December 14, 2023
Last week, three university presidents became the latest sacrificial offerings on the altar of the temple of the “Israel is ALWAYS right” movement. A movement which on that day demonstrated both how threatened they are and the power they still wield.
In their five hours of testimony before the House of Representatives’ Education and Workforce Development Committee, these three brilliant women, leaders of three prestigious universities (UPenn, MIT, and Harvard), were asked to answer questions that were designed to embarrass them and their institutions. The goal of their inquisitors was to make one point: that anyone who would dare to protest against Israel and its assault on Gaza was not just wrong, but also antisemitic and a supporter of genocide against all Jews.
Rather than defend Israel’s actions, these forces needed to change the subject and create a false target to draw attention to anything but Israel and its continuous bombing of and killing of innocent Palestinians in Gaza.
It came at a moment, two months after, in the wake of the horrific Hamas actions of October 7th, when Israel launched a brutal bombardment and ground assault on Gaza and its more than 2 million residents. More than 2 months later the death toll is nearing 20,000 civilians, more than 7,000 of whom are children, along with as many as 100,000 who have been wounded. Three-quarters of Gaza’s population has been uprooted, as much of its housing, hospitals and other infrastructure has been destroyed. It has resulted in the crippling of the Gaza’s health care system and the other elements of civil society have been crippled, perhaps beyond repair.
It is this stark reality that staunch Israel supporters have been forced to defend. The ferocity of Israel’s reaction has shocked observers around the world. Protests calling for “Cease Fire Now” have taken place around the country and the world. While they have not yet been powerful enough to change Israeli policy and move President Biden to join the call for an end to the killing, it has begun to weaken Israel’s political and popular support.
The pictures and testimonies of from Gaza have been powerful testimony to Israel’s approach to this war and the human toll it is taking. They are hard to ignore; they are hard to defend.
So rather than defend the indefensible, Israel’s supporters have decided to change the subject and solidify their base by shouting “antisemite” everywhere and anywhere. That is what we saw go on with great precision in the House hearing.
Here’s how columnist Moustafa Bayoumi described this tactic in a recent Guardian essay:
“In politics, a ‘dead cat strategy’ is used to divert attention away from one issue and on to another by metaphorically throwing a dead cat onto a dining room table in the middle of a dinner party. ‘People will be outraged, alarmed, disgusted,’ is how Boris Johnson once described the strategy. ‘That is true, but irrelevant,’ he continued. ‘The key point … is that everyone will shout, ‘Jeez, mate, there’s a dead cat on the table!’ In other words, they will be talking about the dead cat – the thing you want them to talk about – and they will not be talking about the issue that has been causing you so much grief.’”
Out of whole cloth Israel’s supporters fabricated an image of college campuses overrun by pro-Palestinian forces out to kill Jews. In those five hours the three university presidents were continuously asked, often by Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-NY), “does calling for the genocide of Jews on your campus constitute harassment, yes or no?”
When I first saw clips of the hearing that featured Stefanik demanding answers about protestors calling for a Jewish genocide I was puzzled. Having been part of many of the anti-Israel protests taking place around Chicago, I had never heard a speaker call for that. I had also not seen reports of such calls having taken place at other protests. I was so puzzled that I watched the tape of that hearing hoping that there had been evidence of someone, at some protest, who had actually called for a genocide. But no.
Rep Stefanik showed us how easy it is to change our focus from the horrors of Gaza to scary but imaginary threats of genocide. She asked
“And you understand that the use of the term “intifada” in the context of the Israeli-Arab conflict is indeed a call for violent armed resistance against the state of Israel, including violence against civilians and the genocide of Jews. Are you aware of that?”
With an air of authority Stefanik redefined a word to meet her need. No need to complicate things with considering that “intifada is an Arabic word literally meaning, as a noun, “tremor”, “shivering”, “shuddering”. It is derived from an Arabic term nafada meaning “to shake”, “shake off”, “get rid of”, as a dog might shrug off water, or as one might shake off sleep, or dirt from one’s sandals.” Or that in common usage it is used to describe an uprising or a resistance movement.
And, voila, she focused the world’s attention on genocide and antisemitism and moved it away from Gaza.
As the pressure on the University Presidents illustrates, once you are able to pull off this focus, you drive out room for the real problems we are facing. Speaking recently to reporter Amy Goodman, renowned Israeli holocaust and genocide scholar Omer Bartov said this:
“ I have to say that this whole discussion seems to me to be the least important issue. What is most important is that Israel now is — has been conducting a war for weeks and weeks in which it has killed thousands and thousands of Palestinians. It has moved them to a very small part of the Gaza Strip. It has destroyed their property and has not even made a commitment to allow them to return. And it’s been doing that with enormous amounts of American-supplied munitions, not only rockets, but also tank shells, artillery shells and anti-rocket rockets. And that has to stop, and there has to be a political plan as to how to move to the next day, which is what Netanyahu is refusing to do. This is the main issue, not how we talk about politics on American campuses. That’s useful to talk about it, but it’s not the main emergency issue right now to my mind.”
Judging by the way Stefanik’s ploy was covered in the press these efforts are disturbingly effective. They shift focus and they devalue voices being lifted up in support of Palestinians’ lives.
The American Jewish Organizations who have partnered on this deceitful strategy know that many of Israel’s American supporters are troubled by what Israel is doing today. They know that the vehemence of the assault on Gaza and the overt racism that many Israeli leaders have expressed toward Palestinians have not been easy to swallow and ignore. They know that campuses are turbulent places and that voices are often loud and strident. They know that Jewish students who are pro-Israel may not have been taught a history that includes the perspective of the Palestinian people. They know that in the face of challenge, Jewish students can be uncomfortable and feel threatened by having their beliefs in Israel’s purity challenged
And they know that in the Jewish community, there is a fear of the evil of antisemitism and a memory of what occurred during the Holocaust.
And so, they have undertaken a well-financed effort to shift focus. The problem the world needs to worry about is not a brutal Israel but it is antisemitism.
And disturbingly, they are making this work. From the President on down, we are talking about antisemitism on campus and the fear of Jews in America. Pro-Palestinian voices are being forced, as the three Presidents were, to respond to Stefanik-like questioning. They are being asked to be accountable for disturbing events that have never occurred. And the attention is moved away from the ongoing horror of Gaza in December 2023.