Intimidation won’t stop the fight for Palestine

September 11, 2014

Eric Ruder counters the main argument used by Zionists against critics of Israel--as the battle against the unjust firing of Steven Salaita comes to a head.

THE STRUGGLE for academic freedom and Palestine solidarity will reach a critical moment today as the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Board of Trustees meets to consider whether to uphold or reverse the firing of Steven Salaita just weeks before he was due to take up his new post as an associate professor in the American Indian Studies Program.

UIUC Chancellor Phyllis Wise notified Salaita of the firing by e-mail in early August, long after the Palestinian American scholar had quit his former position and moved his family to Illinois. Salaita was fired for his justly outraged comments on Twitter denouncing Israel's barbaric war on Gaza.

The international campaign of support for Salaita demanding that UIUC reverse its decision has been unprecedented. As the trustees meet today, students, faculty and activists from the area and beyond will be rallying on the UIUC campus in support of Salaita.

But the victimization of one critic of Israel who refused to stay silent during the war on Gaza is anything but unique.

Supporters of fired UIUC professor Steven Salaita rally at a press conference
Supporters of fired UIUC professor Steven Salaita rally at a press conference (Eric Ruder | SW)

Israel's pummeling of Palestinians with jet fighters, artillery and ground troops was accompanied by an attempt to clamp down on anyone, especially on American college campuses, who dared to raise criticisms of what was acknowledged, even by supporters of Israel, as an epidemic of war crimes directed at Gaza's civilian population.

In addition to Salaita's firing, Ohio University Student Senate President Megan Marzec endured a vicious campaign of harassment this month for standing for Palestine. Yale University chaplain Father Bruce Shipman was pressured to resign because of a brief New York Times letter to the editor.

In the last 18 months, there have been more than 200 documented cases of students, faculty and activists being intimidated, smeared and even prosecuted for speaking out in support of Palestinian human rights, according to Maria LaHood of the Center for Constitutional Rights. "The most common to falsely equate legitimate challenges to Israeli government action with anti-Semitism or to label passionate rhetoric 'uncivil'," said LaHood.

Apologists for the Zionist project make no secret of this attempt to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. "If people say I'm not anti-Jewish, I'm only anti-Zionist, they are still anti-Semites...because they are saying that Jews as a group are not worth[y of] having their own nation, country or state," Haim Fireberg, a research director at Tel Aviv University, told the Jerusalem Post in May.

Such attempts to deflect a valid criticism of Israeli government policy and transform it into indefensible racial persecution has the predictable effect--and the desired one, as far as pro-Israel boosters are concerned--of simultaneously neutralizing the message and impugning the motives of the messenger.

But there is a fundamental difference between criticism of Zionism--the political movement founded in the late 19th century to establish a Jewish state--and hatred directed at Jewish people. Exposing and challenging Israel's war crimes in Gaza is central to the project of speaking out for Palestinian national rights--it has nothing to do with anti-Semitism.

STEVEN SALAITA crossed a line, according to his critics.

Remember that his firing wasn't based on his academic writings or conduct as a teacher, which all agree have been impeccable, but on a series of "uncivil"--according to UIUC administrators--140-character bursts from his personal Twitter account.

So what did Salaita say on social media that was so heinous? One of his many tweets denouncing Israel as bombs were falling on Gaza made the following point: "By eagerly conflating Jewishness and Israel, Zionists are partly responsible when people say antisemitic shit in response to Israeli terror." Another tweet in the same vein reads: "Zionists: transforming 'antisemitism' from something horrible into something honorable since 1948."

Salaita's detractors assert that these tweets demonstrate Salaita is brimming with "Jew hatred,", in the words of William Jacobson, one of the Zionists who initiated the campaign to pressure UIUC to fire Salaita.

If Salaita were indeed attempting to blame an oppressed group for its own oppression or suggesting that anti-Semitism is actually "honorable," this would be troubling indeed. But a closer look at the dialogue Salaita was engaging in clearly refutes the idea that Salaita is pardoning anti-Semitism. In fact, he is making the opposite case, as Phan Nguyen shows in an article at that exhaustively analyzed Salaita's tweets--and he explicitly condemns anti-Semitism.

