Middle East studies in the News
What They Talk About When They Talk About Israel [incl. Kaukab Siddique and Steven Salaita]
by Andrew Pessin
It's the Jews (in a word).
Yet remarkably, this simple fact gets obscured in all the campus squabbling over whether anti-Zionism -- or anti-Israelism, as I prefer to call it -- is antisemitic or not. "We are only advocating for Palestinian human rights," anti-Israelists proclaim, even when most of their advocacy consists of angry attacks on Israel rather than serious efforts to promote the welfare and rights of Palestinian Arabs. "We are only against Zionism, a political ideology, and not against Jews," they continue, even though Zionism is precisely the movement for self-determination for Jews. "We are only criticizing the behavior of a foreign state," they insist, adding that opponents' efforts to label their activities as antisemitic are merely attempts to silence their criticism of that state.
Yes they are criticizing the behavior of a foreign state -- the lone Jewish state in the world, Israel, whose complete name is "State of Israel," i.e. the state of the "people of Israel": the Jews.
It isn't quite as simple as that, but nearly. And it is only when we get this point out in the open, and establish it clearly and irrefutably, that we can clear away the distracting material and isolate where the real debate about antisemitism in campus anti-Israelism should be. It isn't so much about whether what they talk about when they talk about Israel is the Jews -- for (I will argue here) it so clearly and indisputably is.
It is, rather, in the many outrageous things they are willing to say when they talk about Israel -- i.e. the Jews.
At least one prominent anti-Israelist has been honest enough to admit the key point I am about to argue. In one of the tweets that made Steven Salaita famous (by leading to his controversial pre-arrival dismissal from the University of Illinois in 2014), he wrote:
Though I appreciate little about his views on the Israeli-Palestinian-Jewish-Arab-Muslim Conflict (IPJAMC), I do appreciate this tweet for its acknowledgment, in effect, that the hostility directed against Israel on campuses and beyond is, in fact, ultimately hostility against Jews. He of course finds this hostility justified, or "honorable," while I find it "horrible," but what matters here is that we apparently agree that it is directed essentially against the Jews.
Not all Jews are Zionists; not all Zionists are Jews; not all Israelis are Jews; not all Jews are Israelis. All that is obvious, and it is under cover of these obvious facts that anti-Israelists can say they are condemning only Zionists and/or Israelis, and not Jews. Perhaps, strictly speaking, that is true: the words "Zionist" and "Israeli" (we may say) do not denote (only) Jews. Nevertheless, I shall argue, most people rarely do (or even ought) speak "strictly"; and so those obvious facts notwithstanding, most talk about Israel, whether friendly or hostile, does indeed connote, and is therefore talk about, the Jews.
(1) We start (again) with its name: the State of (the people of) Israel. More generally the state is widely referred to and conceived as "the Jewish state," both because it is the state "of" the Jewish people and because it has in various ways a Jewish character. There may be some 22 Arab states in the world, some 57 member states of the Organization of the Islamic Conference, and a good number of officially Christian states, but there is only one single Jewish state.
(2) Nor are the previous points any accident. Before there were "Israelis" and "Palestinians," there were "Jews" and "Arabs." Before 1948 what everyone was complaining about, when they complained about Zionism, was what the Jews were doing. Nearly 70 years after "Israelis" came into being the conflict remains, despite all sorts of qualifications and nuances, one between Jews and Arabs, with an important religious dimension as well. (Hence my preferred IPJAMC acronym.)
(3) That Zionists -- Jews -- sought this particular region for their state was also no accident, as this land was the birthplace of the Jewish people, the location of their ancient sovereign kingdoms, and the primary Jewish population center for the first millennium of their existence, it is a place where Jews have lived continuously for three millennia, and it has been the central focus of the Jewish religion through those three millennia as well, including during the two millennia of dispersion.
(4) Israel is by far the most densely Jewish country in the world. Demographically it is overwhelmingly Jewish, with Jews comprising about 75% of the population. The next closest countries are not remotely close at all: American Jews are less than 2% of the U.S. population, Canadian Jews are about 1% of the Canadian population, and then the numbers are vanishingly small everywhere else. At the same time Israel is, astonishingly, home to nearly half of the world's Jews, and is a positive focus of attention and support (religiously, ethnically, culturally) for a significant majority of the other half.
(5) The establishment and subsequent development of the State of Israel is the greatest collective project of the Jewish people in the past century at least -- and perhaps in their long history, alongside the development of the Jewish religion.
