“Because he is Jewish he can talk smack about other Jews”

I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that the weirdest religion news story you missed last month was the so-called “Jewish scandal that wasn’t” (as it was labeled by the National Post of Toronto). Here’s the scenario: Cameron Johnston is a professor in the Department of Social Sciences at York University, an Ontario institution with a 50,000-plus student body. Prof. Johnston teaches an introductory-level social science course called “Self, Culture and Society,” which this semester has about 450 students enrolled. On the first day of class he announced: “I have an opinion that people will find offensive. Jews need to be sterilized. That’s my opinion.” Fourth-year student Sarah Grunfeld was there, “shopping” the class. Understandably, Ms. Grunfeld was shocked at Prof. Johnston’s remarks, left the classroom, and alerted a Jewish advocacy group on campus. Within twenty-four hours, the story had spread widely. B’nai Brith Canada picked it up and issued a press release calling for York to investigate.

It turned out that there was more to the story than simply a veteran academic suddenly, in a moment of candor, deciding to show his true anti-Semitic colors after thirty years on the faculty. Soon afterwards, apparently after both Grunfeld and Johnston had each met (separately) with university officials, Johnston spoke to the Toronto Star and to the York campus paper. What Grunfeld heard, he said, had been part of an explanation of why not all opinions would be treated as legitimate and worthy of serious discussion in his classroom. The statement that “all Jews should be sterilized” was supposed to be an example of an opinion that reasonable, decent people would find reprehensible and which accordingly would not be acceptable in the course. Apparently Grunfeld missed that part. Another detail is that Johnston himself is Jewish. (Presumably Grunfeld herself is Jewish too, though I haven’t seen that explicitly reported in any of the news coverage.)

Grunfeld’s response to Johnston’s statement is interesting. Rather than backing down, she issued a statement through B’nai Brith to the effect that she stood by her original complaint, and she continued to call for a full and public apology from Johnston for his remarks. She acknowledged that “there may have been a miscommunication,” but maintained that “any miscommunication was on the part of the professor, not me.” The Star‘s Brandon Kennedy, in his story, had more pointed commentary: “Grunfeld said Tuesday she may have misunderstood the context and intent of Johnston’s remarks, but that fact is insignificant. ‘The words, “Jews should be sterilized” still came out of his mouth, so regardless of the context I still think that’s pretty serious.’ Grunfeld also expressed skepticism that Johnston was in fact Jewish. Asked directly by a reporter whether she believes Johnston is lying, she was unclear. ‘Whether he is or is not, no one will know,’ she said. ‘…Maybe he thought because he is Jewish he can talk smack about other Jews.'”

What’s the significance of all this? Well, in some ways, it’s a pretty silly story. Especially if you’re a professor, or an aspiring professor, or even if you just happen to like professors, it’s easy to read this and shake your head in despair at how bad things are these days. You only need to be taken out of context once, and you can be pilloried all over the world in a matter of hours. On the other hand, three or four days after the story first broke, hardly anyone took Sarah Grunfeld seriously any more (see the blogs at TIME and The Atlantic), and even Buzzfeed had picked up the story (with the headline “This College Student Makes Me Want to Punch My Computer Screen“). Grunfeld is likely to have a serious Google problem when she graduates next spring and starts looking for work. Both the venerable Language Log and the inimitable Dr. Jim West of Zwinglius Redivivus (“Stupid Student Tricks”) took more or less this tack — how painful it can be when a student (or anyone else) fails to pay attention to context.

What strikes me as interesting, however, are two other, perhaps relatively minor points. The first is Johnston’s Jewishness. I’m not sure about this, but it seems that this detail emerged into public view because Johnston volunteered it to Kennedy, the reporter for the Star. Kennedy wrote: “Johnston, who is Jewish, said his religion likely influenced his choice of words.” That is, according to Johnston, his own Jewish background was the reason why the sterilization of Jews was the first example that sprang to mind when he wanted to illustrate the concept of an objectionable opinion. Grunfeld’s response was to question, more or less directly, the factuality of Johston’s Jewishness — “no one will know” whether he is really Jewish. Although it’s easy to mock Grunfeld for taking this stance, the authenticity of any particular individual’s claim to Jewish identity (or, really, any other identity) can be a highly contentious issue under other conditions. Not everyone who claims to be Jewish is always treated as Jewish. The most startling recent example of this, to me, was the U.S. Navy’s 2008 decision to require a so-called Messianic Jewish chaplain, Michael Hiles, to wear a cross lapel insignia rather than the tablet insignia he requested, usually worn by Jewish chaplains. (Sources: Religion Clause, Yeshiva World, Jews in Green.) Another example: a court in the UK ruled two years ago that any definition of Judaism that relied solely on descent through the material line was discriminatory and therefore illegal (the decision was made in connection with admissions decisions by publicly-funded religious schools). More prosaically, we have seen controversies about whether an individual’s authentic Jewishness can be called into question on the basis of his or her political commitments or skin color.

In a sense, then, Grunfeld is partly right — “no one will know” whether Johnston — or anyone else — is truly Jewish, because Jewishness is a contested and fluid category whose boundaries are set by convention. For this reason, it seems quixotic to invoke Jewishness as a defense against the charge of anti-Semitism. After all, if a Jew cannot be an anti-Semite, then a proven anti-Semite cannot be a real Jew — a perfect setup for the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

Much more briefly, here’s the other thing that I found striking. It’s easy to dismiss Grunfeld as an ignoramus. But the fact remains that the power of language in an educational setting has been a deeply vexed issue, at least in the U.S., for a long time now. On one side of the ideological spectrum is the regulation of so-called “hate” speech, which can trace its intellectual roots back to Chaplinksy v. New Hampshire (1942), the Supreme Court decision which affirmed the state’s legitimate interest in banning speech that “by [its] very utterance inflict[s] injury or tend[s] to incite an immediate breach of the peace.” Such regulation has which has increasingly become identified with the left, especially on college and university campuses, and is seen by critics as a way of enforcing “political correctness.” Precisely mirroring this phenomenon are the Academic Bills of Rights inspired by David Horowitz’s Students for Academic Freedom, which seek to counteract a perceived dominant left-wing orthodoxy in higher education.

In a way, Grunfeld’s reaction to Johnston’s speech just reflects an extreme example of this attitude, which sees words as having a talismanic, performative character that extends beyond their rational import. And that part of Johnston’s response that relied on his Jewishness as a defense against the charge, in a way, does the same thing. At least, I sort of think it does. I haven’t quite worked out the connection yet. What do you think?

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