Hard-line Israeli defenders have tried to shut down protests over how the Palestinians have been treated by accusing critics of “anti-Semitism” and by labeling dissenting Jews as “self-hating.” These intimidating tactics are now common on U.S. college campuses, Lawrence Davidson writes.
By Lawrence Davidson
Can criticism of Israel, particularly a) criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinian people and b) criticism of the state ideology of Zionism that justifies that treatment, be labeled anti-Semitic?
This is not a hypothetical query. An affirmative answer to this question is being advocated by influential Zionist lobbies in the United States. The question is of particular importance on the nation’s college and university campuses.
In places like the University of California at Berkeley and Santa Cruz, and also at Rutgers University in New Jersey, Zionist students are now threatening to sue these institutions for failing to prevent an “atmosphere of anti-Semitic bigotry” allegedly created by the presence of pro-Palestinian student groups and faculty.
One might ask if it isn’t a stretch to assert that protesting Israeli and Zionist behavior is the same as anti-Semitism? Common sense certainly tells us this is so.
Unfortunately, we are not dealing with situations that are ruled by common sense. What we are facing here is the issue of ideologues bred to a specific perceptual paradigm and their insistence that others conform to it.
Here is an example: Take an American kid from a self-conscious Jewish home. This kid does not represent all American Jewish youth, but does typify say 20 percent of them. He or she is taught about the religion and also taught about recent history and the near annihilation of the Jews of Europe. He or she is sent to Hebrew school, and maybe a yeshiva school as well.
Most of our hypothetical student’s friends will be Jewish and of similar background. Between home, friends and school the student might well find himself or herself in something of a closed universe.
Throughout this educational process Judaism and its fate in the modern world is connected with Israel and its survival. The Arabs, and particularly the Palestinians, are transformed into latter-day Nazis. In addition, Israel’s state ideology of Zionism becomes assimilated into the credos of the religion. Soon our hypothetical student cannot tell the difference between the two.
Then, having come of age, our student goes off to college or university. Now he or she is no longer in a closed world. The result can be culture shock and an uncomfortable feeling that the student is on a campus where vocal and assertive debate about Israel and its behavior sounds like an attack on the Jewish religion.
Our student complains to the ZOA, Hillel, AIPAC or some similar organization and we are off down a road toward censorship and/or litigation.
Lawsuits are lodged (particularly if the ZOA is involved), donors swear that they will no longer support the institution, legislators bang on desks at the state capital, and boards of directors want to know what is going on and what the institution’s president is going to do about it?
There have been a number of efforts to try to use sweet reason to work out some of these problems before they get too explosive. For instance, in 2006, there was concern over the efforts of various pro-Palestinian campus groups to promote an academic boycott of Israel. Is this being anti-Semitic? Should campuses allow this to be advocated?
After all those who espouse academic boycott have a good deal of evidence of criminal activities on the part of the Israeli universities. At that time the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) sought to clarify the issues by arranging a roundtable discussion on academic boycott by those who stood pro and con.
This sounded like a good idea. But, no, the Zionist side did not like the list of discussants on the pro side and tried to censor the list. The AAUP resisted that move, so the Zionist side pressured the donors subsidizing the proposed roundtable to pull their support. The whole thing collapsed. It seemed the Zionists were not going to discuss the topic except on their own terms.
Just recently there has been similar attempt at sweet reason. A heated debate is now taking place over whether Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 (which bars federal funds from institutions that discriminate) can be applied to schools that allow criticism of Israel which the Zionists claim is anti-Semitic.
If so, those same Zionists, whose influence is strong in Congress, can use Title VI as a club to threaten colleges and universities with the loss of financial support unless they shut down the criticism. This, of course, equates to censorship and an attack on free speech.
Once more the AAUP, which opposes the use of Title VI in such situations, approached the American Zionists in an effort to find a compromise position. Professor Cary Nelson, head of the AAUP, managed to enter into negotiations with Kenneth Stern, the “anti-Semitism expert” of the American Jewish Committee (AJC).
The two of them worked out a common position which, after consultation with others in each organization, was signed and released to the public. What did this document say? For our needs, here are its most important points:
1. Title VI is not an appropriate instrument to use when trying to “protect” Jewish students from “anti-Israel events, statements and speakers.” To use Title VI this way amounts to censorship.
2. Regarding how to know when activities are anti-Semitic, the document said, “Six years ago the European monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC) created a working definition of anti-Semitism … while clearly stating that criticism of Israel in the main is not anti-Semitic, [it] gives some examples of when anti-Semitism may come into play, such as holding Jews collectively responsible for the acts of the Israeli state, comparing Israeli policy to that of the Nazis, or denying to Jews the right of self-determination (such as by claiming that Zionism is racism).
