An Open Letter to Israel Law Center: Why we should worry about the hotline to monitor anti-Semitic and anti-Israel activity on college campuses
By Savyonne Steindler
Dear Israel Law Center,
While aimlessly perusing the Jerusalem Post, I came across an article that directly relates to Jewish American university students like me: “Israel Law Center hotline to monitor campus anti-Semitism,” by Joanna Paraszczuk.1 In this article, your director of American affairs, Kenneth A. Leitner, says that you are concerned about us. You are afraid we are “victimized by extremist groups promoting anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate.” It is really great that you want campuses like my own to be “safe and secure for Jewish students, without distraction, intolerance, antagonism and most importantly, violence.” However, I am a little concerned about your methods. You created a hotline for Jewish students to call to report “anti-Semitism and anti-Israel acts” and are planning to use this information to take “legal action.” You are even going to begin issuing “report cards” for different universities, grading them based on “their commitment to providing Jewish students with a safe and welcoming learning environment.” I am all for feeling safe. I believe it is incredibly important that students feel secure at their universities! How else can we feel free to express our newly developing ideas about the world and our own places within it? Unfortunately, I do not think your hotline is going to make my campus any safer. By grouping criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, implying that those who speak out against Israel are terrorists and attempting to prevent Jewish youth from being exposed to alternative opinions about Israel, you perpetuate the ideas that create a polarized discussion about Israel on campuses like UC Santa Cruz.
Anti-Israel and/or Anti-Semitic?
Several elements of your plan make me uncomfortable. Although the intended purpose of your hotline is to “monitor campus anti- Semitism,” Leitner states that the hotline is to be used for students to report “anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hate.” You take for granted that criticism of Israel falls into the category of anti-Semitism, which is far from hegemonic truth. In my mind, anti-Semitism is hate or discrimination that is directed towards Jews because of their Jewishness. There are many arguments that liberal Zionists and anti-Zionists make against Israel that do not obviously fall into this definition. Israel is a nation-state and like any other nation-state, we should be able to question its policies and even its existence. Arguments to the contrary are reminiscent of early Bush-era patriotism which informed the belief that Americans who opposed the Iraq war were anti-American. When you deny people the right to voice “anti-Israel” opinions by labeling them as anti-Semitic, you elevate Israel to a transcendent position beyond reproach or analysis. Like any other nation-state, Israel is run by people with political goals, subjective ideologies, and fallibility. Pointing out its shortcomings does not have to be anti-Semitic, but in fact can be politically responsible. I resent that you intend to use the concept of anti-Semitism as a basis for taking legal action against political dissenters.
That being said, the boundary between anti-Semitism and aggression towards Israel is often hard to discern because hostility towards Israel and Zionism may sometimes be motivated by or lead to anti-Semitism. The fact that breaches of humanitarianism in Israel are given far more attention than those in countries like China, Sudan, and Zimbabwe is curious. And although the problems critics find in Zionism are also present in almost any other nationalism, this fact is rarely acknowledged. Anti-Semitism may be informing the belief in the particularity of the Israeli government and Zionism’s evils. I can also accept that sometimes resentment towards Israel can turn into bitterness towards Jews. Comments on youtube videos or news articles that deal with Israel quickly turn anti-Semitic, just as strong Zionist beliefs seem to transform into Islamophobia in many Jews, including some of my relatives. There can be a link between critique of Israel and anti-Semitism, but I believe that link is something slippery and speculative. It is hard to prove that an activist who chooses to focus on helping people living in the West Bank is motivated by underlying anti-Semitic sentiments. Unless an individual crosses the boundary of disparaging the Israeli government or populace to speaking out against the entire Jewish people, I believe it will be hard for you to convincingly argue that a person who is “anti-Israel” merits the label anti-Semite and a law suit.
Another problem with equating criticism of Israel with anti- Semitism is the fact that since the inception of modern Zionism, anti-Zionism has been in part a Jewish phenomenon. In the same year that Theodore Herzl convened the First Zionist Congress to discuss a nationalist and territorialist solution to the problem of the persecution of the Jews, Jewish socialists formed the Bund, offering the very different solution of socialist revolution and cultural autonomy, and the historian Simon Dubnow, who proposed that there are multiple, migrating centers of Jewish life, was alive and well. Zionism was and still is one of many approaches Jews take towards understanding their Jewishness. You do not seem to recognize that some of the loudest voices criticizing Israel are Jewish. I have heard my friends and family refer to these anti-Zionist Jews as “self-hating Jews,” implying that Zionist inclinations are fundamental to Jewishness. Perhaps you, Israel Law Center, also deny these critics’ Jewishness so that you can easily dismiss their arguments. However, nationalism is a new phenomenon, and there were Jews before it came into being. It can even be argued that since modern Zionism developed out of a desire for the Jews to have a nation-state as all other nations do, it is not fundamentally Jewish at all. In your effort to protect Jewish students by shielding them from “anti-Israel” groups and behavior, you decline to acknowledge that Zionism has always been up for debate in Jewish communities. The kind of speech and acts you wish to eliminate do not only come from “student organizations that may have ties to terrorist organizations,” but from some of the very Jewish students you aim to protect.
