- by Graham Holton
- The Guardian
- Issue #2040
A rally in Sydney to end the blockade of Gaza. Photo: Anna Pha
The recent fighting in the Gaza Strip has claimed the lives of 47 Palestinians, including 17 children, as Israeli forces targeted leaders of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) and militants for firing unguided projectiles into Israel, which did little damage with no Israelis killed.
On 30th January the University of Melbourne Student Union (UMSU) condemned the “ongoing ethnic cleansing of Palestinians” and the “use of Zionism to justify the illegal occupation of Palestine as racist and colonial.”
It supported Palestinians in their “self-defence against their occupiers.” The student union has renewed calls for the university to “participate in an academic boycott and cut ties with Israeli institutions, researchers, and academics.”
In May 2022 the UMSU passed the motion, “UMSU stands with Palestine – BDS [Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions] and Solidarity Policy.” It called Israel a “settler colonial apartheid state” and accused it of “massacres, forced expulsion and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.” Zionism was “a racist, colonial ideology.”
Natalie Gunn, the president of the Australasian Union of Jewish Students said the UMSU motion contained an “utterly false and ludicrous version of history” and would lead to an increase in anti-Semitism on campus. Australia’s leading Jewish groups, the Australia/Israel and Jewish Affairs Council, Executive Council of Australian Jewry, Zionist Federation of Australia, Jewish Community Council of Victoria, and Zionism Victoria condemned the UMSU motion.
A letter on behalf of the Executive Council of Australian Jewry complained that the resolution raises the risk “to Jewish students, the likelihood that it will incite racial hatred” by the anti-Semitic nature of its claims and falsehoods. A spokesperson for the University of Melbourne told The Australian Jewish News that “this antisemitic motion is not the position of the University of Melbourne, nor is it one that is endorsed or supported by the University.” The University had sided with pro-Israel politics.
The argument that anti-Zionism is inherently anti-Semitic rests on three interrelated arguments. First, that opposition to Zionism is anti-Semitic because it denies Jews a state of their own. Second, that it seeks to remove Israel’s right to statehood, thereby creating the political dispossession of its nine million citizens. Third, anti-Zionists are also anti-Semitic, because you cannot find one without the other. In fact, 1.9 million, 21 per cent of the population, are Arab Israelis, who refer to themselves as Israeli-Palestinians.
Israel also contains five million non-citizens, Palestinians, who live under Israeli control in the West Bank and Gaza, without basic rights. Israel excludes Palestinian parties from its governing coalitions.
A commission created in 2003 by the Israeli government described Israel’s handling of the Arab sector as “discriminatory.” Israel’s form of ethnic nationalism, Zionism, denies equality to non-Jews who live under Israeli control. That anti-Israel equates to anti-Semitism is false, when one notes that Ultra-Orthodox Jews strongly believe that the State of Israel should not exist “before the Messiah comes.”
None of the anti-Zionism-equals-anti-Semitism arguments stand up to scrutiny. To ensure that the Zionist state is not challenged by academics, laws have been passed that equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. This has been seen at universities in North America, Europe and Australia.
The sacking of academics accused of anti-Semitism has a long history in the United States. The most prominent of whom was Norman Finkelstein in 2007. The author of The Holocaust Industry and Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History was removed from his position in the department of political sciences at DePaul University in Chicago, a Catholic university.
Finkelstein, a Jewish intellectual critical of Israel, argued that the accusation that his books incited antisemitism is being used to reduce criticism of Israeli policy towards the Palestinians. His removal came after Alan Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor, had campaigned against his tenure being granted. Noam Chomsky and the Oxford historian, Avi Schlaim, spoke out in support of Finkelstein.
Indigenous people see parallels between what is happening in Palestine with their own history. In 2018 the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (NAISA) declared its support for BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) on Israel, as did the American Studies Association and the Asian American Studies Association. The BDS movement was established in 2005 by the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel.
NAISA supports academic inquiry about and by Indigenous communities to be free from political controls. “The NAISA Council protests the infringement of the academic freedom of Indigenous Palestinian academics and intellectuals in the Occupied Territories and Israel who are denied fundamental freedoms of movement, expression, and assembly, which we uphold.”
The council is against the colonisation and domination of Indigenous lands by settler states throughout the world. It sees Palestinians as indigenous to the land with Israel as modern-day settler colonialism. Palestinians are ejected from their lands in a process of ethnic cleansing. As such it resembles the experiences of Native American Indians and the indigenous peoples of Hawaii, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.
