Memo to Minister Kenney: Criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism

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As Israeli Apartheid Week gets underway, there is a major campaign currently underway to deny freedom of expression on campus to those in solidarity with Palestine on the basis of alleged anti-Semitism.

The Equity Office at Carleton University banned the Israeli Apartheid Week poster and the Provost issued a statement that threatened students with expulsion. B'nai Brith took out newspaper ads calling on University Presidents to "prevent Israeli apartheid week" in order to "take a stand against anti-Semitism on campus." This builds on a pattern established last year, when McMaster University banned the use of the term "Israeli apartheid" (eventually rescinding the ban) and the University of Toronto cancelled room bookings for a Palestine solidarity student conference.

The argument that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic rests on the notion that Israel is singled out for undue criticism because it is a Jewish state. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney used this logic when he said recently, "We do see the growth of a new anti-Semitism predicated on the notion that the Jews alone have no right to a homeland."

This statement is only legitimate if we completely ignore the situation of the Palestinians, the residents of the land Israel claimed as a "Jewish homeland." The recent assault on Gaza, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians were killed, including at least 346 children, is just the latest in an ongoing saga of displacement, occupation and dehumanization dating back to 1948. Critics of Israel are not singling it out for undue criticism, but merely holding it to the same standards as all other nations in such areas as respect for human rights and international law.

Defenders of Israeli policy routinely attempt to direct our attention to abuses happening in other places and insist that a hidden agenda must underlie any focus on Israeli brutality in this unjust world. This argument would lead to paralysis in human rights activism by claiming that one must address all cases at once, or only the "worst" cases. Should we have told Rosa Parks, who refused to go the back of a segregated bus in Alabama in 1955, to quit whining as conditions were even worse in South Africa, or colonized Kenya, or for that matter for Palestinians in refugee camps?

The deployment of anti-Semitism as an accusation to silence criticism of Israel is also a serious setback in genuine struggles against anti-Semitism and other forms of discrimination. It is based on a claim that the State of Israel is the single outcome of the history of the Jewish people, the final end of generations of diasporic existence. It attempts to make the Zionist project of a Jewish nation the only legitimate project for all Jews.

This nationalist project has largely marginalized Jewish universalism, which argued that the future of a minority, diasporic community depended on winning widespread freedoms that applied to all members of society. That meant that in Canada, for example, the Jewish population was historically very active in struggles for a wide range of social rights and against the idea of Canada as a Christian nation.

The misuse of equity claims to silence Palestinian voices is a setback in the advancement of a human rights agenda. Further, it is a dangerous strategy that makes critics of the State of Israel into enemies of the Jewish people despite themselves. It even casts those of us who are Jewish allies of Palestinian rights as enemies in the battle against anti-Semitism. Further, it disarms us in the face of anti-Semitic incidents, weakening the credibility of organizations that have used the term too broadly and blurred the line between opposition to the State of Israel and anti-Jewish prejudice.

Anti-Semitism has no place in the Palestine solidarity movement and as Jews in that movement we can attest to the fact that the leadership of the Palestinian rights movement and many Arab and Muslim communities are actively addressing anti-Semitism wherever it raises its ugly head. On the other hand, false claims of anti-Semitism from pro-Israeli groups undermines their cause and creates more polarization, fear and anger around these issues than there needs to be.

Judy Rebick and Alan Sears are both university professors and Jews in solidarity with Palestine.



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