June 8, 2023
For too much of the organized Jewish community the third rail of their world is the Palestinian people.
Recognizing that Palestinians exist and have a history is difficult and dangerous to mention in Jewish board rooms and events that they sponsor. Recognizing that Palestinians lived in cities, towns, and villages across Israel before it declared its independence in 1948 is often a touchy subject. Discussing the Nakba (tragedy) of upwards of 700,000 Palestinians being expelled from their homes is even more difficult. Challenging the right of Israel to exist as a Jewish State, one that creates a special, preferred status for its Jewish citizens and a lesser status for all others, is viewed as a threat. Standing behind a Palestinian community’s demands that their rights be recognized and respected cannot, in those circles, be part of the discussion. Just making Israel supporters uncomfortable about that support is viewed as unacceptable by much of the Jewish community worldwide, but most especially in the United States.
The list of organizations that stand in fear of a full and open discussion of Israel/Palestine is long: The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), ADL, Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), American Jewish Committee (AJC), Jewish Federations in cities large and small, and The Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations lead the list.
I disagree strongly with their unwavering support of Israel and their vision of the history of this part of the work. But what makes this moment so problematic is that they, flexing the power of very deep pockets and political connections, are actively militating against those, Jews (like me) and non-Jews, who disagree with them and who seek to bring attention to the current situation in Israel/Palestine. These are people who are shining a spotlight on the plight of the Palestinian people living as second-class citizens within the borders of Israel, living as stateless persons in Gaza and on the west bank or living as scattered refugees.
And, as recognition of the brutality of the Israeli government has become harder and harder to ignore and more voices are being raised in opposition to the status quo this powerful block has tried to change the issue from the reality of Palestinian life under Israeli to rule. They have worked hard to weaponize the scourge of antisemitism by defining support of the Palestinian and rejection of Israel as an act of antisemitism.
And the power of this effort is clearer if you consider that AIPAC, ADL, ZOA, and AJC have, according to the most recent annual tax filings, annual revenue in excess of $250 million and assets of almost $600 million. If you want to see these resources are put to work weaponizing antisemitism to support Israel rather than in combatting the actual threat of Jew-haters, consider two events from last month that are still making headlines.
On May 12th, Fatima Mousa Mohammed, the graduating student selected to speak at City College of New York Law School’s commencement ceremony, dared to touch this third rail and sparks are still flying.
Speaking about her school and its graduates’ responsibility to stand up for the rights of the oppressed she dared to include Israel and Zionism among her targeted oppressors. Looking out on her audience she saw “movement lawyers, business attorneys, professors, librarians…I see future lawyers who will defend tenants and not those who dispossess our communities from their homes…Let us remember that Gaza, just this week, has been bombed with the world watching…That daily, brown and Black men are being murdered by the state at Rikers… That as Israel continues to indiscriminately rain bullets and bombs on worshippers, murdering the old, the young, attacking even funerals and graveyards, as it encourages lynch mobs to target Palestinian homes and businesses, as it imprisons its children, as it continues its project of settler colonialism, expelling Palestinians from their homes, carrying [out] the ongoing Nakba, that our silence is no longer acceptable…May we rejoice in the corners of our New York City bedroom apartments and dining tables, may it be fuel for the fight against capitalism, racism, imperialism, and Zionism around the world.”
In her 12-minute presentation, she never attacked a person as a Jew or even mentioned Judaism; she never singled out Jews. But she dared to challenge the morality of Israel and of Zionism. And for that, the fire and brimstone of the pro-Israel organized community has rained down.
David Harris, former AJC CEO tweeted “If any New York political leaders think dismay about the hate-filled @CUNY law school graduation will just fade away, think again. It was so vile that nothing less than (a) cutting taxpayer funds, (b) making administration changes & (c) restoring academic integrity will suffice.” As reported by the national Review, “The Jewish Community Relations Council of New York argued that it was ‘trading in antisemitic tropes.’ Likewise, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) said it was ‘appalled to see such an egregious display of hostility toward ‘Zionists’ (which is how many Jews see themselves) and Israel in CUNY Law’s commencement address,’ on Twitter.”
