Challenging free speech on behalf of Israel

March 21, 2016

Defenders of Israel challenging the BDS campaign in solidarity with Palestine rely on conflating of Israeli state policy with all Jewish people, argues Eric Ruder.

THE ATTEMPT by defenders of Israel to counter the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaign against Israeli violations of Palestinian civil rights has hit new low points, stooping to blatant violations of the right to free speech and manipulation of probably the most terrible symbol of the 20th century.

From New York to California, critics of BDS are enlisting friendly state legislators and well-connected university administrators to attack as "anti-Semitic" student activists and university professors who demand that Palestinians be granted basic civil rights. And, grotesquely, the Nazi swastika has appeared in multiple cities, directed not at Jews but at those who stand for Palestinian rights.

Defenders of Israel seem willing to trample on basic democratic rights, including the right to free speech, academic freedom and student democracy--as long as it serves the purpose of shielding Israel from criticism.

At the heart of this strategy lies a necessary deception: the confusion of the state of Israel with the Jewish people as a whole--in order to make it seem as if someone who criticizes Israeli policy necessarily hates or discriminates against Jewish people because of their ethnic and religious identity.

Gaza solidarity activists call for a boycott against Israel
Gaza solidarity activists call for a boycott against Israel (Stephen D. Melkisethian)

This conflation of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism has the aim of redefining criticism of Israel, and especially the growing BDS movement, as unacceptable public discourse. In particular, the architects of the pro-Israel strategy hope to use nondiscrimination policies at colleges and universities to muzzle pro-Palestine activists on campus--by depicting criticism of Israeli's well-documented human rights abuses as nothing more than hate speech.

The irony, as many commentators have pointed out, is that some of the most high-profile individuals in the growing BDS movement are Jewish themselves. In an article for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, liberal journalist Peter Beinart described a recent trip to Vasser College after a Wall Street Journal op-ed described the campus as a hotbed of anti-Semitism:

I went looking for anti-Semitism. What I found was more interesting...Many [Jewish students I interviewed] admitted that they found the anti-Zionist atmosphere on campus disquieting, which wasn't surprising given that many either had Israeli parents, had attended Jewish day school or had participated in Zionist youth movements. But they were reluctant to equate Vassar's anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. One big reason: Many of the loudest anti-Zionists at Vassar are other Jews.

At Vassar, the movement to boycott Israel is not led by Palestinian or even Arab or Muslim students. It is led by a group of left-wing activists, several of whom are Jewish. One of the most prominent BDS student activists sits on the board of Vassar's Jewish Student Union.

BEINART'S ACCOUNT of what's happening at Vassar illustrates the bankruptcy of this line of attack against pro-Palestine activism, especially because the BDS movement itself is self-conscious in its opposition to all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism.

In 2012, the BDS movement issued a statement titled "The struggle for Palestinian rights is incompatible with any form of racism or bigotry," which proclaimed the centrality of anti-racism to its project:

The struggle for our inalienable rights is one opposed to all forms of racism and bigotry, including, but not limited to, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, Zionism, and other forms of bigotry directed at anyone, and in particular people of color and indigenous peoples everywhere.

We oppose the cynical and baseless use of the term anti-Semitism as a tool for stifling criticism of Israel or opposition to Zionism, as this assumes simply because someone is Jewish, they support Zionism or the colonial and apartheid policies of the state of Israel--a false generalization.

On its website, Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) rejects the same accusation of anti-Semitism in its "frequently asked questions" page:

JVP proudly endorses the Palestinian civil society call for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) until Israel abides by international law. We reject the assertion that BDS is inherently anti-Semitic and defend activists who employ the full range of BDS tactics when they are demonized or wrongly accused of anti-Semitism. We believe BDS is a meaningful alternative to passivity engendered by two decades of failed peace talks, and is the most effective grassroots means for applying nonviolent pressure to change Israeli policies.

Nevertheless, the McCarthyite campaign to restrain Jewish opinion with a pro-Israel straitjacket is well-financed and well-connected--and thus able to use money and power to try to drown out those voices, Jewish or Palestinian, that defy its narrative.