With defenders of Israel denouncing critics as "anti-Semitic," Salaita tweeted on July 19: "If it's 'antisemitic' to deplore colonization, land theft, and child murder, then what choice does any person of conscience have?" Two minutes later comes the tweet about how Zionism gives anti-Semitism a veneer of "honor"--because legitimate criticism of Israeli colonialism is labeled "anti-Semitic" by Zionists.

When Michael Hessel-Mial tweeted at Salaita a few hours later, "unsure how to respond to this as a jewish anti-zionist," Salaita clarified with the following: "By attacking the discourses of Zionism that cheapen anti-Semitism by likening it to principled stands against state violence." Hessel-Mial, in turn, tags Salaita's response as a favorite and tweets back, "ok I can get behind that." Salaita then replies again: "My stand is fundamentally one of acknowledging and countering the horror of antisemitism."

As Nguyen concludes: "Taken in the full context, one cannot possibly construe that Salaita was endorsing anti-Semitism."

But in any case, the point Salaita was making--that Zionists who insist on equating Israel with Jewishness bear a degree of responsibility when outrage directed against Israel's war crimes leaks over into outrage at Jews--is one that people across the ideological spectrum, including Jews and Zionists, also acknowledge. Take, for example, Anti-Defamation League director Abraham Foxman's comment, as reported by the Jerusalem Post:

ADL National Director Abraham Foxman said it was difficult to clarify whether anti-Semitic attitudes were caused by the conflict with the Palestinians or whether the conflict was an "excuse" for such beliefs. "It is evident that the Middle East conflict matters with regard to anti-Semitism," he said. "We believe anti-Israel attitudes impact on anti-Semitism, but we have no statistical data to confirm this."

In other words, Foxman recognizes exactly what Salaita was saying--that Israel's policies with respect to Palestinians have a bearing on levels of anti-Semitism. The conclusion that must be drawn is that Salaita holds the same opinion as Foxman--but since he is a Palestinian, criticizing a government that is attempting to ethnically cleanse Palestinians from Palestine, he is held to a different standard.

In fact, there has been a rise of anti-Semitism recently--most pronounced in Europe, where far right parties, including Hitler-worshipping Nazis like Golden Dawn in Greece, have made major electoral gains as a consequence of the economic crisis and social desperation. But this anti-Semitism has nothing whatsoever to do with the principled critiques of Israel by Palestine solidarity activists. On the contrary, some forces on the right see themselves as making common cause with Israel against the threat of "militant Islam."

THE SHOCKING truth about this entire controversy is that Zionists themselves have an atrocious record when it comes to organizing a consistent opposition to anti-Semitism. Take, for example, Theodore Herzl, considered the father of political Zionism: "I achieved a freer attitude toward anti-Semitism, which I now began to understand historically and to pardon. Above all, I recognized the emptiness and futility of trying to 'combat' anti-Semitism."

For the first half of the 20th century, only a minority of Jews embraced Zionism, because it ran counter to the aspirations of the majority, who identified with radical labor and socialist movements that sought to challenge anti-Semitism. Jews across Europe preferred to stay in the cities and towns where they already lived--where they knew the language and had friends, families and other social connections--rather than uproot themselves and move to an uncertain future in the Middle East.

For Zionists, however, such "assimilationist" attitudes were part of the problem--which is why they attempted to make common cause with Europe's fascist rulers, with whom they could agree that the best "solution" to the Jewish problem was the departure of Jews from the continent. As Ralph Schoenman puts it in The Hidden History of Zionism:

This strategy of enlisting Europe's virulent Jew-haters, and of aligning with the most vicious movements and regimes as financial and military patrons of a Zionist colony in Palestine, did not exclude the Nazis. The Zionist Federation of Germany sent a memorandum of support to the Nazi Party on June 21, 1933. In it the Federation noted: "...a rebirth of national life such as is occurring in German life...must also take place in the Jewish national group..." Far from repudiating this policy, the World Zionist Organization Congress in 1933 defeated a resolution calling for action against Hitler by a vote of 240 to 43.