People in positions of power within Israel have also been outspoken against the attacks on Palestine. In 2018 Avrum Burg, the former speaker of Israel’s Knesset declared that the settlement in the West Bank had rendered the two-state solution impossible. Israelis must “depart from the Zionist paradigm, and move into a more inclusive paradigm. Israel must belong to all of its residents, including Arabs, not to the Jews alone.”
Other Jewish Israeli progressives include the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, Meron Benvenisti, the Haaretz columnist Gideon Levy, and the activists of the Federation Movement.
In the past few years, legislation in North America and Europe has toughened the stand against critics of Israel. On 26 October 2020, the Ontario government, Canada, under Order in Council 1450/2020 adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. The student governments at Ryerson University and McGill University in Canada adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism in their anti-discrimination policies.
The IHRA defines anti-Semitism by labelling the criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic. The definition lists eleven examples of anti-Semitism, seven of which equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. Its definition has been criticised by academics and activists for curtailing academic freedom and equating criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism. Its definition potentially denies critics of Israel access to campus resources.
That year Valentina Azarova was appointed the director of the University of Toronto faculty of law’s international human rights program. She was soon attacked for her scholarly criticism of Israel’s appalling human rights record.
In May 2022, the Goethe-Institut, a cultural institution based in Hamburg, Germany, disinvited Palestinian poet and activist Mohammed El-Kurd from participating in the “Beyond the Lone Offender” summit. It considered El-Kurd as not an “appropriate speaker for this forum” due to his posts on social media criticising Israel, which the Institute “did not find acceptable.”
The British Pakistani journalist Mohammed Hanif and Berliner Zeitung writer Hanno Hauenstein cancelled their participation in the conference in solidarity with El-Kurd. Hauenstein wrote on Twitter, “anti-racism that doesn’t care about Palestinians is a bad joke.”
In January 2023 David Miller, professor of political sociology at the University of Bristol, the United Kingdom, was accused of anti-Semitism for writing that Israel wants to “impose its will all over the world” and it is “fundamental to Zionism to encourage Islamophobia and anti-Arab racism.”
Miller’s aim is to end “settler colonialism in Palestine” and to “end Zionism as a functioning ideology of the world.” Miller was fired from his position. At Sheffield Hallam University, Shahd Abusalama, an associate lecturer was suspended from her post in 2022. The university alleged that Abusalama had broken the university’s rules, specifically the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism.
She had posted on Twitter, in an academic discussion, the origin of the word Holocaust. Abusalama was later reinstated after a global campaign and protests against her removal. Academics and student organisations from across the UK had sent in open letters of support for her.
The IHRA definition of anti-Semitism is based on false assumptions that quell any criticism of Israel as a Zionist state. The Anti-Defamation League (ADL) website argues that criticism of Israel crosses into anti-Semitism when: all Jews are held responsible for the actions of Israel; Israel is denied the right to exist as a Jewish state; and when it uses anti-Semitic symbols and images.
The ADL goes further, seeing any anti-Israel stand as an extreme form of criticism of Israel. That anti-Zionism is prejudiced against the Jewish movement for self-determination and the right of the Jewish people to their homeland, Israel. The ADL sees the BDS campaign as a rejection of Israel’s very existence as a Jewish state. It denies the Jewish people the right to self-determination, a right universally afforded to other groups. Of course, these other groups do not include Palestinians.
Criticism of Israel’s actions against Palestinians has increased over the past fifty years. In the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Israel routed the Egyptian–Syrian–Jordanian alliance and occupied the Sinai Peninsula. This extended its territory far beyond the 1947 United Nations Resolution 181 for the division of Israel and Palestine. On 10th November, 1975, the United Nations General Assembly passed the “Zionism is racism” resolution, equating Zionism with racism and apartheid. Criticising Israel’s inhumane treatment of Palestinians is not anti-Semitic, nor are criticisms against a brutal Zionist state.
Therefore, anti-Zionist and anti-Israel statements should not be grounds for dismal at universities, the same institutions that call for academic freedom from political control. Anti-Semitism is always wrong, because it denigrates and dehumanises people because of their ethnicity and religious beliefs, but claims of anti-Semitism cannot be used as a tool to stifle criticism of Israel’s inhumane actions.