Expanding the Definition of Antisemitism Hurts Jews

Testimony of Professor Barry Trachtenberg to the United States House Judiciary Committee about proposed speech codes on November 7, 2017

Barry Trachtenberg is the Rubin Presidential Chair of Jewish History and the Director of the Jewish Studies Program at Wake Forest University.

First published in the Forward and reprinted by permission of the author

It is increasingly common to hear reports that a “new antisemitism” threatens to endanger Jews on a scale not seen since the second World War and the Holocaust. Studies from several major Jewish organizations have sounded the alarm that antisemitism is a “clear and present danger,” while a number of commentators have argued that yet another “war against the Jews” is upon us.

House Judiciary Committee
As much as these sort of statements try to call our attention to a looming catastrophe, they are motivated less by an actual threat facing American or world Jewry than they are part of a persistent campaign to thwart debates, conversations, scholarly research, and political activism (all of which often occur within the Jewish community itself) that is critical of the State of Israel.

 The truth is that the “old antisemitism” — such as we saw in Charlottesville this summer, where torch-bearing marchers carried Nazi and Confederate flags, chanted “You/Jews will not replace us,” and murdered a protester — is still alive in the United States and in many places around the world and requires vigilance and persistent resistance. It is a poor use of our time to distract ourselves by crafting legislation that dictates what can and cannot be said on college campuses regarding the State of Israel.
Barry Trachtenberg

Legislation such as such as H.R.6421-Anti-Semitism Awareness Act of 2016 is not a genuine attempt to contend with actual antisemitism, but rather is more correctly understood as a means to quell what are in fact protected acts of speech that are vital and necessary both to the scholarly missions of educational institutions and to the functioning of democratic societies.

 It is a factual distortion to characterize campuses in the United States as hotbeds of new antisemitism. A recent study by researchers at Stanford University reported that while depictions of rampant antisemitism are reported widely in the press, they do not represent the actual experiences of Jewish students at the campus level. They discovered that campus life is neither threatening nor alarmist, and this corresponds to my own experiences with Jewish students.
In general, students reported feeling comfortable on their campuses, and, more specifically, feeling comfortable as Jews on their campuses. Based on interviews with sixty-six undergraduate students at five California universities previously described as strongly antisemitic, researchers did not find a single interviewee who characterized their campus in that way. The Stanford study concludes:

Much of the testimony you will hear today is likely to describe alleged incidents of antisemitism, and it may cite studies purporting to prove that antisemitism is at crisis levels. I urge you to be sceptical of such claims.

First, many of the stories that get wide circulation contain factual distortions and are misrepresented in the media. Second, many studies are based on a definition of antisemitism that de facto defines criticism of Israel as antisemitic, and which limit their interviews to a specific set of Jewish students who are highly identified with the state of Israel. Yet as within American Jewry as a whole, Jewish students hold a wide range of views concerning Israel, from unilaterally supportive to sharply critical.

Motivated by concern for human rights

Students who engage in speech critical of Israeli policy are largely motivated by their concern for Palestinian human rights. They are not motivated by antisemitic hate, but its opposite—a desire to end racial and religious discrimination of all kinds.

Legislation designed to curtail activity that is critical of Israel — be it political, scholarly, or simply conversational — most often rests upon a distortion of the State Department’s definition of antisemitism, which is appropriated from the “Working Definition of Anti-Semitism of the European Monitoring Center on Racism and Xenophobia,” a definition that was created for the purpose of research and not government policy. As well-intentioned as the State Department’s concern for antisemitism may be, its understanding of antisemitism is both flawed and overly expansive, and should not serve as the basis for speech codes.

Indeed, so expansive is the State Department’s definition that some of the founding premises of Zionism would themselves be considered antisemitic. For example, the State Department insists that an example of antisemitism is “Accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interest of their own nations.”

Of course, history tells us that quite often Jews’ citizenship in any particular country cannot so easily be taken for granted; this has been one of the factors behind the widespread belief among Jews that wherever they are in the world, they bear a responsibility to one another. The founders of Zionism consequently concluded that, regardless of where in the world they live, Jews have more in common with one another than they do with non-Jews.

