Is being a critic of Israeli state policies the same as being an anti-Semite?

Signing on to the State Department’s definition of the term could mean denying academic freedom and free speech

Recently a battle has begun over the way the U.S. State Department defines the term “anti-Semitic.” As the Los Angeles Times notes, the current State Department version, “defines more general ethnic and religious hatred against Jews but also declares that it is anti-Semitic to demonize Israel, deny Israel’s right to exist, liken Israeli policy to that of the Nazis and blame Israel for all inter-religious tensions.” The Times goes on to note that

« 57 rabbis from California and 104 University of California faculty members called on UC administrators to adopt that State Department definition when dealing with protests and potential discipline for anti-Semitic statements. They said they did not aim to silence free speech, but they contend that too often protests against Israel have turned into inciting anti-Jewish attitudes. In a letter to UC President Janet Napolitano and the UC regents, the rabbis urged that campus leaders “be trained in using the State Department definition to identify anti-Semitic behavior and to address it with the same promptness and vigor as they do other forms of racial, ethnic and gender bigotry and discrimination.”»

Careful readers will note the extreme slipperiness of the assertion that the petitioners do not “aim to silence free speech, but …” They seem to address the issue of how this definition of anti-Semitism might be used to suppress free speech, but then they plow ahead undeterred, as if the denial of academic freedom and free speech was an unfortunate but inevitable price to pay.

Before we sign on to this bargain, it’s necessary to get back to the basic issue: Is being a critic of Israeli state policies actually the same as being an anti-Semite? If every time one voices a criticism of Israel one is acting as an anti-Semite, and if making an anti-Semitic statement is prohibited by the State Department, then ardent supporters of Israeli state policies have won a huge victory — they have essentially made Israel immune from criticism, and made anyone even thinking about raising a serious concern about Israel think twice about just how (or even if) to voice that point of view. But that victory is based on false reasoning, if not a lie.

Being an anti-Semite means denigrating, persecuting and victimizing a people solely because of the fact they are Jewish. Being a critic of Israel’s policies means criticizing a set of actions undertaken by a government. This seems self-evident, but those who wish to make the equation between anti-Semite and critic of Israeli state policies care less for accuracy and more about silencing and punishing critics with any means available, legitimate or not.

We all should seriously think about why we are, and should be, especially firm in our condemnation of anti-Semitism. At the same time we should, out of respect for the term itself, not abuse its meaning and significance for political or ideological gain. We condemn anti-Semitism not only because bigotry is wrong; we condemn it because of the terrible effects anti-Semitism has had historically, and continues to have today. Anti-Semitism must be challenged swiftly and decisively by each and every one of us.

However, some Israel advocacy groups are making it more difficult to combat actual instances of anti-Semitism by using the label in a broad and reckless fashion simply to smear critics of Israeli state policies. They also make it impossible to defend the human rights of Palestinians, which is what many of them aim to do. We are de facto then put in the position of acquiescing to the status quo; we are de facto made into tacit supporters of Israel, out of fear of being tarred with the anti-Semite brush. In sum, for those who are critical of, or at least dubious about, Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and others, we are forced to be silent, we are forced to go against our better selves, out of fear of being called a horrible thing, something we detest. Another way of putting this: We are forced to be dishonest, we become hypocrites by omission.

Now our own inner silencing mechanisms are being aided and abetted by the state, and by certain pro-Israel organizations. Legislation in several states and at the national level has accepted and exploited the equation of criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism, targeting in particular the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Such bills use precisely the same tactics and even words of Benjamin Netanyahu. In a 2014 speech before AIPAC, Netanyahu criticized BDS no fewer than 18 times: “Attempts to boycott, divest and sanction Israel, the most threatened democracy on Earth, are simply the latest chapter in the long and dark history of anti-Semitism. Those who wear the BDS label should be treated exactly as we treat any anti-Semite or bigot. They should be exposed and condemned.”

Such slanderous attacks are being met, and efforts to fight back have yielded some success. This fight is absolutely critical, as it pertains specifically to the ability of colleges and universities to present and debate different views on the subject of Israel-Palestine. Recently the Jewish Voice for Peace Academic Advisory Council mounted a campaign to have the U.S. formally change its definition of anti-Semitism, to make clear the difference between anti-Semitism and criticism of Israel. In an open letter addressed to Secretary of State John Kerry, Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Ira Forman, and Ambassador at Large for the Office of International Religious Freedom David Saperstein, the group notes that the legislation presented in statehouses condemning anti-Semitism draws on the State Department’s definition, which conflates anti-Semitism with criticism of Israel. The group notes:

«The so-called “State Department definition” includes clauses about “demonizing,” “delegitimizing” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel,” prohibitions that are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies.

These clauses were taken from the “Working European Union Monitoring Centre definition” which has been widely criticized and was removed (3) as a working definition by the European body in 2013. This definition has limited legal authority (4) in the US because, if implemented, would unconstitutionally restrict freedom of speech. Further, this overbroad definition diminishes the ability to identify and address incidents of true anti-Semitism when they do occur.

