“The anti-Semitism allegation against BDS is clear evidence that Israel and its allies have lost the battle to defend Israeli state policies. Name-calling and smearing opponents is all that is left. This strategy has failed miserably everywhere and will fail here,” a BDS organizer warns.
NEW YORK — Supporters of Palestine and sympathetic attorneys are fighting back against a slew of accusations of anti-Semitism that they say aim to obstruct their work and obscure Israel’s violations of Palestinian rights through inflammatory rhetoric.
“False accusations of anti-Semitism and support for terrorism are one of a range of strategies being employed by Israel advocacy groups to undermine the movement for Palestinian rights in the U.S., including legal challenges, legislation as we’re seeing in several states right now, and pressure on universities to censor and punish students and faculty who advocate for Palestinian rights,” Radhika Sainath, a staff attorney at Palestine Legal and cooperating counsel with the Center for Constitutional Rights, told MintPress News.
On May 18 the two organizations released findings of 60 accusations of anti-Semitism made by Israel supporters against students and faculty at U.S. campuses “based solely on speech critical of Israeli policy” in the first four months of 2015 alone.
Cases documented in the groups’ briefing ranged from spurious accusations by pro-Israel students, to violent threats against events supporting Palestine, to outright attempts by university administrations to ban them on grounds they might cause “discrimination complaints.”
“As support for Palestinian rights grows, so too have attempts by groups uncritically supporting Israeli state policies to silence advocates for change, by pressuring institutions to censor and punish advocates, making legal and other threats against individuals and groups speaking out, or, as our latest findings show, labeling them as anti-Semites,” Sainath said.
“This latter strategy is widespread, and is related to coordinated efforts to create a new definition of anti-Semitism that would encompass criticism of Israeli policies.”
Sainath added that the efforts, if left unchallenged, could discourage organizing by Palestine supporters at colleges and universities.
“These McCarthyite attacks do often have serious consequences for some, and a huge chilling effect more generally,” she said.
“While the movement for Palestinian rights is growing, false accusations of anti-Semitism, and other suppression tactics used by Israel advocacy groups, drain the emotional, financial and organizing resources of those they target.”
“Construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies”
Many of these accusations use a “working definition of anti-Semitism” posted as a draft text on the website of the European Union’s Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia, now the Fundamental Rights Agency, in 2005.
Never adopted by the agency or any other EU body, the definition, which disappeared from the site “during a clear out of ‘non-official’ documents” in 2013, conflated anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel.
Among other claims, the text charged that “claiming the existence of a state of Israel is a racist endeavor” or “’[a]pplying double standards’ to Israel” constituted anti-Semitism.
Despite its removal by the EU agency, portions of the draft remain cited in a fact sheet on “defining anti-Semitism” hosted online by the U.S. State Department.
In a section entitled “What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?,” the document warns readers against attempts to “demonize” or “delegitimize” the country, or apply “double standards” to it.
The department’s promotion of the discarded definition has come under fire by a group of over 250 faculty, as well as more than 16,700 petition signers, in a campaign organized by Jewish Voice for Peace.
“Such prohibitions that are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies,” Simona Sharoni, an Israeli-American professor of Gender and Women’s Studies at SUNY Plattsburgh, said in a statement distributed by the group.
In an open letter sent on May 18, the academics warned that “this overbroad definition diminishes the ability to identify and address incidents of true anti-Semitism when they do occur.”
“Diverse range of individuals and groups”
Indiana state legislators recently codified similar claims into law.
“BDS promotes a climate of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel speech leading to intimidation and violence on campuses,” the bills claimed, citing no examples before “denounce[ing] the [BDS] Movement for promoting a climate of hatred, intimidation, intolerance, and violence against Jews.”
Each also spoke in glowing, if jarringly familiar, terms of Israel.
“The State of Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East” and “the strongest ally and friend of the United States of America in the Middle East,” they said, repeating both claims in the following paragraph for good measure.
A statewide coalition of civil rights groups quickly assembled to condemn the measures and urge Indiana Governor Mike Pence to reject them.
“Accusations that BDS campaigns are ‘anti-Semitic’ are offensive to the diverse range of individuals and groups, including those that self-identify as Jewish, who support them in Indiana and elsewhere in ever-increasing numbers,” they wrote to Gov. Mike Pence on May 14.
“Israel and its allies have lost the battle”
But the impact of the bills was likely to be minimal, Mark Sniderman, co-chair of JVP Indiana, told MintPress.
“Actually, perhaps because the Indiana General Assembly is so unpopular, the backers of the anti-BDS resolution have been fairly quiet about it,” he said.
“And the more press the resolution gets, frankly, the more attention is paid to BDS. People who hadn’t – and wouldn’t have – heard of BDS, now will.”
He added that other recent measures by the Legislature had already reduced its standing in the state:
“This is the same General Assembly that invited the rightful scorn of our nation when they passed [the Religious Freedom Restoration Act]. And this is precisely the same gang that passed a resolution condemning the EPA for trying to fight air pollution, even at the same time that many Indiana counties received failing grades for air quality from the American Lung Association.”
Purdue University professor of English and American studies Bill Mullen told MintPress the Legislature’s action followed a recent surge of support for Palestine in the state.
“Last summer 2,000 pro-Palestinian demonstrators marched in Indianapolis during Operation Protective Edge,” Mullen said. “The protests targeted Dan Coats and Joe Donnelly, both who sponsored Indiana house legislation during PE that Israel had the right to defend itself and declared Hamas terrorist.”
Mullen, a member of the U.S. Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel’s organizing collective, also belongs to the American Studies Association, which voted in 2013 to boycott Israel.
The movement’s growth has continued since Israel’s bloody offensive on the Gaza Strip, he added.
“Since last summer, three new [Students for Justice in Palestine] chapters have formed in Indianapolis: at [Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis], University of Indianapolis, and Butler,” he told MintPress. “I advise a chapter at Purdue. Since last summer Ali Abunimah, Norman Finkelstein and Ilan Pappe have all been invited by the Indiana Palestine Solidarity network that formed last summer to speak.”
“The legislation should be understood in in this context as an attempt to intimidate new student activists, especially, who are joining SJP or BDS work.”
The effort, Mullen said, showed the desperation of Israel supporters and would probably backfire.
“The anti-Semitism allegation against BDS is clear evidence that Israel and its allies have lost the battle to defend Israeli state policies. Name-calling and smearing opponents is all that is left. This strategy has failed miserably everywhere and will fail here.”