Such arguments can be traced back at least to Theodor Herzl, who argued in his seminal 1896 book, The Jewish State, that antisemitism is an inescapable fact of modern existence and therefore Jews “…are a people—One people” and for that reason, “it is useless for us to be loyal patriots.”

Elsewhere, the State Department’s definition is far too broad and encompasses what in other contexts would easily be classified as protected political speech against a foreign government. While I agree that using “classic” antisemitic symbols and images is inappropriate (although not illegal), there is nothing necessarily wrong in comparing the actions of Israel to those of Nazi Germany.

In fact, comparisons of foreign leaders and countries to Nazism are made regularly. In 1990, President George H. W. Bush famously compared Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to Adolf Hitler (a comparison also made by President George W. Bush). Given that comparisons of foreign leaders and governments to Nazism occur regularly, creating a “special status” for speech concerning Jews and Israel would only reaffirm otherwise antisemitic claims that Jews are exceptional and therefore need to have a special category of laws that apply only to them.

Even among Jews, one hears such comparisons levelled with great frequency, coming from both the political left and right. In December 1948 (three and a half years after the end of World War II and seven months after the founding of Israel), Albert Einstein famously co-signed a letter published in the New York Times comparing the political party of the Israeli leader Menachem Begin (a precursor to today’s Likud) to Nazism. More recently, United States Ambassador to Israel David Friedman had to apologize during his nomination process for having once called liberal Zionists, “worse than kapos.”

Plurality of Jewish views

Finally, to say that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist” is an example of antisemitism ignores the plurality of views that exist within the Jewish community. For one thing, it ignores the fact that for many Jews today and since its founding, the state of Israel is decidedly not an expression of Jewish self- determination, a concept which has often held cultural, religious, or ethical implications distinct from the idea of a Jewish state. For another, the question of Israel’s “right to exist” is not the same thing as that of its “right to exist as a Jewish state,” if that existence is predicated on the displacement and oppression of the non-Jews within its borders.

Given the flaws in the State Department’s definition of antisemitism, it must not form the basis of law or campus speech codes. As Kenneth S. Stern, the author of the “Working Definition of Anti-Semitism,” has stated, “the worst remedy is to prohibit speech deemed offensive, disparaging or bigoted that would otherwise be protected by the First Amendment.” He further stated that the purpose of the definition that he formulated was for scientific study, and is not suitable as the basis of campus anti-speech codes.

“The definition was intended for data collectors writing reports about antisemitism in Europe,” writes Stern. “It was never supposed to curtail speech on campus.” As someone who began teaching at the college level nearly two and a half decades ago, I agree fully with Stern who has [elsewhere] stated, “Anti-Semitism – like all forms of bigotry – has an impact on some campuses. The worst way to address it is to create a de facto hate speech code, which is what this bill proposes to do.” Although discussions around Israel and Zionism may often be uncomfortable for Israel’s supporters and detractors alike (something that I witness in my classes most semesters), it is the responsibility of students and educators to foster dialogue and not limit it, to understand the historical implications of our speech, and to allow for the meaning and definition of fraught terms to develop and change as a consequence of informed deliberation and debate.

It is profoundly difficult to create a definition of antisemitism that can be used for legislative purposes. The root of current debates on antisemitism lies in a seemingly intractable problem of how to critique Jewish collective power in a way that does not immediately resonate with a long history of antisemitism. Throughout the last thousand years of European history, Jews were regularly characterized as an incommensurate and exceptionalist element that sought to undermine the established religious, political, or economic order. They were accused of being killers of Christ and of seeking to repeat this offense through the murder of innocent Christian children. Such accusations led at times to blood libels (the classic antisemitic allegation that Jews used non-Jewish children’s blood to make matza, the ritual flatbread of Passover) and pogroms (violent and often deadly mob attacks on Jewish communities).

In more recent centuries, Jews have been characterized simultaneously as usurpers of national identities, disloyal citizens, capitalist schemers, and revolutionary subversives. Such allegations led to discriminatory legislation, riots, expulsions, and physical violence. In the early 20th century, Jews were branded as a biological and racial threat and entire armies rose up to exterminate them. In each of these moments, Jews were imagined as a united group that possessed power and authority far beyond their actual numbers.

