The sound of silence

The response? Polite inaction. The moderator, Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen, did not challenge or question his hate speech. She sat there in deferential silence.

MAHATHIR MOHAMMED (photo credit: REUTERS)
MAHATHIR MOHAMMED
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Last week, I turned on my phone after Yom Kippur to learn of yet another horrific attack that took place in Halle, Germany, killing two just outside a synagogue. In April, on the last day of Passover, there was the devastating attack at the Chabad of Poway, California. A year ago, there was the hate-inspired shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue during Shabbat morning services in Pittsburgh. And yet, each time I see the alerts, I feel myself growing more numb and less surprised.  Antisemitism has crept its way back into the mainstream.

Earlier this month, the Prime Minister of Malaysia Mahathir Mohamad, took the stage at Columbia University’s World Leaders Forum. Columbia students are fortunate to have access to a wide range of speakers, brought to promote the free exchange of ideas and create a thoughtful, intellectually-challenging environment. I was however critical of Columbia University President Lee Bollinger’s invitation. Mohamad is a self-avowed antisemite. As an active member of the thriving Jewish community at Columbia, I felt that it was my responsibility to attend his speech, to ensure that his antisemitism would not go unchallenged. But when this avowed antisemite spoke, the response to his hate speech was shocking. It was shockingly silent.

When controversial speakers are brought to campus, they are reliably met with a barricade of student resistance. Not this time. Inside, just a regular audience of unfamiliar faces of nearly 200 students and faculty eagerly awaited the prime minister’s remarks.

The program began with a perfunctory, and quickly forgotten, acknowledgment of the prime minister’s controversial reputation. As the Q&A portion began, students quickly ran to the microphones to ask about issues of global concern. Eventually, a Jewish student rose to demand that Mohamad address his history of Holocaust denial and antisemitism. I watched as all eyes turned attentively to both the questioner and the prime minister, as Mohamad proudly declared, “[if] you cannot be antisemitic, then there is no more free speech.” He continued to deflect the question and avoided repudiating his past antisemitic comments, while asserting that Holocaust numbers, like any statistic, can be fabricated.

The response? Polite inaction. The moderator, Professor Lien-Hang Nguyen, did not challenge or question his hate speech. She sat there in deferential silence.

As one of the few Jewish students at Columbia who heard Mohamad speak, I was overwhelmed with crippling loneliness, watching Nguyen sit quietly while the Mohamad taunted us with his antisemitism. Indeed, the prime minister has the right to free speech, even antisemitic speech, but it is simultaneously our right and responsibility, to fight against it.

This is where the Columbia community is failing. The quiet acceptance of Holocaust denial and Jew hatred sends an alarming message that hate speech has a place in the university.

On the local and global level, the world has decided to give up fighting antisemitism. One way to denormalize antisemitism, starts with facing and expelling notions that small forms of antisemitism are okay. While the prime minister of Malaysia was just one speaker invited to speak at Columbia’s World Forum, it is our responsibility to challenge it. If we don’t, we are effectively allowing the validation of antisemitic thought on both a global and local scale.

The lack of response is an example of the apathy that has overwhelmed us all. Jewish students are exhausted from constantly having to validate their existence. It is a draining fight that feels hopeless at times. The fight against antisemitism is left for us to fight alone, but we must demand more from our university and our professors. With global antisemitism on the rise, we are at a point of vulnerability. Whether this hatred is spewed through speech, as articulated by Mohamad, or through malevolent acts of violence, we must unite in full force to combat antisemitism. We must fight against the desensitization and normalization of antisemitism; we must send a powerful message that hate, in any form, does not have a place here.

The writer is a senior in the joint bachelor’s program with Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary.