SEATTLE — The Israel lobby’s flavor du jour in the battle to uphold Israeli triumphalism is the notion that anti-Zionism (which seems to be everywhere!) is anti-Semitism. The notion is sweeping university campuses from the United States and Canada to the United Kingdom. It’s even taken hold in the State Department.
On March 16, Ira Forman, the U.S. Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism, delivered a speech in Berlin admonishing the Europeans that they risked turning their continent into a breeding ground for the vilest forms of Jew hatred.
“We know Jewish communities in Europe have faced an upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents, including violence in Western Europe over the past few years. Jewish communities are anxious about their safety and future,” Forman said, urging European nations to appoint envoys and establish clear definitions of “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Zionism” so that the two issues are not conflated and can be appropriately combated.
This is what the University of California Board of Regents was apparently working toward when it organized a working group to devise a set of guidelines to police speech and ensure “civility” in campus debate over issues like Israel.
The initial guidelines proposed slid far down that slippery slope that separates robust criticism of Israel and advocacy of Palestinians rights from attacks on Jewish students and efforts to make them feel unsafe on campus.
As articulated, the regents’ statement would’ve erased the distinction between legitimate speech and hate speech. Anyone criticizing Israel would automatically be declared guilty of anti-Semitism.
Even academic courses which included the study of Jewish anti-Zionist thinkers could have been found in violation of the speech code.
After outcry from faculty and the Los Angeles Times, the working group presented a new, watered-down version of the guidelines. They, too, are problematic, but at least they don’t equate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism:
“Opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture. Anti-Semitism, anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.”
Saying that criticism of Zionism “often” becomes anti-Semitic is meaningless. Of course, there are anti-Semites among the far left just as there are Islamophobes among the far right. But there are far more tolerant critics of Zionism than there are anti-Semites.
It’s also worth noting, as Peter Beinart has in Haaretz, that if anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism, then those in Israel’s nationalist camp who oppose the creation of a Palestinian state are themselves racist (or even anti-Semitic, if you view Palestinians as Semites).
You don’t have to be anti-Zionist to love free speech
One doesn’t have to be anti-Zionist to hold the view that anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. I, myself, am not an anti-Zionist, but I recognize anti-Zionism as a legitimate perspective on the Israeli-Arab conflict — one that deserves discussion and debate even if one disagrees with or holds reservations about it.
Anti-Zionism does not constitute an assault on Jewish identity. It does not advocate the destruction of Israel. It offers a political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict, not an anti-Semitic meme. Indeed, the conflation of politics and religion is one of the most noxious, false effects of which partisans on both sides of the conflict are guilty.
Anti-Zionism, far from being a religious canard, advocates the transformation of Israel into a single unitary state in which both Jewish and Palestinian citizens will hold equal political rights. Though it is a view that many Israelis hold as anathema, it does not mean they will be eliminated as an ethnic group in Israel if anti-Zionism triumphs.
One of the worst sins committed by both sides of the conflict is exaggerating the views of opponents. In order to elicit maximum sympathy and manipulate emotions, partisans distort the real positions of the other side. This negates the possibility for real, honest debate. In misconstruing anti-Zionism, the Israel lobby engages in such dishonest rhetoric to the max.
A solution in search of a problem
This entire endeavor by the University of California regents reeks of a solution in search of a problem. If there is a problem of anti-Semitism on campus, it is nowhere near the threat that Israel advocacy groups make it out to be. Commenting on a campaign to defund City University of New York for its allegedly anti-Jewish campus environment, a New York state legislator told the Jewish Forward:
“I said, ‘What the heck?’ My husband is a CUNY professor, we are both Jewish, we have been married 26 years … and he has never brought home to me any concerns about anti-Semitism.”
The fact that these pro-Israel groups like the Amcha Initiative and the Louis Brandeis Center for Human Rights, have no interest in combatting the other forms of prejudice that are rife on campus and in society at large, highlights the hypocrisy of the entire effort.
It is objectionable for any ethnic group to single out discrimination against itself as the sole or primary danger to free speech and a safe campus environment.
All forms of prejudice represent equal threats. As the old saying goes, “A threat to one is a threat to all.” The Israel lobby’s effort says, in effect, that there is only one form of hate that matters — those who hate us — and everyone else will need to solve their own problems.
To resolve such conflict, solidarity is necessary. Instead, the lobby adopts an insular approach.
The original statement prepared by the University of California regents didn’t even reference other forms of ethnic or gender prejudice on campus like homophobia, Islamophobia, xenophobia or racism. Only in the later version is there a nod in this direction. The LA Times reports:
“In addition to Jewish students, it [the revised statement] includes concerns raised about bias directed at Muslims, African Americans, immigrant-rights supporters and the LGBT community.”
Israel lobby smears CUNY Palestine student activists
In New York, Mort Klein, of the Zionist Organization of America, concocted a series of haphazardly documented anti-Semitic incidents on CUNY campuses, suggesting the university was soft on anti-Semitism.
Sarah Schulman, a CUNY faculty member and campus advisor for a Palestinian solidarity group, was summoned before an external panel which included a former New York City prosecutor and told to respond to the accusations on Klein’s list. Here is how Schulman described the macabre incident:
“Upon arrival at their Park Avenue office, I was presented with a 14-page list of accusations filed by Zionists Organization of America (ZOA), once a mainstream Jewish Organization, it is now a small extremist right-wing group. Even though ZOA has been running a press campaign calling me ‘Anti-Semitic’ in the NY Post and Daily News, actually I was not named anywhere in their letter.
Instead they went after the student group to which I am the faculty advisor, Students for Justice in Palestine at the College of Staten Island. We systematically went through all of the accusations, ALL of which were fabricated or absurd. For example, SJP was accused of drawing swastikas on the walls of our college. However there is no record of such an incident ever taking place. There is no incident report of anyone ever doing such a thing at CSI, even the president of the college does not recall this ever happening.
The letter was really a list of slanders against Muslim students. Over and over there were vague charges that ‘a Muslim student’ said something unpleasant to a Jewish student. But never was there any evidence that this composite Muslim student had anything to do with SJP. These students were never identified, and there were no details like dates.”
We should keep in mind that Klein is the same person who fabricated (the Jewish Telegraphic Agency has removed the original article from its website) a quotation he attributed (also removed) to Archbishop Desmond Tutu: “Israel is like Hitler and apartheid.” What Tutu actually said was:
“The [South African] apartheid government was very powerful, but today it no longer exists. Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, Pinochet, Milosovic (sic), and Idi Amin were all powerful, but in the end they bit the dust.”
No reference to Israel at all, and certainly no comparison of Israel to Hitler. This is a perfect example of the perfidious behavior of Klein and the ZOA. And this is what senior CUNY administrators and so-called “serious figures,” including a former Manhattan prosecutor and judge (who herself is a former prosecutor), are using as the basis for their investigation of anti-Semitism on campus.
One wonders why former federal prosecutors are needed to investigate such matters and what that says about the views of the campus administration toward pro-Palestine students.
The New York Senate, controlled by Republicans who are desperate, amid a series of graft scandals, to achieve political relevance, latched on to the report. It became a cudgel they could use to slash $485 million from the school’s state budget, fully one-third of its former funding.
Despite this lapse into lunacy, there have been sane, level-headed voices protesting the closing of the American intellectual mind due to the benighted efforts of the Israel lobby. A University of California faculty group, the California Scholars for Academic Freedom, released a statement forcefully rejecting the notion that legitimate political debate should be construed as hate speech. Jewish Voice for Peace circulated a similar petition which garnered 300 faculty signatures.
StandWithUs allies attack pro-Palestine students, faculty at Washington State College
At Washington State’s The Evergreen State College, where Rachel Corrie studied before her death in Gaza, the Israel advocacy group StandWithUs has organized a small pro-Israel coterie to harass students and faculty who support Palestinian rights. They filed a lawsuit against the local Olympia Food Co-op, after its members voted to boycott Israeli products. Though it was dismissed initially, the State Supreme Court reinstated the suit and it is now before the Thurston County Superior Court.
Two of the principals of that lawsuit testified this week before the college’s board of trustees about the purported rise of hostility on campus against Israel and Jewish students. Among the more extreme of their demands was removing hiring decisions from faculty departments because members are allegedly prone to hire anti-Israel job candidates. Through a confidential source, MintPress News was able to obtain some of the talking points the StandWithUs stalwarts circulated before their testimony:
“Anti-Semitism on campus and the harassment of Jewish and Israel-supportive students exist at Evergreen. TESC needs to address the concerns of current and former TESC students who have felt threatened, targeted and intimidated, etc.
Have TESC adopt the U.S. Department of State’s definition of anti-Semitism [ed., which equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism]
Anti-Zionism on campus fuels anti-Semitism…TESC must recognize the impact of anti-Semitism and anti-Israel sentiments on campus, which also spill over to the community-at-large.
The existing process of recruiting and selecting new faculty at TESC needs to be examined and re-evaluated. In certain academic areas, new faculty are recruited and approved by current faculty members. This serves to promote the continuation of specific biases without the opportunity of receiving differing points of view.
…The establishment of a permanent Jewish…Studies Department at Evergreen, including the hiring of a Jewish scholar who can also serve as a resource to Jewish and Israel-supportive students and others at TESC, would be a good step forward.
Reduce the on-campus presence of the Rachel Corrie Foundation and other decidedly biased groups against Israel.
Consider and address the effect and impact on students of the Rachel Corrie memorial located in a well-trafficked area at Evergreen. This serves to promote the anti-Israel atmosphere permitted and encouraged at TESC.”
Of the six people who testified in favor of these proposals, only one was a TESC student. It should go without saying that the system of college departments hiring scholars within their own fields is a cherished academic tradition. The change suggested here would violate academic freedom and hiring standards.
US envoy uses anti-Semitism “scourge” to enforce pro-Israel attitudes in Europe
Alas, the Obama administration has adopted some of these same faulty assumptions about the nature of anti-Semitism and its relation to Israel. When Special Envoy Ira Forman addressed a German audience on Combatting Global Anti-Semitism, he made acrobatic leaps of logic in turning Europe into a cesspool of anti-Semitic rage.
Remarkably, he managed to steer entirely clear of European xenophobia directed at the tens of thousands of refugees flooding Europe due to conflicts in Syria, Libya and Somalia, many of which were either launched or exacerbated by Western intervention. He also managed to avoid the inconvenient subject of European Islamophobia which runs rampant among many European far-right parties and ideologues (think Marine Le Pen, Anders Breivik, Geert Wilders, etc.).
In much the same way noted above, Forman myopically views Europe as a font of anti-Semitism without any regard for other toxic forms of prejudice that exist there. As far as he is concerned, the only victims in Europe are Jews. All the rest don’t matter.
Here is where Forman gets lost in the weeds of the problem:
“Anti-Semitism is evolving into new, contemporary forms of hatred, racism, and political, social, and cultural discrimination against Jews. One virulent aspect is the relation of conflating Jewish communities with Israel, using criticism of Israel as a pretext for anti-Semitism. As government leaders we cannot ignore this phenomenon.”
Undoubtedly, there are some in Europe who are guilty of this sin, but who are they and how many? Islamic extremists, especially those who’ve attacked Jewish targets in Brussels and Paris, certainly make this grave error by confusing Jews with Israel. To them, they are one and the same.
But let’s explore why and how this confusion occurs. It is classical Zionism itself which encourages such a distortion. This ideology generally argues that there can be no viable Jewish life outside Israel. It argues that Jews may only be real Jews living in Israel. Anyone who remains in the Diaspora must eventually wither and die. Such an approach turns the Diaspora into an extension of Israel itself; Jews living there are destined to become Israelis one day (or die).
What are we to make of flagrantly false statements offered by Israeli leaders like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who claims that Iran intends to destroy not just Israel, but the entire Jewish people? The Israeli leader, in threatening war against Iran, did so not just in the name of his own nation, but the entire Jewish people.
