The Soft Anti-Semitism of Polite Expectations 

Michael Palin and John Cleese, “Argument, Clinic,” Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Nov. 2, 1972. Screen shot.

Rules for protests

I’ve been struck lately, by the inertness of criticism lodged against student protesters — they might have been written by AI. They all begin with a vague expression of support for Jewish and Islamic students, proceed to condemn anti-Semitism “in all its forms”, endorse free speech, and conclude with a vow to forcibly remove and arrest any student who is violent or disrupts the work of the university. “We believe all Americans should have the right to peacefully protest,” said Biden’s press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre this week. “What we don’t want to see is hate speech, violence.”

Earlier this week, Counterpunch author Michael Schwalbe described the rhetoric as “repression-by-rules”: establish a set of strict, indeed impossible guidelines for protest and then crack down when they have been broken. The rules inevitably include prohibitions against utterances that create a hostile environment for Jewish students, faculty, and staff. But since almost any criticism of Israel or Zionism is nowadays judged anti-Semitic, campus administrators give themselves carte-blanche to remove encampments and shut down protests. Moreover, since even one prohibited speech-act is taken to represent the voice of the whole, a single foolish or immature student (or provocateur), is enough to get dozens of others suspended, expelled, or arrested. It’s the rare campus — Brown, Northwestern, Rutgers, Evergreen State College, and University of Minnesota – that has compromised with protesters or acceded to some of their reasonable demands for divestment.

The real campus incivility is found among administrators who on the one hand extol the value and necessity of civil discourse, but on the other deploy the most uncivil of remedies when their policies are challenged. But there is a further hypocrisy in evidence — one that has not been sufficiently recognized. I call it the “soft anti-Semitism of polite expectations.” It’s the idea that dialogue or discussion must always be polite and that differences are better papered over than exposed. Such ideas are inimical to Judaism – both its secular and religious traditions. As almost every American Jew knows, conversation among Jews is often barely distinguishable from argument. While it may be too much to claim that polite conversation is a gentile convention, it’s fair to say that suppression of Jewish quarrel is anti-Semitic. The fact that so many of the anti-Israel or anti-Zionist protesters on campuses are Jewish, marks these crackdowns as anti-Semitic or even Judeophobic.

Bull in a China shop

For years, even decades, I thought it was me. I first noticed it in graduate school at the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, MA: In seminars, my fellow students and I would be discussing a paper or book, and when it was my turn to speak, I’d often voice stringent criticism of the author’s methods or arguments. When I finished my expostulation, the other students and professor would ignore my comments and continue as if had never spoken. There were some exceptions, most notably Professor Julius Held, a Jewish émigré from Nazi Germany and scholar of Peter Paul Rubens, with a reputation as a stern taskmaster. He generally praised my critical comments, and even when he disagreed with them, he encouraged other students to be more like me. (My fellow students naturally detested me.) In general however, I was made to feel like an intellectual bull in a China shop. The same things happened at Princeton, where I got my Ph.D., and later, at the universities where I taught: clucking tongues from the many, and approbation by the few. What was going on?

Finally, the penny dropped. One day, I was sitting in a department meeting debating with colleagues the merits of a possible new faculty hire. They found her strident, while I found her engaged. They feared she would be un-collegial, and I hoped she’d be independent. They thought she was striving, I thought she was intellectually ambitious. They were all gentiles; the candidate and I were Jewish. It was all at once clear to me that my colleagues and I spoke different languages. Theirs was consensus-based and mine was argument based; theirs was conflict avoidant, and mine was debative. I grew up in a household filled with argument, and sometimes verbal abuse; they in homes of polite conversation at best and passive aggression at worst. Was this a matter of cultural difference, or were my colleagues intolerant, perhaps even a little anti-Semitic?