(6) Many non-Israeli Jews feel positively invested in Israel, in its activities, policies, and welfare, precisely because of its Jewish character. Many such Jews come to Israel's defense, despite not living in Israel, precisely because they understand attacks on Israel to be attacks on Jews, and because they feel some obligation to defend their people when their people -- Israel -- are under attack
These considerations do not mean (as we'll elaborate below) that Israel somehow comprises all the Jews in the world, or that the Israeli population doesn't include many non-Jews, or that it is impossible to talk about Israel without talking about the Jews, etc. Nor do they mean that talk about Israel is talk about all Jews, everywhere. What they do mean is something simpler -- that of course Jews do (and should) come immediately to mind when one thinks or talks about Israel, that the compelling default assumption is that talk about Israel is talk about Jews, in general. To talk about Israel while ignoring or obscuring that fact is to miss something utterly essential to the nature and conception of the thing you are talking about. In the same way it is surely possible for you to talk about Pope Francis (for example) simply as a human being or as a man or as a physical object, but if you leave out or obscure the salient fact that (say) he is a Catholic, or Pope, then you have left out something essential.
To pretend otherwise, to ignore or override what is a clearly compelling default assumption, is to engage in a profoundly dishonest act.
And, in fact, many anti-Israelists are not dishonest in that regard: what many anti-Israelists are talking (or thinking) about, when they talk (or think) about Israel, simply is Jews, or if you prefer, "the Jews." The following necessarily small sample represents enormously broad trends:
(1) The days of and immediately after the U.N.'s 1947 endorsement of the division of Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state, Arabs attacked Jews not only in Palestine but in many other countries. (Some recently published testimony just about the anti-Jewish pogrom in Yemen, for example, may be found here.) Over the next several years pogroms, persecution, and expulsions targeting Jews continued in many Arab countries, in direct response to the establishment of Israel.
(2) This pattern was of course just an iteration of a trend that in fact has ancient roots and continues to this day, by which Jews everywhere are held collectively accountable for the (alleged) actions of other Jews. Antisemites have for centuries persecuted individual Jews on the basis of charges against the Jewish collective, such as the traditional blood libel. The contemporary manifestation -- now recognized in the definitions of antisemitism adopted by the U. S. State Department, the many nations of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance, and most recently the U.K. -- is the way in which Jews everywhere are held collectively responsible for the actions, or even mere existence, of Israel. Many contemporary antisemites (for example), inspired by the notorious forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, simply see Israel as the mechanism through which "the Jews" work their malicious control of the world.
(3) To this day, indeed, whenever Israel engages in military activity attacks on Jews increase all over the Western world and elsewhere.
(4) In the same way that many non-Israeli Jews defend Israel because of its Jewish character (above), so too many non-Israeli Jews criticize or condemn Israel precisely because they understand Israel to be acting "in their name" as Jews. Well known anti-Israel Jew Tony Judt observed that Israel's behavior "affects the way everyone looks at [us] Jews," and makes Jews "vulnerable to attack for things [we] didn't do." Ditto for equally well known anti-Israel Jew Jacqueline Rose, who proclaimed that she was "appalled at what the Israeli nation perpetrated in my name." The fringe anti-Israel organization Jewish Voice for Peace announces literally in bold on its mission statement: "Not in our names!" So many non-Israeli Jews regularly begin their criticisms of Israel with the phrase, "As a Jew..." -- as if being a Jew gives them special moral authority in their criticism -- that some now refer to them simply as "As-a-Jew"s. None of these remarks or behavior makes sense unless "Israel" is immediately understood to invoke "Jews."
(5) The thing that many anti-Israelists specifically hate about Israel is its Jewish character. Many (for example) demand that Israel become a binational state, either by officially annexing disputed territories and providing full and equal rights to all citizens and/or by granting millions of Arab refugees their alleged "Right of Return." These anti-Israelists seek not to destroy Israel, they disingenuously claim, but to transform it according to their own vision of justice and democracy and human rights. That may be true, but what they want to transform Israel from is its being a Jewish state. Their issue with Israel as it is today is thus its predominant Jewish character.
(6) Most of the specific charges anti-Israelists make against Israel reflect precisely the same orientation. Israel is accused of being an "apartheid" state: i.e., it privileges Jews over non-Jews. It is accused of being a "racist" state, with allegedly dozens of laws on the books that also privilege Jews over non-Jews. It is accused of "ethnic cleansing," i.e. of removing Arab citizens from their lands and replacing them with -- yes, Jews. In a word: Israel is constantly charged with being too Jewish.