As Glenn Greenwald and Andrew Fishman wrote at the Intercept website:

Last year, GOP billionaire Sheldon Adelson and Democratic billionaire Haim Saban donated tens of millions of dollars to a new fund to combat BDS on college campuses. Also last year, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "decided to implement a 2014 resolution to establish a special task force to fight the anti-Israeli sanctions"; that task force has funding of "some 100 million Israeli shekels (roughly $25.5 million)."

SO WHAT does tens of millions of dollars, flowing from and through the U.S. political establishment, buy you?

The Obama administration's State Department already adopted a controversially overbroad definition of anti-Semitism in 2010 (read a dissection of the State Department's definition by Palestine Solidarity Legal Support).

But that's just a start. At the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), the Board of Regents is on the verge of issuing a "Statement of Principles Against Intolerance," which according to initial reports will explicitly name anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism as forms of intolerance.

Richard Blum, husband of California's Sen. Dianne Feinstein and a multimillionaire defense contractor, is one of the University of California Regents who pushed most aggressively for the addition of anti-Zionism to the UCLA statement. In fact, at a Regents meeting last fall, Blum reportedly said his wife was "prepared to be critical of this university" if the Regents were not prepared to harshly punish those students who violated its tolerance principles with respect to Israel.

Brant Rosen, a UCLA alum and a rabbi in Evanston, Illinois, who began his own journey to anti-Zionism a decade ago, recently explained his misgivings about such a policy:

In fact, growing numbers of Jews and others identify as anti-Zionists for legitimate ideological reasons. Many profess anti-Zionism because they do not believe Israel can be both a Jewish and democratic state. Some don't believe that the identity of a nation should be dependent upon the demographic majority of one people over another. Others choose not to put this highly militarized ethnic nation-state at the center of their Jewish identity. Far from being discriminatory, their beliefs are motivated by values of equality and human rights for all human beings.

Blurring the distinction between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism muddles the definition of anti-Semitism to the point that it becomes meaningless. This conflation is irresponsible and harmful, and invariably draws our attention away from real anti-Semitism, whether it be the targeting of Jews, the vandalization of synagogues and cemeteries, or the proliferation of hate groups at home and abroad.

THE CONTROVERSY at UCLA is the tip of the iceberg.

In New York, Republicans in the state Senate passed a budget resolution that shifts nearly $500 million in operating expenses for the City University of New York (CUNY). The stated reason for the shift is CUNY's "lackluster response to several anti-Semitic incidents at CUNY colleges"--in other words, legislators don't like student activism in support of Palestinian rights.

Essentially, the state Senate has imposed cuts to the CUNY system that it wanted to impose anyway--but put the blame on pro-Palestine solidarity activists.

In Minnesota, a pro-Israel group vandalized a social media meme of a pro-BDS student group at the University of Minnesota (UMN) with a swastika, and a group of 81 state legislators sent a letter to UMN President Eric Kaler essentially ordering him to shut down debate of a BDS resolution by UMN student government--which Kaler promptly did.

And now, in Indiana, swastikas appeared at two campuses some 70 miles apart on the same weekend in early March.

One of the swastikas appeared on the whiteboard of the American Studies Association at Purdue, where prominent BDS activist and professor Bill Mullen teaches. Days later, an article appeared on the right-wing website singling out Mullen by name.

Immediately, Mullen and his allies issued a statement condemning the anti-Semitic attack, and circulated a petition with an impressive list of initial signatories showing solidarity between Jewish and other pro-Palestine voices.

The use of swastikas to target activists marks an ugly new turn in the campaign against BDS, threatening free speech with accusations of anti-Semitism and deploying one of the world's most inflammatory symbols of hate against people committed to fighting racism and defending human rights.

What's particularly shocking is that at a time when various mainstream and even liberal figures are decrying what they perceive as the left's hostility to free speech on college campuses, these same figures haven't made a peep about a campaign against free speech being waged by state legislatures, campus administrators and pro-Israel groups.

Our movement must make those who would suppress free speech in order to defend Israel pay for their overreach--by combining the fight for Palestinian rights with a full-throated defense of basic civil rights.

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