As Jews and allies, we ask that the US State Department revise its definition of anti-Semitism to reflect its commitment to opposing hate and discrimination without curtailing constitutionally protected freedom of speech.»

This letter has been signed by more than 200 prominent academics and nearly 16,000 others.

A similar effort to protect the rights of students and teachers to discuss both sides of the issue is being pursued by Palestine Solidarity Legal Support and the Center for Constitutional Rights. Noting the particular silencing of Palestinians students who are critical of Israel, they write:

« The conflation of criticism of Israeli policies with anti-Semitism as a tool to silence activism in support of Palestinian rights is increasingly widespread – and widely reported – on U.S. college campuses. At the same time, accusations of support for terrorism are commonly used to malign activists for Palestinian rights – a phenomenon that has gone largely unreported.

In addition to instances of censorship and other forms of suppression, these cases included anti-Arab and anti-Muslim slurs and death threats against activists. Accusations that students criticizing Israeli policies were anti-Semitic and supported terrorism pervaded the overwhelming majority of these incidents.

These accusations subject students and scholars to tremendous personal and professional harm, deterring them from publicly criticizing Israel’s actions for fear of being attacked. They are also used to encourage campus authorities to restrict and punish protected speech.»

It’s essential to look at how all this plays out within the classroom as well. This is where we can vividly see how attempts to silence and censor teachers, based on rumor and innuendo rather than facts, can manipulate administrators more interested in protecting their institution from bad publicity and frivolous lawsuits than in protecting the academic freedom of their faculty and students.

David Lloyd, Distinguished Professor of English at the University of California, Riverside, wrote me of the attacks coming from AMCHA, a group intent on blacklisting faculty critical of Israel:

«Their criticism of the course is typical, both in its stridency and in its ignorance. They assume, simply because the leader of the course is president of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), that it will be “propaganda.” But the syllabus contains a broad range of views, Palestinian, Jewish, Jewish Israeli and Palestinian Israeli. It has readings from Edward Said, Saree Makdisi and Rashid Khalidi, all widely respected scholars; it also has readings by Benny Morris, Israeli historian and Zionist, David Grossman, the liberal Israeli writer, Neve Gordon, an Israeli political scientist who is critical of Israel’s occupation, and Uri Ram, an Israeli sociologist. Setting Benny Morris alongside Palestinian journalist Ali Abunimah allows students to consider very different ideas of possible solutions to the occupation, while reading a broad spectrum of Israeli opinion allows students to see that criticism of Israel is by no means the same thing as anti-Semitism: it is possible to be an Israeli anti-Zionist, or an Israeli Zionist who is opposed to the occupation. To suggest that criticism of Israel is identical with anti-Semitism is not only absurd, since it pretends that all Jews must uniformly identify with that particular state.

As faculty sponsor of SJP (and past faculty sponsor of SJP on other campuses), I have always understood that students benefit from a thorough understanding of the issues about which they are concerned and for which they advocate. They do not benefit from a purely one-sided treatment of the issue, if only because not understanding one’s opponents’ arguments prevents one from articulating one’s own arguments well. For that reason it is pragmatic as well as intellectually responsible to explore a wide range of opinions. However, that said, AMCHA and its supporters are not asking for balance. They are asking to “eliminate” the study of Palestinian issues from a Palestinian perspective.»

Fortunately, we find telling signs that such “balance” is coming about, finally. In March a bill condemning anti-Semitism was placed before the California state Legislature. Like others of its kind, it evokes the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism. Its first clause reads: “WHEREAS, The United States Department of State defines anti-Semitism as ‘a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.’” Many Californians, while supporting the statement against anti-Semitism, were deeply concerned about how the State Department definition includes, as mentioned earlier, clauses about “demonizing,” “delegitimizing” and “applying a double-standard to the state of Israel,” prohibitions that are so vague that they could be, and have been, construed to silence any criticism of Israeli policies. A campaign was launched to make sure that the resolution protected against the silencing of criticism. And now a critical clause has been added at the very end of the legislation: “Resolved, That nothing in this resolution is intended to diminish the rights of anyone, including students, to freely engage in any speech or other activity protected by the United States Constitution.”

Becoming educated on this issue — from any number of angles — is absolutely critical to our understanding of it, and, more important, to acting to end the violence and destruction in Israel/Palestine. For the moment, this still presents a danger to those who are taking the relatively new, and still unpopular, stance of raising doubts and criticism about Israel.

In an interview with Salon, Cornel West sums things up this way:

«The call for the end of the vicious Israeli occupation is today a kind of litmus test for progressives, because you have sacrificed so much. There is no doubt that you will be called an anti-Semite, that you will be called a chauvinist; there is no doubt you will be called someone who is downplaying the history of oppression of Jews … [And yet] one can no longer say one is a serious progressive, let alone committed to moral integrity, without lifting one’s voice to call for an end to the Occupation of the Palestinian people. We have got to make that more and more a central part of our action.»