Yet, in 1948, with the founding of Israel as a solution to antisemitism, the situation changed dramatically. For the first time, a significant number of Jews – identifying as a national group – gained actual, not imaginary, power. Today, the state of Israel has borders, police, courts, a military, a nuclear arsenal, political parties, and a (mostly) representative and (somewhat) democratic system of government.

Like all other states, its actions are — and must be permitted to be — a matter of public debate and discourse both within the Jewish community and outside of it. Yet speech that is critical of Israel still strikes many as inherently antisemitic. The problem, quite simply, is that we still are learning how to talk about Israel’s actual political power and repeated claims to represent Jews all over the world in ways that do not immediately echo much older and antisemitic depictions of imaginary Jewish power. This is not only on account of the long history of anti-Jewish hatred in the West. It is also because, as we see in legislative initiatives such as this, to characterize any speech that is critical of Israel as intrinsically antisemitic has been a highly effective tool employed by those who uncritically support every action of Israel and seek to stigmatize all critics.

Considering the multiple — and constantly shifting — forms of antisemitism that have emerged since the term “Antisemitism” first appeared in Germany in the late nineteenth century, it would be ill-advised for Congress to establish legal authority on a definition of antisemitism that is so deeply contested. To insist that Israel cannot be protested or objected to, to mandate that collective Jewish power cannot be analyzed or debated, or to conclude that Jews, because they were once victims of one of humanity’s greatest genocidal crimes, are somehow immune from becoming perpetrators of acts of violence against other peoples, would only reinforce the antisemitic belief that Jews are a fundamentally different people.

Moreover, and perhaps most dangerously of all, attempts to broaden the definition of antisemitism to encompass phenomena that are clearly not anti-Jewish can only make it more difficult to recognize, isolate, and oppose actual antisemitic hatred when it does appear.

 

 

 

 

 

Israeli Apartheid Week held at 30 UK universities, despite repression

Michael Deas. Reprinted from Electronic Intifada 10 March 2017

Israeli Apartheid Week took place on more than 30 university campuses across the UK last week despite a massive government backed campaign of repression.

Students at the University of Cambridge and five other campuses erected mock apartheid walls during Israeli Apartheid Week.
Students at the University of Cambridge and five other campuses erected mock apartheid walls during Israeli Apartheid Week.

The week saw some events cancelled, with unprecedented and bizarre restrictions imposed on organizers.

Israeli Apartheid Week is an annual series of events that last year took place in more than 225 cities across the world to raise awareness about how Israel meets the UN definition of apartheid and to build support for the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement.

Thousands of students and academics attended events as part of what was one of the biggest Israeli Apartheid Weeks in the UK to date.

This was doubly impressive given the unprecedented campaign of repression launched against Israeli Apartheid Week by the UK government, universities and the pro-Israel lobby. The campaign came in the context of broader attacks on Palestine organizing in the UK and across the world.

Government interference

On 13 February, UK universities minister Jo Johnson wrote a letter, seen by The Electronic Intifada, titled “Tackling Anti-semitism on campus” to Nicola Dandridge, the head of Universities UK, the representative organization for universities.

Apparently signalling that universities should seek to subject Israeli Apartheid Week events to special scrutiny, Johnson wrote that events which “might take place under the banner of ‘Israel Apartheid’ events” must be “properly handled by higher education institutions to ensure that our values, expectations and laws are not violated.”

Johnson’s letter was passed on to the head of each of the UK’s universities.

South African anti-apartheid activist and academic Farid Esack spokes to more than 170 at an Israeli Apartheid Week event at the University of Sussex. Photo credit Tamara Lasheras
South African anti-apartheid activist and academic Farid Esack spokes to more than 170 at an Israeli Apartheid Week event at the University of Sussex. Tamara Lasheras

British university staff are also being told to “manage” pro-Palestine events on campus as part of the government’s controversial Prevent anti-extremism strategy, Middle East Eye reported.

In addition, pro-Israel organizations lobbied universities directly, urging them to cancel Israeli Apartheid Week events and organized mass letter writing campaigns. According to an email newsletter it sent out, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, a pro-Israel organization, met with several universities to call for the cancellation of events.

Apparently urged on by pro-Israel groups, the Charity Commission, the regulating body for UK charities, sent intimidating emails to student unions at many of the universities where Israeli Apartheid Week was taking place.