Argument as engagement

There is debate in the sociological literature – it goes back to Georg Simmel (1904) and the very origin of the discipline — about the function of social conflict. Simmel and others at the time argued that verbal dispute establishes social boundaries and stratification. The question of whether and why Jews argue more than other ethnic or religious communities is a newer subject of academic inquiry. In an article from 1985, “Argument as Sociability,” Deborah Schiffrin, proposed that many Jewish people engage in argument for its own sake, as a way of maintaining affective bonds. The content of the argument is secondary to its form. Reporting on conversations among a group of Jewish, Philadelphia relatives and friends, Schiffrin noted that even when the subjects addressed were trivial, “increased volume, rapid tempo, contrastive stress, and exaggerated intonation” occurs. She writes: “Questions which had been minimally answered by non-Jewish speakers in other Philadelphia neighborhoods…prompted arguments from my informants”. Henry and Zelda, for example, two of the principals in Schiffrin’s essay, argued passionately about whether one is obliged to love cousins equally, and which Jewish comedian was funnier, Joey Bishop or Jack Klugman. But in the middle of the most heated argument, they would often shift to areas of agreement and even intimacy, like whether Henry needed a shave. Sometimes an argument ended in bursts of laughter. Henry and Zelda and Jack and Freda (another pair of informants) told Schiffrin that their fights had value, and that they were ways of “thrashing it out”. Rather than seek the help of a marriage counselor, they would “fight like hell” until they found resolution. Schiffrin concludes: “sociable argument is a speech activity in which a polarizing form has a ratificatory meaning.”

A decade later, Schiffrin’s thesis was challenged by a pair of Australian researchers, David Lee and Jennifer Peck who said that while “sociable argument” undoubtedly existed, it shared many of the same discursive characteristics as unsociable argument. In other words, what sounds like hostility often was just that, and the only way to determine if an argument was sociable was by attention to the “general discursive interactions within which they are embedded.” Unfortunately, the two scholars paid no attention at all to the Jewish context of Schiffrin’s data, neither the Philadelphia Jewish community nor the wider Judaic one. In fact, religious Jews have always put a premium on debate and disputation. Torah study was based upon it. The Talmud, composed of the Mishna and a set of interpretations contained in the 63 books of the Gemarah, is essentially a series of debates, exchanges, hypotheses, proofs, refutations, and dialectical reasoning, often without synthesis or resolution. That tradition of disputation survives in ritual practice today.

The holiday of Passover, a central event in the Jewish calendar, culminates with the reading of the Haggadah, which includes a series of questions and answers. “Why is this night different from every other night?” “Why on this night, do we eat unleavened bread, Matzoh, but on other nights bread made with yeast,” etc. The youngest child at the table is tasked with asking the four questions, perhaps to usher him or her into the culture of disputation. The answers are found in the Haggadah, but none are definitive, and celebrants are encouraged to debate them at length. I have been to seders that lasted for hours. To be sure, many non-Jews also love a good argument, as the Monty Python episode, “The Argument Clinic” attests, but Jews love it more.

The Jewishness of campus protests

I don’t know what percentage of pro-Palestinian protesters on campuses are Jewish. But based upon reports in newspaper accounts and my own discussion with faculty at Northwestern University and elsewhere, it’s likely much higher than the percentage of Jewish students on a given campus. That’s not surprising. Young Jews are more critical of Israel than their older co-religionists, and probably more than young gentiles. Many of the Jewish student protesters on campuses nevertheless wanted to mark their identities by celebration of Passover and a full extended Seder. Their ritual meals, conducted in the company of non-Jews, including Palestinians, often included extensive discussions of Mideast politics and the outrages committed in Gaza. Sometimes, there were arguments: One Jewish student at Yale told a reporter: “It’s important to be honest that sometimes we do have different lived experiences and instinctive feelings about some of the language that is involved in these protests. And that’s OK. We can have those different feelings and still continue to work together and have the hard conversations that are needed to rally around the cause of divestment and ceasefire.”

That same wisdom and toleration has been conspicuously absent from university presidents who have called in police to clear encampments, suspended or even expelled protesting students, and allowed students and faculty members to be arrested, assaulted, and charged with crimes. These administrators, and their political allies, including New York City Mayor Eric Adams and U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik are not just abetting the genocide in Gaza, they are undermining free speech in the U.S. and embracing the very anti-Semitism they claim to be combatting.


Stephen F. Eisenman is emeritus professor at Northwestern University. His latest book, with Sue Coe, is titled “The Young Person’s Guide to American Fascism,” and is forthcoming from OR Books. He can be reached at