The morning before we published the story about Haaris Khan’s tweets last week, I think I startled one of my fellow editors. She was convinced that the story was a huge deal, that there would be a unanimous outcry, that this was one of those things that transcends politics and gets right to the roots of how people are supposed to treat each other. I was a bit more blasé. Sure, I said, this is some scary stuff. But we’re talking about words that mention Jews here. That’s not “real racism.” A lot of people will be upset about this, but many will find ways to dismiss it as nothing, thinking that so much as printing that article is little more than another conservative attack against innocent Muslims daring to question Israel’s hegemonic power. She disagreed, and I hoped my cynicism would be disproven. Unfortunately, in this case, I think I turned out to be right.
In fairness, Khan has issued an eloquent apology in this week’s Tribune. This article is not about him, but about reactions to his tweets. And there was no shortage of attention to the original article from those outside this campus. Major media outlets like Global and the Toronto Star covered the story, and conservative bloggers aplenty expressed their distress. The world outside McGill was hardly silent.
But in comments on the article, in threads on Facebook, and in the lack of posts on Facebook by some hyper-involved people who usually publicly discuss every article about topics remotely controversial on their profiles, one thing was evident: for many people, this was an issue of politics, not prejudice.
From the very first comment on it, last week’s story mirrored the fate of almost all articles about cases of anti-Semitism. There was questioning of whether tweeting about killing Zionists could really be considered to be threatening to Jews; whether a stated fantasy of shooting was tantamount to threat; whether this needed to be taken seriously.
At the risk of engaging in a counter-factual hypothesis, I would propose that the reactions to these tweets were far milder, especially from certain corners of the campus left, than they would have been were they directed towards a different group. If he had spoken of a feminist, rather than Zionist, conspiracy, would there have been any question of whether he was antagonistic towards women? If he had mentioned wanting to shoot a roomful of gay students, rather than conservative ones, would there be any debate on whether his tweets constituted more than an exercise in poor judgment?
As for those who pointed to a fairly moderate note he had written about Israel, that was an interesting piece of information but of little other value. If somebody tried to condemn a student based on his views on Israel, those same ones looking to exonerate him would surely be up in arms.
Student activists last year had little trouble arguing that Choose Life’s Echoes of the Holocaust event and general anti-abortion posturing constituted violence against women. Consistently, writers in the campus press justify violence at protests by arguing that oppressive state institutions constitute the real violence. Surely they should be able to perform the far less onerous mental gymnastics required to conceive of these tweets as violent against Jews. But they in general chose not to, and this is a scary portent for the future.
It is time to stop pretending that anti-Semitism doesn’t exist. That Jews have not faced thousands of years of oppression and people like John Galliano, Julian Assange, and Haaris Khan are the persecuted ones. That Jews are somehow just “white people” (a study of early 20th century writing about Jews belies this) and that white people are fair targets for discrimination to begin with. It is fashionable these days to complain that anti-Semitism is thrown around too often. It can be used irresponsibly, and it’s always wrong when it is, but I can recall reading far more complaints of unjust anti-Semitism lately than actual instances of it.
We need look no further than recent synagogue destruction in Montreal, or derogatory comments about Zach Newburgh upon his election and since, or even comments on a recent Tribune article accusing the whole paper of being under the sway of me and the Zionist conspiracy at Hillel McGill, to know that anti-Semitism is alive and well here at McGill. Moreover, something like the recent bombing of a Chabad house in Mumbai indicates where anti-Semitism—given a pass because it fits in with anti-imperialism, anti-Americanism, and anti-Israelism—can end up.
All prejudice is awful. And if we are to seriously consider ourselves to be against it, if we want to put into practice the anti-oppressive rhetoric that gets touted so much at McGill, then it is about time anti-Semitism stopped being considered a right-wing issue. It is real, it is here, and we should all be concerned about it.
Full disclosure: Mookie Kideckel is Zach Newburgh’s roommate.