Having spoken to different student organizers and student union officers, it is clear the commission asked unions a series of questions about Israeli Apartheid Week. This included insisting that unions reconsider the “suitability of invited speakers” and urging them to take extra measures to ensure that Israeli Apartheid Week events were lawful.

As part of my organizing on Israeli Apartheid Week, I’ve been speaking to members of the Israeli Apartheid Week UK committee and to organizers on campuses across the country. The way in which universities and some student unions reacted to this external pressure were often dangerously repressive and outright bizarre. They included the following:

  • Management at the University of Central Lancashire revoked permission for a speaker panel, forcing organizers to hold the event off campus. Management falsely claimed the event violated the government’s controversial new guidelines on anti-Semitism.
  • At University College London, management forbade a planned street theatre event on the grounds that risk assessment forms had not been filled in on time.
  • At Kings College London, there was a heavy presence of university security officials inside an event and, in a highly unusual move, the speakers were given a lengthy “security briefing.”
  • Student organizers at Leeds were told by their student union that they were not allowed to show any documentary produced by Al-Jazeera or any that featured “emotive music.”
  • The director of the University of Sussex, Adam Tickell, emailed a statement to all students which said, “we will not tolerate intimidation of anyone for their religious or political opinions about the politics of the Middle East” and claimed that “the language” surrounding Israeli Apartheid Week was “deeply upsetting.” Students I talked to believed this was an attempt to intimidate them for their political opinions about the Middle East.
  • Several universities sent official observers to events or organized their own recording of events for monitoring purposes.

Yet despite all this, Israeli Apartheid Week events still took place at more than 30 campuses.

International speakers

US spoken word artist and organizer Aja Monet and South African anti-apartheid veteran and academic Farid Esack spoke to hundreds of people at events at Kings College London, the University of Manchester and the University of Sussex.

More than 170 people heard from US spoken word artist and organiser Aja Monet at an Israeli Apartheid Week event at the University of Sussex.
More than 170 people heard from US spoken word artist and organiser Aja Monet at an Israeli Apartheid Week event at the University of Sussex. Photo credit Tamara Lasheras

Monet also performed at a packed out cultural event in London alongside Palestinian spoken word artist and organizer Rafeef Ziadah and Moroccan band N3rdistan.

Abed Salayma from Hebron-based group Youth Against Settlements spoke out against Israeli apartheid at Portsmouth, University College London, Goldsmiths, Brunel and several Scottish universities.

At the University of Oxford, talks were given by Palme d’Or winning director Ken Loach and Professor Avi Shlaim.

The Israel lobby had clearly set its sights on the complete cancellation of Israeli Apartheid Week in the UK.

Indeed, the Board of Deputies of British Jews sent out an email claiming credit for some of the cancellations of events and other repressive measures enacted by universities.

The fact that inspiring, impressive and well attended events still took place across the country is down to the way in which students, as well as many student unions, stood up to university management and firmly pushed back against the repression.

Organising against repression

Explaining how Israel meets the UN definition of apartheid and that Palestinians are entitled to the same human rights as everyone else is part of a global anti-racist struggle – despite whatever the Israel lobby claims.

It’s also significant that academics across the country wrote emails to management and brought up concerns about repression in their departmental meetings. More than 250 academics signed an open letter published in The Guardian denouncing the campaign of repression.

Prominent anti-Palestinian activist David Collier appeared disappointed that the campaign of repression largely failed, writing “despite one or two cancellations, the government, the university, and elements of our own leadership are letting us down.”

It’s clear that attempts to repress Palestine solidarity organizing won’t stop students standing up for Palestinian rights.

In a statement, the Israeli Apartheid Week UK organizing committee said that although the restrictions “created an atmosphere of fear and intimidation on university campuses” attempts to silence the Palestine solidarity movement would fail.

“Freedom of expression is at stake here not only for campaigning around Palestinian rights, but social justice campaigning more broadly,” the committee said. “The attacks on Palestine campaigning must be situated within today’s overall current political context which facilitates discrimination towards marginalised groups.”

The committee insisted that “no amount of external meddling to shut down or censor IAW events will work – we will continue to uphold the right to campaign on university campuses and advocate for justice and freedom.”

See also Government and Zionists combine to disrupt Israeli Apartheid Week