(7) Witness the logical difficulties anti-Israelists get into when working out the details of the various boycotts they demand against Israel (commercial, cultural, academic, etc.). What do they say when their boycotts result in great economic harm to Palestinians (such as in the case of Sodastream, which, in moving its factory out of the disputed West Bank laid off hundreds of Palestinian workers)? Must anti-Israelists also boycott Israeli Arabs, many of whom work in the academia and culture arenas? In such cases, exceptions might be made for businesses that employ many Palestinian Arabs or for Israeli Arabs -- but then it is clear that the boycotts target only Jews. Alternatively, the Arabs harmed by boycotts (either Palestinian or Israeli) are sometimes conceived as unavoidable collateral damage -- in which case it is clear again that the primary boycott target is Jews. Or for those many Arabs who in fact do not hate Israel or may even support it (again, whether Israeli or Palestinian), they are themselves often vilified as traitors and sometimes confronted with death threats by anti-Israel activists. To see someone as a traitor, of course, is to allege they have taken the side of the enemy. To see a fellow Arab as a traitor is to identify the enemy as -- the Jew.
(8) Finally, there are countless individual examples of anti-Israelists explicitly having Jews on their minds when they are attacking Israel. The following short list is, again, representative of a vastly greater number of similar examples.
So goes a prayer by Shaykh Salah al Budayr and broadcast by Saudi TV from the holy mosque in Medina on June 28, 2002. Many antisemites at least make an effort to distinguish their use of "Zionist" and "Jew"; not, apparently, Shaykh al Budayr.
Ditto for Lincoln University Professor Kaukab Siddique and his many social media postings. Siddique lauds Hamas (for example) for fighting "very well against the Zionist monster. Israel admitted that 13 of its best troops were killed today. One military Jew was captured. Civilian casualties of the Palestinians were extremely heavy because the rabid dogs of the Jews were doing their worst." Siddique does this while railing against "dirty Jewish Zionist thugs" and condemning "Zionist Jewish dog [Alan] Dershowitz."
In a widely covered story in August 2016, a half-dozen anti-Israel students at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, most affiliated with campus anti-Israel group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), were exposed for their extensive antisemitic social media activity -- which drew no discernible line between anti-Israelism and antisemitism. Just several months later, another half-dozen students at two other Tennessee universities were exposed in the same way, with multiple social media calls to "annihilate [the] Jewish dogs" in Israel, condemning Israeli Jews for alleged crimes, and so on.
In 2015 the student government at the Durban University of Technology in South Africa called on the university to expel all Jewish students, "especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle." Not only does this phrasing imply they still would like to expel even those Jewish students who do "support the Palestinian struggle," but they didn't issue any call to expel any non-Jewish students who might not support that struggle. Where Israel is in question, it is Jews who come to mind.
In 2015 UCLA student Rachel Beyda was grilled by four student government representatives on whether her Jewish background would make her unfit to serve impartially as on the school's Judicial Board. "Given that you are a Jewish student and very active in the Jewish community," she was asked, "how do you see yourself being able to maintain an unbiased view?" A similar event occurred at Stanford also in 2015, when student senate candidate Molly Horwitz was asked by the Students of Color Coalition, while seeking their endorsement, "Given your strong Jewish identity, how would you vote on divestment?" Now UCLA is a school with an active chapter of SJP, where anti-Israel activism looms large, and where divestment resolutions have been passed on both the undergraduate and graduate student government levels; Stanford has also been much in the news in the past couple of years with anti-Israel and divestment activity. What Beyda's and Horwitz's inquisitors were concerned about was whether, as Jews, these young leaders would be inclined to support Israel.
Finally, in a telling headline fail in November 2016, the Times of London reported on a controversy in Israel with this headline: "Jews Seek to Switch Off [Muslim] Call to Prayer Alarm Clock." UK Media Watch wrote to inquire whether the paper typically used the word "Jews" as a synonym for Israel, in response to which the paper changed the headline to begin with "Israel" instead. (For the record, Israeli Muslims were also concerned about the volume of the early morning "call to prayer.")
That's enough for now.
