by Philip Weiss
March 22, 2016
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As someone who has long urged the media to openly discuss the competing claims of Zionism and anti-Zionism, I am gratified that those words are breaking into the mainstream at last. Though right now the discussion chiefly centers on the assertion that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism.
Many officials have lately charged that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism; even Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton have echoed that claim. In doing so, they have accepted the idea that Judaism now entails a commitment to the idea of a Jewish state in historical Palestine. Many of us disagree, and we are ready to make our own case here -– see Rachel Sandalow-Ash of Open Hillel, whose comments end this article. But let’s look at the official voices first.
Yesterday both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders were critical of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions campaign (BDS) against Israel, a campaign many anti-Zionists support.
At the AIPAC conference, Clinton said BDS is inherently anti-semitic because it seeks to “undermine ... the Jewish people.” To wit:
Many of the young people here today are on the front lines of the battle to oppose the alarming boycott, divestment and sanctions movement known as BDS. Particularly at a time when anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world, especially in Europe, we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate and undermine Israel and the Jewish people. I’ve been sounding the alarm for a while now. As I wrote last year in a letter to the heads of major American Jewish organizations, we have to be united in fighting back against BDS. Many of its proponents have demonized Israeli scientists and intellectuals, even students. To all the college students who may have encountered this on campus, I hope you stay strong.
Here’s what Bernie Sanders said when Chris Hayes of MSNBC asked him last night if BDS is anti-semitic.
Not to see that there is some level of anti-Semitism involved in that [movement] would be a mistake.
The argument is raging on campuses of course. Last month the Vassar College administration all-but equated anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism. And a new proposed regulation from the University of California equates anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism and says it has no place at the university. From the California regents working group on intolerance:
[H]istoric manifestations of anti-Semitism have changed and… expressions of anti-Semitism are more coded and difficult to identify. Opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture. Anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism and other forms of discrimination have no place at the University of California.
Teresa Watanabe in the LA Times summarizes the response:
The inclusion [of the intolerance provision] immediately drew sharply divergent reactions, with pro-Israel groups hailing it as a needed step to protect Jewish students from hostility and those supporting Palestinian rights criticizing it as a naked attempt to suppress criticism of the Jewish state.
Scholars were similarly divided over whether a statement meant to express the UC regents’ principles against intolerance should include Zionism — historically an international movement to establish a Jewish homeland and now viewed as the belief in Israel’s right to exist.
One letter signed by more than 130 UC faculty members supported naming anti-Zionism as an expression of anti-Semitism, saying students need guidance on “when healthy political debate crosses the line into anti-Jewish hatred, bigotry and discrimination, and when legitimate criticism of Israel devolves into denying Israel’s right to exist.”
But another letter from more than 250 UC professors expressed fear that the proposed statement would restrict free speech and academic freedom to teach, debate and research about the complex and tumultuous history of Israel and the Zionist movement.
Thankfully, the Los Angeles Times has run an editorial stating that UC’s “intolerance policy goes dangerously astray on anti-Semitism.” It urges the university to prune any statement conflating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism because it’s an effort to suppress support for Palestinian rights.
in one crucial respect the report goes dangerously astray: It conflates anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism and says both are forms of discrimination that “have no place at the University of California.” It’s difficult to read that as anything other than a warning to those students or faculty members who have fundamental disagreements with the state of Israel. It apparently rules out of bounds an assertion by, say, a Palestinian professor that Israel’s creation was unfair and unjustifiable, or by a Jewish student that Israel should be replaced by a nonsectarian state. Both are ideas that this page opposes but they are fully entitled to protection at a public university under the 1st Amendment.
The equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism might also make it easier to stigmatize protests against Israeli policies — particularly the treatment of Palestinians — even if they don’t actually oppose the idea of a Jewish state. Pro-Palestinian activists on campus are right to fear that such a statement would target their advocacy…
the report’s linkage of “anti-Semitism” and “anti-Zionism” blurs an important distinction. It is no doubt true that there are anti-Zionists who are also anti-Semites. But it is certainly possible to oppose Israel and not harbor or express prejudice against Jews. Some critics of Zionism are themselves Jewish. No doubt many Jewish students at UC strongly identify with Israel and are deeply offended by criticism of its policies or attacks on its legitimacy. But that doesn’t justify equating those opinions with bigotry or stifling their expression.