Pushed by the power of the “Israel is always right” forces, CUNY’s Chancellor and Board of Trustees weighed in with their own statement. “The remarks by a student-selected speaker at the CUNY Law School graduation, unfortunately, fall into the category of hate speech as they were a public expression of hate toward people and communities based on their religion, race or political affiliation.”
Because, in the world they seek to create, being pro-Palestine is always antisemitic, they feel empowered to quash any expression that runs counter to their perspective. It cannot even be spoken about by a 23-year-old graduate in a 12-minute speech at a ceremony that drew so little attention that it took days for it to be noticed at all. But once noticed, the pro-Israel establishment that claims to speak for the Jewish community brought out every bit of pressure, seeking to blot out a young woman’s voice and any organization that dared to allow her words to be uttered.
Just days after Ms. Mohammed spoke, we saw another arena where this battle is being fought. The Biden Administration released its long-awaited “U.S. National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism.” In the months leading up to its unveiling there had been an effort to turn this project into one more stone in the wall protecting Israel and shutting off the voices of the Palestinian people by waving the flag of antisemitism. The goal of the pro-Israel cabal was to have the Biden Administration endorse the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism as the law of the land. IHRA’s “working definition,” which conflates opposition to Israel with hatred of Jews, has been the vehicle for getting state and local governments on board, enlisting them to unquestioningly support Israel. And it was now time, they thought, to cement the federal government into that position.
The Forward recapped those efforts in an article published several days before the National Strategy was unveiled. “The Anti-Defamation League and American Jewish Committee, among others, are insisting that the White House adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s controversial definition of antisemitism. It’s been used to condemn a wide range of criticism of Israel, including political boycotts and reports from human rights organizations, as forms of discrimination against Jews. It’s also been invoked to discredit financial firms’ investment scorecards. ‘To be clear, the ADL believes that the IHRA definition is the indispensable tool for defining antisemitism,’ Jonathan Greenblatt, the organization’s chief, said on Twitter. ‘”No other definitions work.’”
These efforts were strong enough that I found myself worried about how the President would come down on this effort. That I approached this announcement with fear is perhaps the strongest indicator I can point to of how distorted the leadership of the American Jewish community has become. The very definition of antisemitism has become a political football for those who see the need to defend Israel against all criticism and deny that there are several problems in the state’s treatment of its Palestinian citizens and the millions without even that status who live under Israeli blockage (Gazans) and military occupation.
President Biden’s policy when released disappointed the Israel right or wrong voices in the Jewish Community. It addressed antisemitism by recognizing its particularization of Jewish people and its connection to all of the other hateful “isms” which victimize and marginalize people based on their identity. “By seeking to turn the masses against the few, by scapegoating and dehumanizing others—and most of all—by stoking violence, the perpetrators of hate aim to upend our most cherished values and undermine our efforts to build a culture of respect, peace, and cooperation. Protecting the Jewish community from antisemitism is essential to our broader fight against all forms of hate, bigotry, and bias—and to our broader vision of a thriving, inclusive, and diverse democracy. History teaches that hate never fully goes away; it only hides until it is given just a little oxygen. That is why we must confront antisemitism early and aggressively whenever and wherever it emerges from the darkness.“
But it went only as far as recognizing that the IHRA definition is one of several efforts to define hatred against Jews when it happens, but not the only one. “There are several definitions of antisemitism, which serve as valuable tools to raise awareness and increase understanding of antisemitism. The most prominent is the non-legally binding ‘working definition’ of antisemitism adopted in 2016 by the 31-member states of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), which the United States has embraced. In addition, the Administration welcomes and appreciates the Nexus Document and notes other such efforts.” IHRA’s effort was most prominent but not supreme!
