The New McCarthyism on Israel: Naming and Shaming . . . Hillel

By Alice Rothchild

Jewish communal and religious organizations have become increasingly donor driven and sclerotic when it comes to discourse on Israel/Palestine. This is clearly in evidence when it comes to the dogmatic guidelines espoused by Hillel International, the umbrella organization for local Hillel chapters on American campuses. Despite spouting pluralism and tolerance, the organization lists the following redlines for discourse or co-sponsorship: any person or group that

• Denies the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish and democratic state with secure and recognized borders;

• Delegitimizes, demonizes, or applies a double standard to Israel;

• Supports boycott of, divestment from, or sanctions against the State of Israel;

• Exhibits a pattern of disruptive behavior towards campus events or guest speakers or fosters an atmosphere of incivility

The guidelines grew out of work by the Anti-defamation League which in 1974 defined the “new anti-Semitism” as criticism of Israel and reinforced that concept with a publication in 1982. Ironically the conflation of all Jews with Israel is in itself a dangerous anti-Semitic trope. Israeli thinkers joined the fray in 2011 when the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank, issued a position paper that laid out a strategy of “naming and shaming” those on the left who support the boycott, divestment, and sanction movement against Israel, a one state solution, or the right of return for Palestinians. The document developed a detailed strategy to engage Jewish institutions and individuals in identifying and marginalizing leftist groups, separating them from liberals less critical to Israeli policy, creating a positive “Israeli brand”, and honing the definition of those who “delegitimize” Israel.

There are so many problems with this kind of thinking: Do countries have a “right to exist” or do they exist due to a complex coalescence of military might, aspirations, mythology, and historical movements. What does it mean to be a Jewish state? Can a Jewish state ever be democratic if by definition Jewish exceptionalism is the foundation of the country? How does a country derive legitimacy? Does the Israeli occupation or the five hundred dead children in Gaza threaten Israel’s “legitimacy”? If one is critical of Israel which receives a massive amount of US military aid and political cover, does one have to list all the other countries that commit human rights violations to be credible? If Palestinians are condemned when they commit violent resistance and condemned when they call for nonviolent resistance, how are they supposed to resist the occupation and daily violations to basic human rights and dignity?

These policies have led to the political and cultural world in which we find ourselves where the mood on US campuses has become increasingly McCarthyesque. Academics are monitored and attacked, student groups sympathetic to Palestinians are confronted with specious lies (see the youtube Hamas on Campus) or actively thrown out, critics are emotionally blackmailed with the epithet of “anti-Semite”, and liberal Jewish social justice organizations are afraid to support a boycott of fossil fuels lest it lend credibility to the boycott of Israel. Articles on the death of liberal Zionism are proliferating in the fourth estate. The latest assault on Gaza where large synagogues embraced by local politicians organized nationalistic and often racist Stand with Israel rallies, refused to acknowledge the Palestinian dead, and 90-97% of Israelis stood behind Netanyahu’s war mongering, was for some the final straw. As Rebecca Vilkomerson, the executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace relates, she received an email from a rabbi, “Enough. Sign me up.”

This weekend’s If Not Now, When? An Open Hillel Conference was another crack in the armor of the Jewish establishment. The good news for the anxious Jewish Federations of the world, is that there are many thousands of young Jews and allies who are deeply committed to Judaism as a religion and as a community and they take their “Jewish values” very seriously. One of those values is Judith Butler’s Talmudic “intelligent bickering” and the other is a deep commitment to social justice and equality for all. Students heard from religious Jews debating Torah midrash on the metaphor of opening the eyes of the Jewish people, to Palestinian activists like Sa’ed Atshan, explaining, “My human rights shouldn’t be trumped by your feelings…Rights are non-negotiable so they are not open to dialogue.”

What became clear to me is that the students and their allies are actively reframing the discourse:

separating Judaism the religion from Zionism the national political movement; delineating the racist ideology of anti-Semitism from thoughtful moral criticism of the country, Israel. The treatment of and solidarity with Palestinians has now become the civil rights issue of the day for modern Jews, especially younger Jews who will be here long after the older post-Holocaust generation has moved on and no longer shapes the boundaries of intelligent discourse and definitions of normalcy. After centuries of powerless, how we as a community handle our new position of power and privilege is critical to the survival of an ethical Jewish tradition as well as a just resolution to a more than century old struggle in historic Palestine that is being fought in our name. Challenges to the mainstream political Zionist narrative and the equivalence of Jew and starry eyed lover-of-Israel are also challenges to our identity and our personal and communal values. That conversation is the genie that cannot be put back into the box.

Alice Rothchild is author of: On the Brink: Israel and Palestine on the Eve of the 2014 Gaza Invasion, Just World Books, Sept 2014

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10 Responses

  1. Good listing of the problems! I’m particularly relieved that younger Jews are questioning the blind worship of Israel that’s taken over “political Judaism.”