Such Zionist betrayals of the fight against anti-Semitism alienated most Jewish workers, as Isaac Deutscher, the biographer of Leon Trotsky, noted:

The great majority of East European Jews were, up to the outbreak of the Second World War, opposed to Zionism...The most fanatical enemies of Zionism were precisely the workers, those who spoke Yiddish...The anti-Zionists saw an abdication of their rights, a surrender to anti-Semitism. To them, anti-Semitism seemed to triumph in Zionism, which recognized the legitimacy and the validity of the old cry, "Jews get out." The Zionists were agreeing to get out.

It was only after the Holocaust carried out by Adolph Hitler's Nazi Party in Germany--and the subsequent founding of the state of Israel a few years later--that despair led a majority of Jews to embrace Zionism.

Zionists like Herzl thus tolerated anti-Semitism as an effective means for accomplishing their own colonial aspirations. In the process, Zionists embraced the colonial-settler project of dispossessing Palestinians of their homes and land--with the backing of imperialist powers such as Britain and the U.S.

CRITICS OF Zionism are the most consistent anti-racists, opposing anti-Semitism wherever it shows itself and simultaneously opposing the racism directed by Zionists against Palestinians. The problem with Israel is not that it offers full citizenship rights to Jews, but that it doesn't also grant full citizenship rights to non-Jewish inhabitants.

As Jewish anti-Zionist Tony Greenstein explains, the racism and violence directed against Palestinians inside Israel, as well as those living under Israeli military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, combined with the Jewish supremacy at the heart of the Jewish state, has predictable and ugly consequences:

One of the key demands made by [Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, during negotiations with [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, was that he recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

What is a Jewish state? A Jewish state is the home of the mythical Jewish nation, i.e. all Jews, wherever they live and whatever country they are citizens of. It is based on the anti-Semitic Zionist idea that Jews are strangers in the countries where they live, living in Exile (Galut), and have more in common with each other than those they live amongst. It is also the basis of the world Jewish conspiracy theory. It is also why there is no Israeli nationality, and Israel cannot be a state of its own citizens...

Israel claims the barbarities of [Operation Protective Edge] in Gaza not just on behalf of its own Jewish citizens but Jews worldwide. Of course that invites people to attack Jews (something Zionism and the Israeli state don't mind since it can only provide more Jewish immigrants).

As this history illustrates, Zionism as a political current has accommodated anti-Semitism. What's more, it has directed a virulent form of eliminationist racism against Palestinians specifically and Arabs and Muslims in general since the beginning of its effort to colonize Palestine.

This reached frightening levels during Israel's most recent assault on Gaza, with racist mobs of Jewish Israelis chanting "Death to the Arabs!", stopping cars to check drivers' ethnicity, gathering on hillsides to watch bombs fall on Gaza and even protesting outside a wedding between an Arab man and an Israeli woman.

What's at stake, therefore, in the Zionist effort to fire Steven Salaita and silence other pro-Palestine professors, students and activists is whether the naked racism on display in Israel will be tolerated and even excused--while those who criticize Israel are wrongly smeared as "anti-Semitic."

If the Zionist individuals and organizations behind Salaita's firing get away with this, it would undermine both the struggle against anti-Arab racism, which has reached a fever pitch in the U.S., and any challenge to actual instances of anti-Semitism by lumping them together with completely legitimate criticism of Israeli government policy and actions.

One of the fallback positions of Zionists is the claim that criticism of Israel's war on Gaza--as well as the wider boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel's apartheid system that denies equal rights to its non-Jewish citizens--makes Jewish students "uncomfortable." But do organizations and movements that criticize anti-Black racism in the U.S. make white students feel "uncomfortable"?

Today's generation of young Jews don't uncritically identify with Israel with nearly the same intensity that many of their parents did. Those Zionists who attempt to silence critics of Israel with appeals to the "discomfort" of Jewish students unfairly assume that all Jewish students agree with Israel's racist treatment of Palestinians.

Any Jewish student who does, in fact, hold racist ideas against Palestinians, Arabs or Muslims should be made to feel uncomfortable about such views. But as the many Jewish participants and organizations in the movement to defend Palestinian rights demonstrate, Jewish students who wish to stand against anti-Arab racism are warmly embraced.

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