Wait…You’re Supposed to be Fighting Terrorism?
According to your website, you are “an Israeli based civil right [sic] organization and world leader in combating the terrorist organizations and the regimes that support them through lawsuits litigated in courtrooms around the world.2” That is all well and good, but how did your fight against terrorism bring you to the decision to begin monitoring college campuses for anti-Semitism? You give an answer to this question, but I do not find it very satisfying. According to Leitner, you speculate that there is a “connection between anti-Israel activists, organizations and activities in the US and Middle Eastern terrorism.” Even if this conjecture is justified, tackling student organizations that benefit from or sponsor terrorist groups is an entirely different project from stopping campus anti-Semitism. Hotline complaints from Jewish students will not provide you with the kind of evidence that you need (like records of financial and material exchanges) to substantiate your belief in a connection between terrorist and anti-Israel clubs on campuses. In creating this hotline you are either deviating from your explicit purpose of “bankrupting terrorism” or, without proof, are considering any persons espousing anti-Israel beliefs to be terrorists. Obviously, conflating those who criticize Israel with terrorists is problematic because by doing so, you undermine the validity of these critics’ arguments before even hearing them. In rhetorically turning these people into terrorists, you foreclose any potential for conversation and understanding while simultaneously justifying your efforts to silence opposing views.
Are Anti-Israel Ideas Really that Dangerous?
If, in fact, we consider that everyone who criticizes Israel may not be a terrorist or linked to terrorism, we may find that your proposal
to take legal action against anti-Israel organizations or the universities that support them is unreasonable and even repressive. You want to make Jewish students feel safe, but perhaps exposure to people who criticize Israel is not such a terrible thing. Although I am not a Zionist, because I think nationalism is dangerous, I admit that I have felt uncomfortable around people who are hostile to the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. I have even experienced fear as I realized that the Zionists and Israelis these critics were disparaging were my loving and well-intentioned siblings and cousins. This dissonance between how some critics of Israel portray the people supporting the Israeli state and how I feel about particular Zionists brought me to question my beliefs about Zionism and Israel. My discomfort motivated me to think about my own visions for Israel’s future in ways I never had before. I had to form a working knowledge about nation-states, cultural citizenship, and the problems of a religious democracy just to feel at peace with myself. Confronting opinions that differ radically from our own is important. These encounters lead us through the often painful process of rethinking our assumptions. We can learn to reconcile seemingly conflicting truths, pick apart axioms we never thought to examine, or continue to stand by familiar beliefs with a renewed confidence in their veracity. If you, Israel Law Center, are successful in silencing the organizations that criticize Israeli policy and question Israel’s claim to statehood you will be denying yourself a generation of American Jews that cling to their beliefs out of conviction instead of by default.
Why should Jewish students like me, who do not feel victimized by anti-Israel activity on their campuses, even care that you are setting up a hotline that will have little or no impact on their daily lives? Ironically, in trying to fix what you perceive to be dangerous criticism of Israel, along with the very important problem of campus anti-Semitism, you perpetuate the beliefs that inform an incredibly polarized debate about Israel. As I have argued above, you view Zionism as integral to Jewishness and associate “anti-Israel” politics with anti- Semitism, danger, and terrorism. In turning your anti-Israel opposition into anti-Semites and terrorists, you make compromise or a moderate stance impossible. Your hotline is grounded in the same conceptions of Jewishness and Zionism that I have witnessed in my family members and at UCSC. My father, an active participant in the fight to silence anti-Zionist groups, has told me many times that he hopes I will return to “our side,” as if my criticism of some Israeli legislation and strategies has turned me into the enemy. Like you, he also believes that a person is either entirely for Israel or is the force out to destroy it. Similarly, at UCSC there seem to be three positions on Israel: fervent Zionists for whom criticism of Israel equates to anti-Semitism, activists whose aim is the dissolution of the Israeli state and the exile of the occupiers and the apathetic who are disillusioned and put off by the former groups and feel there is no alternative but detached disinterest. For students like me who fall in the third category, there seems to be no middle ground. When we say how we feel about Israel, we are spurned from both directions, so we just try not to think about it at all. Israel Law Center, your hotline is part of a bigger problem. If you are really concerned about making Jewish university students feel secure, perhaps it is time to start a new project: fighting the polarization of the discussion about Israel by creating understanding and respect between people of different beliefs.
Published on page 38 of the Fall 2011 issue of Leviathan.
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