“In recent years the U.S. Department of State and the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights have embraced this definition too. It is entirely proper for university administrators, scholars and students to reference the working definition in identifying definite or possible instances of anti-Semitism on campus.”
3. So, censorship and Title VI should be avoided, but the “working definition” should be used to make judgments as to how best to “wrestle with ideas” while at the same time “combating bigotry.”
This letter was signed by both Cary Nelson as President of the AAUP and Kenneth Stern as the Director of the anti-Semitism and extremism sub-division of the American Jewish Committee. Released in early August, it took only a few days before it was repudiated by the AJC.
On Aug. 9, David Harris, AJC president, “apologized” for the joint declaration, said it was “ill advised” and blamed a breakdown in the AJC’s “system of checks and balances” for the slip-up. Kenneth Stern is now on an unscheduled sabbatical and cannot be reached for comment.
This is, of course, a replay of the 2006 situation and just goes to show that, it is the hard-right ideologues who are in charge on the Zionist side. These people have a worldview that allows for no compromise. Censorship is exactly what they want and Title VI is as good a weapon to wield as any.
What could Kenneth Stern possibly have been thinking? There is no room for sweet reason here.
This is not the end of the story. There is something wrong with the fact that the AAUP was so quick to endorse the EUMC working definition of anti-Semitism (a definition, by the way, that Kenneth Stern had a hand in writing).
Consider these two statements from the above AAUP-AJC declaration each of which, according to the “working definition,” can be seen as anti-Semitic: 1) “holding Jews collectively responsible for the acts of the Israeli state” and 2) “denying to Jews the right of self-determination (such as by claiming that Zionism is racism).”
As we are about to see the first statement has hidden facets to it and the second defies historical reality.
It is absolutely the case that the Jews should not be held collectively responsible for the actions of Israel. But it should be pointed out that it is just such collective responsibility that Zionists insist upon.
Zionist ideology demands that Israel be recognized as representing world Jewry. Zionists expect that, in return, all Jews will identify with and actively support Israel – feel one with the “Jewish state.” They classify those Jews who do not recognize their collective responsibility to Israel as somehow deficient or perhaps “self-hating” Jews.
So let us get this straight, if holding Jews collectively responsible for the acts of Israel is anti-Semitic, what does that make the Zionists?
a. That Jews have some sort of natural right to political self-determination is highly questionable. How about Protestants, Catholics, Hindus, Buddhists, ad infinitum? Just how far do we want to push this claim of political self-determination for religious faiths?
Oh, but the Zionists insist that Jews are not just adherents to a particular faith – they are a “people.” Well, that is an opinion. It just doesn’t happen to be the opinion of millions of other Jews who see Judaism as a religion pure and simple. Of course, if the latter are vocal about this they run the risk of being labeled “self-hating.”
b. And who, except of course the Zionists, says that Zionism is a desirable vehicle for the expression of this alleged right of self-determination?
Let us face it. Israel and its Zionist ideology were born of the will of a small minority of Jews, almost exclusively from Central and Eastern Europe, most of whom were secularists, and almost all of whom carried within their heads the poisoned perceptions of European imperialist bigotry – an outlook which still characterizes the state they set up.
That is why, in practice, Zionism has resulted in a prima facie racist environment in Israel. And now we are told that, according to the “working definition,” pointing out the link between Zionism and racism is an act of anti-Semitism!
Given this close reading of parts of the “working definition,” the AAUP really ought to rethink its apparent support of the document. It is a position that can only give impetus to the very censorship the AAUP dreads.
One has come to expect twisted logic from the Zionists. Actually, one can expect this sort of thinking from any band of ideologues. Their blinkered vision, incapable of seeing around the corners of their prejudices, guarantees that most of what comes out of their mouths and their pens is sophistry.
However, what is one to do when folks you count on as rational and careful thinkers, like the leadership of the AAUP, get caught short this way? What is one to do when flawed reasoning and spurious assumptions start to be translated into criteria for government administrative decisions?
What can you do when a fifth of the Congress decides to take a break and visit one of the most racist places on the planet and you risk being labeled an anti-Semite for decrying this fact?
Well, you have a good laugh, have a good cry, and then go post your assessment of the situation on your website. Then you get a bit drunk. Finally, you repeat ten times “I will never stay silent.”
Lawrence Davidson is a history professor at West Chester University in Pennsylvania. He is the author ofForeign Policy Inc.: Privatizing America’s National Interest; America’s Palestine: Popular and Offical Perceptions from Balfour to Israeli Statehood; and Islamic Fundamentalism.