Oppositional events confront Zionism, supremacy and anti-Semitism

Wednesday, February 7, 2018 - 12:16am

Members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality present at their teach-in "Richard Spencer: Anti-Semate and Zionist" in West Quad Tuesday

Members of Students Allied for Freedom and Equality present at their teach-in "Richard Spencer: Anti-Semate and Zionist" in West Quad Tuesday Buy this photo
Sarah Kunkel/Daily


Students Allied for Freedom and Equality held a teach-in Tuesday night to discuss the alt-right’s affinity for U.S. support of the state of Israel, as well as criticisms of Israeli government. In response, a group of Jewish students held a counter-event intended to fuel discussion on whether equating Zionism with Nazism is a modern form of anti-Semitism. Both events were highly discussed by members of the University community — tensions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel groups have remained high since the passing of SAFE's #UMDivest resolution last November.

SAFE’s discussion on the intersection of Israel and the far right honed in on the example of Richard Spencer, a white supremacist who is currently in talks with the University to speak on campus. Spencer, SAFE proposed, seems at once to espouse both anti-Semitic and Zionist views. The teach-in was held in West Quad, with around 25 people in attendance. 

The presentation was divided into three segments: Richard Spencer and the ethnostate, Zionism as a political tactic, and the myth of Israel being the only democracy in the Middle East. Each section was separated by 10 minute breaks for questions. Ultimately, SAFE attempted to prove Israel is the kind of model ethnostate Spencer strives to create.  

The presenters began by identifying and defining some key terms, including “Zionism” and “ethnostate.” One of the presenters, an LSA junior who requested to remain anonymous to avoid potential harm in associating her name with these views online, gave the definitions. However, she also recognized the plurality of definitions people may have for these terms.

“Zionism has a lot of different meanings for a lot of people, but this is the working definition for the purposes of this presentation: a moderate political ideology that supports a Jewish nation state,” she said. “An ethnostate is a political state that is populated by and run in the interest of an ethnic group.”

The presentation then moved on to highlighting some of Spencer’s quotes and interviews that show him pointing to Israel as an example of an ethnostate, while at the same time exhibiting anti-Semitism. One of the clips was an interview with Spencer and an Israeli reporter, where Spencer defends his supporters’ chants of anti-Jewish slogans, while at the same time praising Zionism.

In the second section, another presenter who also wished to remain anonymous due to safety concerns, talked about restrictions placed on Ethiopian Jews in trying to obtain citizenship, and the lack of recognition of international refugees within the Israeli government. He used this as evidence for the Israeli government’s aversion to non-white Jews.

“They want to keep the state of Israel to look a certain way and to have a certain demographic population,” the presenter said. “They don’t want people who are not white Jews to live in their community.”

The third section discussed the idea of Israel as an apartheid state, citing various discriminations Palestinians face, including eviction from their homes. The presenter also referenced discriminations specifically against Palestinian women, such as harrassment for wearing religious clothing.

During the question-and-answer periods between sections, there were multiple debates between audience members and the presenters. These discussions centered around topics such as the difference between Spencer and a typical Zionist, and the difference between criticizing Israel and criticizing the Israeli government. One presenter clarified SAFE’s goal was to condemn Israel’s policies, but not to discredit the entire country.

Jake Ehrlich, a second-year student at the school of Social Work and a member of the Jewish Communal Leadership program, said he came to the teach-in to understand how people felt about the issue.

“I thought it was fruitful, I was hoping the content would be focused more on specific intersections on anti-Semitism, philo-semitism, Spencer and the alt-right,” Erlich said. “I think it sort of slid into more general topics, which is fine but was a little misleading.”

In direct response to the SAFE event, a group of Jewish students organized an “alternative conversation” with Heidi Budaj, the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization that combats anti-Semitism and discrimination. More than 80 students gathered at Weill Hall Tuesday night for the talk.

Budaj also said white supremacist Richard Spencer’s request to speak on campus in part prompted her lecture.

“The other catalyst as to why I’m here tonight is because Richard Spencer declared that he is a Zionist,” Budaj said. “Unfortunately some students on campus seize upon that and are letting that divide minority groups on campus when they should be working together.”

Budaj’s lecture, “Alt-Right Rising: The New White Supremacists” was held immediately after SAFE's event. Budaj rejected Spencer's alignment with Zionism.

“He equated some of his ideologies with there being a Jewish state, but he is ignoring diversity that exists throughout the state of Israel when he made that statement,” Budaj said. “Anything that he says is certainly not espoused by the Jewish community and Zionists are not looking for support from someone like that.”

LSA senior Sarah Parkes helped organize Budaj’s talk.

“I was upset with some of the events that were happening on campus that were equating white supremacy with Zionism,” Parkes said. “A group of students, including myself, were really upset and wanted to provide a space for those with a gut feeling that the event that SAFE was putting on was a bit anti-Semitic.”

Members of SAFE attended the event after their own talk, at times criticizing Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. One student, who asked not to be named, said the group originally planned Budaj’s talk to overlap with SAFE’s event, and criticized the lack of dialogue. 

“SAFE moved their event earlier because we wanted to have this discussion and we didn’t want to be in two separate rooms, so that’s why some folks came to our talk and we came to this one,” the SAFE member said. “I’m surprised that that wasn’t brought up, That was the literal intention behind the talk.”

The student said she took further issue with the talk because of the way it was initially pitched. Originally, the event was titled “Equating Zionism with Nazism: A Modern Form of Anti-Semitism,” but Budaj’s discussion went in a different direction, instead examining the re-invention and subsequent ascent of the alt-right.

Budaj said Spencer, who coined the term alt-right and is the face of the so-called identitarian movement, represents a “suit and tie” faction of white supremacism, one that is less overt and more subtle. However, she said, that does not change the content of their ideology.

“Most, if not all, in the alt-right are blatantly anti-Semitic and blame Jews for allegedly promoting anti-white policies, such as immigration and diversity,” Budaj said. “White supremacists espouse hate and bigotry, and that is why Richard Spencer is targeting campuses. They are looking to provide a place for like minded people to gather and to recruit young and disaffected white people.”

Parkes agreed anti-Semitism can be a difficult issue.

“People can hide their Jewish identity a lot more easily than other people that experience oppression,” she said. “It can be a hidden identity, so as a result not a lot of people talk about anti-Semitism.”

Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated that Michigan Hillel held the teach-in. They were not affiliated with the event.