The Times then ran letters from Israel supporters saying that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. But there was this calm and eloquent statement from Sherna Berger Gluck, a feminist oral historian:
The UC regents must understand that Judaism does not equal Zionism, and anti-Zionism does not equal anti-Semitism. Zionism is the belief in a Jewish state; in other words, a state that eschews the basic concept of a secular democracy, just as the Islamic State of Iran does.
Jewish Americans like me who are anti-Zionists support a secular, democratic state where all citizens have equal rights. We are neither anti-Semites nor “self-hating Jews,” but rather advocates of democracy and social justice.
Sherna Berger Gluck, Topanga
The AP story on California also quoted a Jew who isn’t bewitched by Zionism.
“As a student who considers my work advocating for Palestinian human rights as an expression of my Jewish values, I am surprised to see that criticism of a modern nation-state that regularly violates international law is so centered in a report against intolerance,” said Eitan Peled, a UCLA student and campus leader for Jewish Voice for Peace
Eugene Volokh at the Washington Post also faults the California regents. While he claims that “a good deal of anti-Zionism is indeed anti-Semitic,” he says people have a right to dispute whether Jews need a nation state.
Whether the Jewish people should have an independent state in Israel is a perfectly legitimate question to discuss — just as it’s perfectly legitimate to discuss whether Basques, Kurds, Taiwanese, Tibetans, Northern Cypriots, Flemish Belgians, Walloon Belgians, Faroese… should have a right to have independent states.
Sometimes the answer might be “yes.” Sometimes it might be “no.” Sometimes the answer might be “it depends.” But there’s no uncontroversial principle on which these questions can be decided. They have to be constantly up for inquiry and debate, especially in places that are set up for inquiry and debate: universities. Whether Israel is entitled to exist as an independent Jewish state is just as fitting a subject for discussion as whether Kosovo or Northern Cyprus or Kurdistan or Tawain or Tibet.
Notice that Volokh, a rightwinger, is ahead of President Obama in this discussion. Here is President Obama’s statement re anti-Zionism. Jeffrey Goldberg asked him last year to draw the line “between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.”
You know, I think a good baseline is: Do you think that Israel has a right to exist as a homeland for the Jewish people, and are you aware of the particular circumstances of Jewish history that might prompt that need and desire? And if your answer is no, if your notion is somehow that that history doesn’t matter, then that’s a problem, in my mind. If, on the other hand, you acknowledge the justness of the Jewish homeland, you acknowledge the active presence of anti-Semitism—that it’s not just something in the past, but it is current—if you acknowledge that there are people and nations that, if convenient, would do the Jewish people harm because of a warped ideology. If you acknowledge those things, then you should be able to align yourself with Israel where its security is at stake, you should be able to align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not held to a double standard in international fora, you should align yourself with Israel when it comes to making sure that it is not isolated.
Again, it’s great news that this conversation is breaking out, even if it is in a prejudicial form at the moment. It’s a discussion that will be continuing on our pages and hopefully too on op-ed pages throughout the country in months to come.
In that spirit, three other viewpoints. When I saw him in D.C. last weekend, Scott McConnell deprecated the word anti-Zionist, saying that it signaled to Israelis that you want to eliminate institutions built by Zionists, which is not a good signal when a peaceful future is likely to be a binational one.
Also in D.C. I saw Tzvia Thier, a former Hebrew school teacher who lost her brother in the 1982 war. Thier said that she has come to call Israel “the Zionist entity” because even the name Israel represents an effort by the country to exploit the Jewish religion so as to justify militarism and racial discrimination.
And last week, Rachel Sandalow-Ash of Open Hillel addressed the issue in a forum at Temple Israel in New Rochelle, N.Y. She said:
It’s sort of easy to call anything we don’t like anti-Semitism, but that’s sort of to diminish what real anti-Semitism is. And I think it’s very important to call that out when and where it exists but not to use anti-semitism, and the fear of it, as as a way of shutting down voices that challenge accepted viewpoints in our community.