Time for a little qualification. I admit: there is plenty of room for nuance, where one seeks nuance and where nuance is appropriate. Again, there are plenty of non-Jewish citizens in Israel, there are plenty of non-Jewish Zionists around the world, there are plenty of Jewish anti-Zionists around the world, there is tremendous ethnic and cultural and political and religious diversity within the global Jewish population, as well as within Israel. No, Israel is not strictly identical to "the Jews," it is not simply composed of Jews, it cannot be formally equated with the Jews, it does not formally "speak for" or "represent" the Jews, and it is surely possible to speak about (and critique) Israel without in fact speaking about (or critiquing) all Jews everywhere or even the Jews in general -- and in fact sometimes people do, where nuance is pursued and interlocuters are high in integrity. For those who wish to be a bit more technical we might say: no, talk of Zionism or Israel does not strictly denote or refer to the Jews
Nevertheless it strikes me as incontrovertible that much of the time, perhaps most of the time, particularly on campuses and across the Arab and Muslim worlds, what most people are talking about, when talking about Israel -- is "the Jews." And it also strikes me as by and large reasonable for people to do so, most of the time, for Israel is, after all, the Jewish state, the state "of the Jews" -- all that nuance notwithstanding. For the technical crowd, talk of Zionism or Israel incontrovertibly connotes the Jews."
I believe it essential that this point be widely recognized, especially by those inclined to criticize Israel. For the efforts they inevitably make to deny the charges of antisemitism -- "We're only critiquing a political ideology," "We're only advocating for Palestinian rights," "We are criticizing a government" -- ring extremely hollow and dishonest. They may well be doing those things, but they are typically doing them in fact by means of accusing Israel -- the Jews -- of profoundly dreadful behavior: racism, apartheid, ethnic cleansing, genocide ...
Or as Salaita says in another of his honest tweets:
Salaita is actually right here: for if the Jews really are guilty of all things that Israel is regularly accused of, then morality dictates that one do everything in one's means to stop them. We might say the same thing in response to medieval Christian antisemitism, and Nazi racist antisemitism: if the Jews really do murder Christian children and use the blood for their matzah, or if they really are the Aryans' "misfortune" (to quote the famous Nazi phrase), then they must be stopped.
How could any person of conscience act otherwise?
Honestly admitting that most talk about Israel just is talk of the Jews will necessarily shift the conversation to where it properly should be.
To help see this, I propose an experiment: that wherever an anti-Israelist uses the word "Israel" or "Zionists," substitute "Jews," or "the Jews." When they claim that Zionism is a settler-colonialist enterprise, they are claiming that Jews are settler-colonialists; when they claim that Israel commits ethnic cleansing, land theft, and child murder, they are claiming that Jews commit ethnic cleansing, land theft, and child murder. Sometimes the substitution won't make sense, won't fit at all; in those cases then perhaps Israel is being talked about without talking about the Jews. But much of the time it will fit and make sense -- and once so clarified, we have a chance to have an honest conversation about precisely where the antisemitism lies.
Of course it isn't antisemitic per se to advocate for Palestinian rights or to condemn the policies of a state government. Nor was it antisemitic per se for medieval Christians to defend their children from ritual murder or for Nazis to protect their country from the powerful global organization (the Elders of Zion) aiming to undermine it. But once it is recognized that it is in the end the Jews being talked about, that changes the way these behaviors are understood, and ultimately raises the bar (or should) on what it is permissible to say. Regular anti-Israelist accusations that Israel commits child murder, that Israel is (in a word) the Palestinians' "misfortune," will be seen to be precisely comparable to the medieval Christian and Nazi claims about the Jews.
And that is when the question, the real question, becomes clear.
It isn't about whether the anti-Israelist is speaking about Jews or not, because she clearly is. It is instead about whether what she is saying about Israel (i.e. the Jews) is true, fair, substantiated, or reasonable -- or, to the contrary, as all reasonable non-antisemites see the medieval Christian and Nazi claims to be, not merely false but riddled with double standards and grossly unfair, entirely unsubstantiated, and deeply unreasonable, and therefore clearly motivated by malice or -- in a word, hate. In short, the anti-Israelist cannot avoid charges of antisemitism by insisting that she is making her accusations about Israel, not about the Jews. The antisemitism lies instead -- as I elaborate elsewhere -- in her utter abandonment, when she thinks about Israel, of the epistemic norms that she applies to all other subjects.
It is all the more worrisome when this antisemitism manifests itself on campuses which, as institutions of higher learning, are supposed to be veritable bastions of epistemic rigor. When the campus commitment to epistemology is abandoned, as is occurring all over the Western world, things get uncomfortable for the Jews in a hurry.
I close with a quote from Vladimir Jabotinsky, prominent early 20th-century Zionist, in a 1911 essay that only recently appeared in English for the first time. "Instead of Apologizing," which reflects on the appropriate strategies Jews should pursue when dealing with unfair, unreasonable, malicious slander against them (such as the blood libels), opens with words that are eerily reminiscent of what it must feel like to many Jewish students on campuses today when they hear all the dreadful things being shouted around them about Israel
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