Then there is former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who said that an Iranian bomb would be a flying Holocaust. This, too, conflates Israel with world Jewry. Iran, whose fight with Israel is rooted in political issues rather than anti-Semitism, becomes a latter-day Third Reich by virtue of a nuclear bomb, which it doesn’t even possess.
So, while the conflation of Jews and Israel is reprehensible and anti-Semitic, the confusion arises from constructs offered to the world by Zionist leaders themselves.
Diaspora Jews, even those who are Zionists, should argue strenuously that the two entities are distinct, that they have different interests (though overlapping ones as well), that they can be mutually beneficial, but must not become photocopies of each other. To amend the standard Israel lobby saying: there must be daylight visible between the two.
Forman quotes his predecessor, Hannah Rosenthal, as she embraces hardcore Likudist Natan Sharansky’s tortured definition of anti-Semitism:
“Opposition to a policy by the State of Israel [can morph] into anti-Semitism …This form of anti-Semitism is more difficult for many to identify – but if all Jews are held responsible for the decisions of the sovereign State of Israel [or if] governments call upon and intimidate their Jewish communities to condemn Israeli actions…this is not objecting to a policy–this is anti-Semitism. Our State Department uses Natan Sharansky’s framework for identifying when someone or a government [can] cross the line – when Israel is demonized, when Israel is held to different standards than the rest of the countries, and when Israel is delegitimized.”
It’s ironic that Rosenthal defines a government which “intimidates” (there isn’t a single example of such behavior offered) local Jewish communities into criticizing Israeli policies as anti-Semitic. But when non-Muslims in Europe, the U.S. and elsewhere bait Muslims by claiming they haven’t condemned the terror attacks of Islamic extremists, this, somehow, isn’t Islamophobia. Indeed, few in the West see such demands for what they are: thinly veiled attempts to tar all Muslims with the brush of “terrorist.”
Then there’s Sharansky’s definition of “crossing the line,” the notion that holding Israel to different standards than other countries is anti-Semitic. This is preposterous. First, critics of Israel are entitled to hold Israel to high standards because Zionism, from Day One, has claimed the highest moral values (see, the Israeli Declaration of Independence). Second, the claim offered by pro-Israel ideologues like Sharansky that one may not criticize Israel until the world addresses far worse world conflicts is a deliberate moral evasion, an effort to ensure Israel will never be held accountable.
Even in a statement that nods at the sort of religious-ethnic solidarity I mentioned earlier, Forman still manages to present anti-Semitism as the primary form of European prejudice:
“Everyone needs to understand that anti-Semitism is not just a ‘Jewish problem.’ Anti-Semitism and religious intolerance are fundamental threats to democratic societies; religious intolerance leads to the loss of rights for other minority groups, threatening social cohesion and fundamental freedoms. Civil society, governments, and religious leaders all have a responsibility to act against all forms of intolerance, including against religious or ethnic minorities.”
He has it backwards. Anti-Semitism doesn’t permit or encourage other forms of discrimination. All of them together are a swirling stew of hatred. The fact that Forman presents Jewish suffering as the font of all suffering is further proof of his Jewish exceptionalism.
One of the worst, most glaring omissions from Forman’s presentation is various forms of Jewish terrorism and hatred, both in Israel and in the Diaspora. Inside Israel, settlers regularly murder Palestinian children in the most gruesome of ways. Even the Israeli state itself murders Palestinian civilians callously.
This hate isn’t confined to Israel. In 2014, 150 French Jewish Defense League hooligans armed with iron bars, pepper spray and pieces of furniture stormed groups of Arab residents, clashing with them for hours. The JDL rioters were heard chanting slogans like: “Fuck you, Palestine.” Remarkably, police only arrested Palestinians. No Jewish attackers were singled out for detention.
If Forman were truly interested in ending hatred and prejudice in Europe, he would’ve addressed hate of which many Jews are capable. He certainly could and should have denounced it, just as he denounced the anti-Semitism of Islamic extremists. But he didn’t, leaving grave doubts about the intellectual honesty of his entire endeavor.