I always enjoy reading the Washington Post each morning even though it drives my blood pressure up to stratospheric levels. Its embrace of the inexorability of a fabulous new Camelot-like Clinton White House is thrilling to witness as it unfolds, but it is the promotion of the neocon Israeli narrative that is most exciting. On October 23rd, the op-ed section outdid itself with a piece “Free speech is flunking out on campus” by Catherine Rampell, who described the increasingly sorry state of first amendment rights on politically correct American university campuses. Blacks, LGBTers, women and victims of sexual assault were all identified as constituencies demanding “safe spaces” resulting in curtailment of free speech but somehow Israel and its supporters screaming anti-Semitism at every drop of the hat were left out in spite of the fact that Jews on campus have been both extremely and successfully active in taking political action to pressure universities whenever they claim to feel “threatened.”
The conflict between the Israelis and Palestinians has again reached a boiling point. Palestinian frustration over Israel’s fifty year occupation of the West Bank and its continued theft of Arab land and resources has produced an uprising of mostly young Palestinians that is being called in some circles a new intifada. The conflict is playing out with knives and bullets in Palestine and Israel but it is also being fought internationally in the media, through cultural and economic boycotts and, most pointedly, at many colleges and universities. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu realizes that the pressure on Israel is, for the first time, serious and has not hesitated to lie outrageously about the slaughter of Jews in Europe during the Second World War. According to Netanyahu, the Palestinian Grand Mufti of Jerusalem gave the idea to Hitler, presumably justifying whatever the Israelis of today choose to do to suppress the current unrest.
Israel has inevitably responded brutally, producing a death toll of significantly more Palestinians than Israelis. Netanyahu has been referring to the protesters as terrorists and has issued new rules of engagement which permit soldiers to shoot stone throwers. Israeli plainclothes soldiers and police have been identified as infiltrating the protesters while pretending to be Palestinians, urging the young Arabs to hurl stones before pulling out concealed handguns to beat protesters, shoot them and make arrests.
In Gaza five teenagers were shot dead by Israeli soldiers for the crime of coming too close to the separation barrier, which government press releases described as the “frontier.” Killing teenagers in Gaza is a bit like shooting fish in a barrel as they are fenced in and have in reality no way to actually confront the Israeli border guards. On the day following the killing of the boys a mother and infant were killed in an Israeli airstrike. Within Israel an Eritrean was even mistakenly killed by Israeli police because he was reportedly acting oddly.
Because of a hostile media’s self-censorship buttressed by an unfriendly political class, here in the United States one of the few places in which the Palestinians can exercise something like free expression relating to their national aspirations is on college campuses. Israel and its powerful supporters understand that gap in their ability to control the narrative and are doing everything possible to shut down the option.
Friends of Israel, as ever, work from the same playbook orchestrated by the large donors who fund them. They claim that anti-Israel protests on campus to include even letters to the editor in college newspapers constitute a “threatening environment” for Jewish students. The argument is based on a fundamental falsehood, which is that criticism of the actions of a foreign government is equivalent to hatred for the dominant religion of that country, that religion is exactly the same as nationality. Applying that notion liberally would mean that criticism of any country where there is de facto or de jure a dominant state religion would be unacceptable speech. If applied liberally countries spanning the globe would be exempt from criticism, to include not only Israel but also Saudi Arabia and Iran.
But this is not about Christian or Muslim sensitivities. It is all about protection against insult for Jews and it relies on a perception of perpetual victimhood, which can be and is produced on demand to stifle any criticism that might be regarded by some as objectionable. Indeed, if calls for violence directed against Jews as a race or religion were occurring pleas for some form of mitigation might have some very slim cogency, but campus protest movements have very carefully and deliberately avoided falling into that trap. And it might also be pointed that on many campuses a considerable proportion of the dissenters are themselves Jews who are appalled by Israeli behavior.
Criticism of Israel does not just include complaining about the policies of that country’s government. It also has inevitably involved the so-called BDS movement, “boycott-divest-and sanction” which aims to make Israel pay an economic and social price for its behavior, similar to the pressure that was once directed against apartheid South Africa. This second narrative has been cleverly woven into the complaints about “harassment,” labeling any campus calls for BDS ipso facto anti-Semitic and “hurtful.” School authorities have generally been accommodating to claims made by Jewish groups that students are feeling “threatened,” obstructing and intimidating critics of Israel and denying tenure to faculty members who are seen as troublemakers. They have looked the other way as organizations like Canary Mission began exposing college students on its website who are reported to be “anti-Freedom, anti-American and anti-Semitic” with the deliberate intention of damaging their future employment prospects.
Between January 2014 and June 2015 there were more than 300 incidents on 65 college campuses in 24 states involving intimidation or prevention of protests against Israel. Students at Northeastern University distributing flyers at dorms were interrogated by campus police and had their group suspended by college authorities. Some were disciplined. And faculty members have also been on the receiving end, with Steven Salaita at the University of Illinois, denied a teaching position after he sent tweets complaining about Israel’s 2014 assault against Gaza which killed more than 500 children.
Richard Blum, a member of the University of California’s regents, has demanded that students who criticize Israel be suspended for expelled because they are “intolerant,” exhibiting anti-Semitic bigotry. Blum is the multimillionaire husband of California Senator Dianne Feinstein. Feinstein has also hinted that she could have the government look into possible violations occurring at federally funded institutions. The definition of bigotry being promoted by Blum and Feinberg conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism and includes in its purview what are increasingly being referred to as “speech crimes.” The university regents are currently considering new language for their statement of policy against intolerance on campus but are under intense pressure from Jewish organizations that are lobbying them aggressively.
Many of the groups involved in the harassment of pro-Palestinian demonstrators are perhaps not surprisingly not indigenous to the colleges themselves. Stand With Us (SWU) and “Campus Maccabees” are national organizations well-funded by billionaire Sheldon Adelson and SWU has close ties to the Israeli government as does the lawfare center Shurat HaDin, which has filed lawsuits against Muslim and progressive groups on campus. Predictably, Congress and state legislatures have gotten into the act, seeking to pass laws that make it impossible for colleges and universities supported by taxpayer money to fund student groups that call for boycotts. The bills are drafted in terms of rejecting all selective boycotts but they are really all about Israel and everyone knows it. The fact that advocating voluntary boycotts is very much a part of one’s First Amendment rights appears to be irrelevant.
How to deal with it? The brouhaha is impossible to ignore as the advocates for Israel are relentlessly in one’s face even when the argument is being constructed in a restrained fashion and purposely framed so as not to offend Jews. It is consequently necessary to disarticulate being Israeli from being Jewish. Judaism is a religion and Israel is a foreign country. And it is important to recognize that legitimate direct criticism of Jewish groups for their involvement in pressuring universities should not itself be off limits. If the organizations self-identify as Jewish and they are attempting to restrict the discussion on Israel contrary to the First Amendment they become fair game. The First Amendment exists, after all, to permit free and open discussion of all issues and if some Jewish individuals and organizations are mobilizing to deny fundamental American rights on behalf of a foreign nation the rest of us have the responsibility to object forcibly and to make transparent just who is doing what to whom.