The Return of Academic Anti-Semitism

The rise of anti-Semitism in U.S. colleges has alarmed conservative groups for quite some time, yet it was largely ignored by the liberal media until recently. The turning point was a spate of shocking, high-profile incidents involving student government bodies, normally bastions of political correctness and darlings of the radical left, which were covered by the New York Times, CNN and other news outlets. Forced to address this seemingly awkward issue, the media offers two rationalizations. The first argues that the Jewish students make up a largely successful group, and therefore, are not on the list of “protected species.” This argument is rather weak. Indeed, the Chinese students make up an even more successful group, but no public expression of anti-Chinese sentiments would be tolerated.

The second justification links the rise of anti-Semitism on U.S. campuses to the Arab-Israeli conflict. This theory is more to the point. However, the link between anti-Israelism and anti-Semitism is not a simple cause-and-effect relation. Rather, the two mutually reinforce each other, forming a vicious circle. Furthermore, the students do not live in a vacuum. They pick up their cues from many sources, but particularly from their professors, who show their bias with impunity.

Here is an illustration of what the students pick up. In 2013, the American Studies Association (ASA) called for a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. Asked by a reporter why Israel was singled out, while other countries have much worse human rights records, the then ASA President Curtis Marez replied, “One has to start somewhere.” We are now well into 2015, but my search has not yielded any calls for boycotts of other countries issued by the ASA. It is becoming increasingly clear that the ASA’s moral indignation will end where it began. Marez, who is a professor of ethnic studies at the University of California at San Diego, further claimed that the United States has “a particular responsibility to answer the call for boycott because it is the largest supplier of military aid to the state of Israel.”  However, the U.S. provides military aid to many countries with really appalling human rights records, such as Pakistan and Egypt. Marez dismissed this argument by saying that civil society groups in those countries had not asked the ASA for a boycott.

That absurd exchange between Marez and the reporter reminded Harvard Professor Alan Dershowitz of the “bigoted response made by Harvard’s notorious anti-Semitic president A. Laurence Lowell, when he imposed anti-Jewish quotas a century ago. When asked why he singled out Jews for quotas, he replied, ‘Jews cheat.’ When the great Judge Learned Hand reminded him that Christians cheat too, Lowell responded, ‘You are changing the subject. We are talking about Jews now.’”

But does the inexplicable antipathy towards Israel, or towards Israel’s government, amount to anti-Semitism? Confronted with such charges, proponents of the boycott use a rhetorical device known as a straw man. They state that “disagreeing with the Israeli government or condemning its actions has nothing to do with anti-Semitism,” which is of course true. But that is a straw man argument, as the boycotters do not merely disagree with, or condemn, the Israeli government. Rather, they single it out for condemnation; they apply different standards to Israel than to other countries, which is a form of anti-Semitism. The fact that many boycotters eagerly sign papers condemning anti-Semitism does not change anything, as they claim that singling out the only Jewish state is not a form of anti-Semitism.

The same thought was recently expressed, albeit more diplomatically, by the U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in his recent speech to the U.N. Human Rights Council (HRC): “The HRC’s obsession with Israel actually risks undermining the credibility of the entire organization.”  Another argument used by the boycotters is pointing to a few uber-progressive Jewish comrades among them, who are eager to vilify Israel. That argument is not new, as it was routinely used by Soviet propaganda in response to similar accusations against the U.S.S.R.

An inconvenient truth is that it is not just the Arab-Israeli conflict that fuels anti-Semitism. It works the other way around too: the old-fashioned anti-Semitism is the reason behind a biased narrative of the conflict in the Middle East. Simply put, Israel is the Jew among nations and is largely treated as such.

The spin that puts the blame for the Arab-Israeli conflict on Israel reminds me of an incident that I witnessed in my elementary school. There was a bully who sat behind a girl and constantly harassed her when the teacher could not see them. He would pinch her or pull her hair, but when the girl complained to the teacher, the bully denied doing that. Eventually, the girl could no longer take that harassment. She turned back and hit the bully with a sharp pencil, which the teacher immediately noticed. The bully tearfully showed the teacher a scratch on his hand made by the pencil, and the girl was severely punished. In the lexicon of Israel bashers, the girl’s response was ‘disproportionate’. It would have been ‘proportionate’ if she had only pinched the bully in response to his pinches, which was exactly what he wanted.

There are no inhibitions against conflating anti-Israelism with plain Jew-hatred in the Middle East. The rallying cry “Death to America, death to the Jews” reverberates around the Muslim world.  From there, Jew-hatred is exported to the rest of the world. According to a BBC report in 2010, a textbook supplied by the Saudi government and used in Muslim schools in England “asks children to list the ‘reprehensible’ qualities of Jews” who, according to the textbook, “looked like monkeys and pigs.” Several years earlier, the U.S. government called on the Saudi government to revise their educational materials spreading Jew-hatred. The Saudis assured the U.S. in 2006 that the reform had been completed. But a report issued by Human Rights Watch in 2012 expressed “profound disappointment that the Saudi government continues to print textbooks inciting hatred and violence against religious minorities."

The old anti-Semitic accusation that the Jews murder non-Jewish children to use their blood in religious rituals largely disappeared in the West a long time ago. But it is alive and well in the Muslim world in the 21st century, where it is published in government-controlled newspapers and shown on TV. This has been reported by CNN, LA Times and other news outlets. This blood libel has morphed into the myth about the Israeli Army’s special penchant for killing Palestinian children. In Egypt, which is touted as a moderate Arab country by the Middle East’s standards, state TV has broadcast a series that incorporated, in the words of the NY Times, “ideas from the infamous czarist forgery ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’, a pillar of anti-Semitic hatred.”

The boycotters want to portray Israel as a colonial power and the Israeli Jews as Europeans who have nothing to do with the Middle East. According to their narrative, the Jewish ‘occupation’ of Palestine was a result of WWII. In reality, the Jews have always lived in the Middle East. The 1905 Ottoman census listed the Jewish community as the largest among the three communities in Jerusalem: Jewish, Muslim, and Christian. The British census of 1922 yielded similar results. There were large Jewish communities all over Palestine long before the Nazis came to power in Germany. Contrary to another myth, the Jews and the Arabs did not co-exist peacefully before the founding of Israel. The Jews suffered from anti-Jewish riots and massacres, such as the Hebron massacre of 1929, in which 67 Jews were killed and scores of others were wounded and maimed. The report of the British commission investigating the massacre called it a “savage attack, of which no condemnation could be too severe.” Sir John Chancellor, the High Commissioner of Palestine, used even stronger words calling it “the atrocious acts committed by bodies of ruthless and bloodthirsty evildoers... murders perpetrated upon defenceless members of the Jewish population... accompanied by acts of unspeakable savagery.” Jews living all over the Arab world suffered from massacres, hostility, and government-sponsored discrimination, which caused the Jewish exodus from Arab countries to Israel that was created as a sanctuary state for the Jewish people. Their descendants now make up half of Israel’s population.

Portraying Israel as a colonial power akin to the pre-1994 South Africa amounts to rewriting history. And as George Orwell warned, “He who controls the past controls the future.  He who controls the present controls the past.”

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