United States), reduces it to its simplest denominator (educational trips to Israel facilitated by Jewish organizations) and infuses it with heated exaggerations and suspicions that have little connection to facts (the idea that those trips cause or contribute to police shootings in the United States), ultimately blaming the problem on Jewish individuals and organizations.

Of course, the campaign is not blaming the problem of racist policing or militarization solely on Israel or American Jewish organizations. However, its unjustified focus on those two actors, rather than on factors that have arguably contributed more to police militarization (such as government programs that place military hardware in the hands of local police forces), should give all critically-minded Tufts students pause. 

Those promoting “End the Deadly Exchange” at Tufts are undoubtedly compelled by a genuine concern for Tufts students’ safety. However, if the campaign is at the same time motivated one ounce by irrational and unsubstantiated notions about the power Jewish individuals, Jewish organizations or the Jewish state have to negatively affect American society, that is antisemitic.

Every expression of antisemitism on this campus rattles the Jewish community. Hours are spent commiserating over Shabbat dinner tables at Hillel and Chabad, phone calls are made to parents, letters are sent to deans and Jewish students question how the administration and the community might respond. Last September, in the wake of an antisemitic incident on campus, Professor Lipstadt delivered a lecture at Tufts on antisemitism with President Monaco in attendance. Recent events suggest that the president took what she had to say to heart. The administration’s statement condemning an award endorsing a student group that traffics in unsubstantiated theories about Jewish power shows that the university has listened to the concerns of the Jewish community.