Hannah Arendt Center Conference 2019: What Happened?

Autumn, with it’s changing colors and chilly breezes, is often a period of growth and change. Beyond the cooling temperatures and colorful foliage, Bard College was recently pushed towards change when it sought to respond to anti-semetic graffiti and the reported attack of a Black student on its Simon’s Rock Campus. The topic of this year’s Hannah Arendt Center’s (HAC) Annual Conference, racism and anti-semitism, seemed to respond perfectly to these incidents and the resulting student outcry. Established in 2006, the purpose of the conference was to “create an institutional space for difficult and provocative thinking in the spirit of Hannah Arendt,” according to Roger Berkowitz, the Academic Director of the HAC. Through bringing together people from different backgrounds and viewpoints, the conference helps to “open conversation up rather than close it down.” 

This year’s conference saw the 200 members of the HAC, about 150-200 Bard students, and 170 students from the Simon’s Rock campus in attendance. Describing his ideal audience member as someone “interested in being provoked to rethink their opinions… and encounter a wide range of perspectives,” Berkowitz hoped Bard students would be able to fulfill this role. The goal of the conference, according to Berkowitz, is not to provide answers to the participants, but to provide a comprehensive basis for them to pursue answers of their own. The HAC distinguishes itself as different from other humanities centers as a “center which talks about politics,” without the goal of policy creation. To provide policy and tell people what to do, Berkowitz believed, opposes the fundamental principles of the HAC.

In accordance with Berkowitz’s belief in the importance of politically and professionally diverse speakers, the conference has previously featured speakers such as Marc Jognen, a member of the German far-right nationalist party Alternative for Germany. The HAC met much criticism from both the student body and the academic community for giving Jognen’s political beliefs leverage and legitimacy by including him in the conference. A Bard student activist group, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP),  has previously protested Shany Mor, a Hannah Arendt Associate Fellow. A former Director for Foreign Policy on the Israeli National Security Council, Mor has often discussed his support of Israeli power over Palestine. SJP stated in a Facebook post that:

These arguments and his role within the Israeli executive office stand in direct contradiction to the safety, livelihood, and liberation of Palestinians and our fellow students and it will not be tolerated. 

During his intended workshop on political theory at the 2017 Conference, SJP distributed fliers criticizing his actions and succeeded in their goal of ending his talk. 

The inclusion of past speakers who were perceived as racist and anti-semetic raised the complex question of how the HAC Conference would respond to the latest events. Several speakers from the HAC expressed that the conference could and should play a critical role in Bard’s response. Mark Williams Jr., a Bard College alumni and current Director of Equity and Inclusion at Bard High School Early College Manhattan said that “thinking, or rather learning how to think is our first form of liberation.” He discussed how learning to think during his upbringing provided him with an important framework for understanding his own experiences as a black man, and the experiences of other marginalized groups. Williams concluded by highlighting the importance of the conference in creating more stable structures for thinking “about these kinds of experiences.” 

Two students, Charlotte Albert, class of ‘20, and Isabella Santana, class of ‘20, shared this sentiment. Albert said that the recent events “must not be dealt with as isolated attacks, but as examples of our reality.” Albert hoped that the conference would help participants gain a stronger understanding of bigotry in the world today. Santana tied the events of the last weeks to the conference. “Last week was a painful week for Bard students of color” she began, concluding that “it is imperative that institutions such as Bard begin to take more explicit, anti-racist action, and that this responsibility no longer falls upon the students of color.” She hoped that the conference would help Bard fulfill this responsibility this by providing a basis for people to listen. 

Santana, Albert, and Williams had hopes that the conference would be able to address the issues. However, this year’s HAC Conference was marked by more protests.  SJP opposed the Opinion Editor of the Forward, Batya Ungar-Sargon, Harvard Professor Ruth Wisse, and Shany Mor. In a panel discussion entitled “Who Needs Antisemitism,” Wisse delivered a lecture in which she discussed her beliefs that anti-Israeli sentiments are a form of modern-day antisemitism. Wisse’s previously racist and  problematic public statements like “Palestinian Arabs are people who breed and bleed and advertise their misery” were the basis for SJP’s protests against her. Ungar-Sargon was protested for similar reasons, namely her inaccurate statements surrounding Palestine and “disingenuous anti-semitism charges.” Student activists displayed signs during Wisse’s speech, and broke into songs and chants during the question and answer session. Given Bard’s policy that student protesters cannot interrupt the right to speech, the vocal students were asked to leave the premises, which they respected. 

Two days later, Ungar-Sargon posted an article on the Forward entitled “I was protested at Bard College for being a Jew”. Ungar-Sargon criticized students for protesting the panel she participated in because it was the only panel featuring all Jews. She argued that this made the protests anti-semetic. This article sparked a massive response from Bard students, conference organizers and attendees and many others (a comprehensive list of the responses can be found here). 

Although some individuals agreed with Ungar-Sargon, a majority of responses criticized her classification of the protests and of her stated reasons for it. Berkowitz and Samantha Hill, both HAC employees, did not support the students’ reasons for protesting. However, Berkowitz and Hill went on to state that the students had every right to protest and had done so respectfully. Many others acknowledged that the students had every right to protest and supported their reasons for doing so. The protests were not anti-Semetic, despite the fact the panel was composed of all Jews. In fact, many of the protesters were Jewish, intent on responding to Wisse’s racist and anti-Arab beliefs. Though the topic of the panel was antisemitism, Wisse’s lecture focused on the state of Israel, making the students protests well-placed. 

Approaching this article, the question in my mind was whether or not the conference would be able to respond to the recent events on campus. Instead, it seemed as if the conference created new questions and conversations on the topics of racism and antisemitism. Whether the issues raised will be resolved is yet to be seen, but the discussions surrounding the protests have been comprehensive and will hopefully continue. In the spirit of student Isabelle Santana, conversation is essential to change. I’d like to call upon readers to take this change upon themselves, whether that be through initiating difficult conversations, engaging in important political action, getting involved with the SJP (sjp@bard.edu), or contacting the HAC (arendt@bard.edu). 

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