Six grass root Jewish organizations recognized the significance of this subtlety in a statement they released in the wake of the Biden announcement. “We are grateful that the administration took note of the diversity of opinion across our communities and heeded our warnings about the potential dangers of adopting the controversial IHRA definition of antisemitism — which is a tool of censorship and not of safety. We consider the battle over definitions to be an unhelpful distraction and diversion of resources. Conflating criticism of the State of Israel or Zionism with antisemitism hurts Jews, Arabs, and Muslims alike. Efforts to include IHRA in policy, drive a wedge both within the Jewish community and between Jews and other groups experiencing bigotry and discrimination — and make our work of fighting antisemitism harder. This strategy is a powerful rebuke to forces within and outside our community that seek to keep Jews isolated, divided and afraid.”
Having lost at the White House will not end this struggle over the weaponization of antisemitism. The push to tag all elements of support for Palestinian rights with the label of being a Jew hater has become so central to the pro-Israel strategy of these organizations and their followers that they are willing to alienate parts of their own community who disagree with them.
It speaks loudly of how fearful they must be that they have been defending the undefendable.
And the challenge is worse when we consider the reality of antisemitism in the United States. Peter Beinart in his weekly video blog this week pointed us to a recent study, Antisemitic Attitudes Across the Ideological Spectrum by Eitan Hersh and Laura Royden that strongly tells us that antisemitic attitudes are a problem of the right and not of the left where the causes of Palestinian freedom sits.
“ Public accounts of antisemitism have focused on both the ideological right and left, suggesting a “horseshoe theory” in which the far left and the far right hold a common set of anti-Jewish prejudicial attitudes that distinguish them from the ideological center. However, there is little quantitative research evaluating left-wing versus right-wing antisemitism. We conduct several experiments on an original survey of 3500 U.S. adults, including an oversample of young adults. We oversampled young adults because unlike other forms of prejudice that are more common among older people, antisemitism is theorized to be more common among younger people. Contrary to the expectation of horseshoe theory, the data show the epicenter of antisemitic attitudes is young adults on the far right.”
As I have written about recently, the empirical data collecting collected by the ADL, a prime wielder of antisemitism in support of Israel, tells us the same story. The real threat to Jews and the Jewish community is coming from right-wing individuals and groups and not from pro-Palestinian forces.
So why are we still silencing voices like Mohammed’s? Why is it not possible for AIPAC , JDL and other parts of the Jewish establishment hear voices like hers? Why is possible for them to softly protest the loss of democracy in Israel while ignoring the lack of democracy for Palestinians at the hands of the Israeli government?
The answer is fear and discomfort. When core assumptions prove to be wrong, our world is unsettled and frightening. For those who have built their identity on a mythology of Israel’s uniqueness as a progressive country that is the best of humanity, it is hard to see the reality of a state which treats millions brutally, and which denies millions basic human rights. For those who have made supporting Israel a core part of their identity, it is hard to have their blinders removed.
But their fear and discomfort are not a reason to stop challenging them. It is time to push back the walls they have created to prevent the Jewish community from confronting reality. If we refuse, if we allow the harsh reality that even one of their own will become the enemy.
Itzik Shmuli, the director-general of the Israel office of UJA Federation in a recent interview reported by The Forward said Top of Form
that “’ Jewish supremacy … means that, just by virtue of your race or religion, you allow yourself to abuse, to torture, to do things which stand in contradiction to human rights. Top of Form
Bottom of Form
“Every day government ministers express these messages, ‘he said, pointing to Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich’s statement from earlier this year that the West Bank village of Hawara needs to be “wiped out,” days after it was attacked by a mob of Israeli settlers who torched dozens of homes and killed one resident.”
Antisemite or just someone able to see the difficult reality of Israel/Palestine? In the answer to this question may lie the fate of the American Jewish community.