    The current policies of Israel are building a severe backlash, a new “anti-semitism” that is clearly based on actual facts, documented on video, and visible to the world. This is unlike the old medieval (“traditional”) anti-semitism, which was rooted in unhelpful interpretations of the Bible, scurrilous rumors, and general malice towards people who acted different, set themselves apart, and tended to be economically successful.

    This new anti-semitism is rooted to Israel’s violations of international law and actual war crimes. It’s becoming increasingly clear that Israel has used up its “victim credit” as an excuse, but just keeps on spending. We can all hope that the younger generation of Jews can get the attention of the Israeli public and change Israel’s policies in time to avoid total disaster.

    • There is a difference between anti-Semetic and being against transgressions by the Israeli government. Unfortunately, it is in the bigots’ -both inside and outside Israel- interest to conflate the two.

      • Well, I apologize for being a bigot. I took my description from the article itself, where it says

        “The guidelines grew out of work by the Anti-defamation League which in 1974 defined the “new anti-Semitism” as criticism of Israel and reinforced that concept with a publication in 1982. ”

        We may say that opposing particular actions of Israel is not “anti-semitic”, but the most powerful Jewish and Israeli organizations say otherwise.

        • I did not say you are a bigot. I think mainstream American Jewish organizations call any criticism of Israel or Netanyahu anti-Semitism in order to de-legitimize that criticism. I am 100% against the occupation but do not consider than anti=Semetic. On the other hand, a number of anti-Semites undoubtedly hide behind criticism of the occupation to make negative generalizations about all Jews because they are Jews.

      • I question if it is really helpful to dismiss those who look at Jews collectively as bigots. Israelis, Netanyahu persistently, claim Israel is a home for all Jews, and while many Jews deny the conflation of Zionist and non-Zionist, they do all want a home for the Jewish people, they want it in Palestine and, although they get a bit vague about the specifics, they want it to include more than was designated in 1947. Judaism is rife with incomprehensible schismatic divisions and more or less always has been. In the past they were largely confined within the Jewish community. What we are observing today is these schisms spilling over into the wider non-Jewish world and it is increasingly obvious that this, together with the horrors played out in Gaza, has great potential to reignite dormant anti-Semitism, which is anyway an emotion rather than the rational conclusion to a considered intellectual process.

  2. I assume that perhaps 90% of the Gaza residents are Semites. Given that over 2,000 of those Semites were killed during Israeli attack in July and August 2014, doesn’t that mean that the government of Israel is guilty of anti-Semitism in this instance?

  3. Can someone help me out here? I was under the impression that Palestinians fall into the population generally classified as Semite. If that is true how can support for Palestinians be anti-Semitic behavior? It might be anti-Israeli behavior because “Israeli” is a political category. It might be anti-Zionist as Zionism seems to be made up of goals and intentions. But I do not understand how supporting Palestinians in an Israeli-Palestinian conflict makes one anti-Semitic. What am I missing?

    • You are absolutely correct – the term anti-Semitic is often misused to imply anti-Jewish attitudes. Arabs are clearly Semitic in origin.

      Likewise, 21% of Israeli citizens are Arabic – with a majority of these Arabs of the Muslim faith – so we even have “Israeli Muslims”, although that term is rarely used.

      Druze Arabs in Israel are usually Zionist in orientation and have held high-ranking positions in the Israeli government and the Israel Defense Forces.

    • Many words have more than one meaning. There are the meanings listed in a dictionary, literal meanings, generally understood meanings, meanings depending on context, and what the user means by it. Antisemitism today is generally understood to mean anti-Jewish. That is the way it is used by Zionists, and journalists etc. in reference to anti-Jewish speech or acts. Words come into existence, evolve and disappear according to need. A good illustration is ‘exceptionalism’, a word not found in standard dictionaries where the nouns related to ‘exceptional’ are ‘exceptionality’ and ‘exceptionalness’. It was coined not that long ago by Madeleine Albright to justify US hegemonic and cultural evangelism, a meaning lately broadened in some quarters to apply to Israel in Palestine.

  4. Many authors and collaborators, Jews and Arabs, have claimed that Jews and Palestinians are Semite, both originating from the Biblical Sem Branch. It is also said that there was a lot of intermarriage between Jews ans Arabs over the centuries if not the millennia, that both peoples were considered as cousins…, and so on. The use of the accusation of anti-Semitism is a gag attempt and/or a scare tactic in many ways since anti-Semitic comments published in the media can be taking their authors into courts of justice in certain countries, in Canada for instance. As a matter of fact a Québec politician was forced out of government for having said in a radio interview that “Jews were not the only ones who had suffered in the world”… To me the constant use of anti-Semitism by Jews to defend Israel, no matter what Israel has been horribly doing since 1948, is diluting the real meaning/reason/historical facts behind the creation of that word. I would not go as far as comparing it to “Crying Wolf”, but who knows how far the term will be overused, overplayed, and degraded in the decades to come.

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