by Gerald M. Steinberg
The line between reasonable criticism and obsessive hostility and hate speech toward Israel and Israelis is being crossed with increasing frequency
It has become politically fashionable to claim that attacks against Israel are simply a form of reasonable criticism and that allegations of anti-Semitism seek to censor this legitimate discussion. Or that the virulent attacks result from the post-1967 "occupation," and that a return to the previous armistice lines would end this demonization.
But the line between reasonable criticism and obsessive hostility and hate speech toward Israel and Israelis is being crossed with increasing frequency at universities, the United Nations, political institutions (such as the British Labour Party), the media, "progressive" churches and elsewhere. Through campaigns such as BDS (boycotts, divestment and sanctions) and the free use of terms such as "war crimes," apartheid, racism and similar labels, the demonization of Jewish sovereign equality has moved into high gear. The facade of merely opposing Israeli policies is no longer necessary, as shown in the recent Harvard Law School incident in which a student and leader of a Palestinian activist group asked Knesset member Tzipi Livni why she, as a Jew, was "so smelly."
In the past, many academics have ignored such blatant hatred and the violent attacks to which it contributes around the world (and some also participate in the hate), but this is changing. An increasing number of scholars are now turning their attention to what is recognized, at least by some, as a major problem.
The University of Indiana at Bloomington recently held a large conference under the heading of "Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, and the Dynamics of Delegitimization." This path-breaking event, led by Prof. Alvin Rosenfeld, who heads the Institute for the Study of Contemporary Anti-Semitism, brought 70 scholars from 16 countries throughout the world (including India) together to present their research and discuss the implications.
By creating a critical mass from different disciplines and locations, the participants overcame many of the obstacles to the systematic academic analysis of the anti-Zionist form of anti-Semitism. A proper investigation of this complex phenomenon requires perspectives from politics, history, Middle East studies, human rights, international law, economics and other disciplines.
The issues that were debated in Bloomington include the question of whether this demonization and political warfare directed at Israel, including BDS and lawfare, are unique, or perhaps can be compared to other forms of collective hatred. The consensus among the participants supported the view that hostility towards Israel, particularly among Europeans and other Westerners with no direct involvement in the Arab-Israeli conflict, has no serious parallel.
As the late Prof. Robert Wistrich observed, "The common denominator of the new anti-Zionism has been the systematic effort to criminalize Israeli and Jewish behavior, so as to place it beyond the pale of civilized and acceptable conduct." Wistrich documented the process by which left-wing anti-Semitism developed to parallel what was once a monopoly of the ideological Right. In his opening remarks, Rosenfeld dedicated the conference to his memory.
The anti-Zionist form of anti-Semitism, and the singling out of Israel through the use of double standards and patently false accusations, is often referred to as the "new" anti-Semitism. In the words of Prof. Irwin Cotler, the conference's keynote speaker, while the old anti-Semitism attacked Jews as individuals, political anti-Semitism targets the collective Jewish identity -- in other words, Israel.
Far from the pejorative "ivory tower" stereotype, the conference participants were focused on the real world. Detailed papers were presented documenting and analyzing anti-Zionist anti-Semitism in the U.K., Poland, Germany, Holland and France, from the governments of Iran (blended with a steady dose of Holocaust denial) and Turkey, among radicals on U.S. campuses, and in churches, where "liberation theology and BDS" are presented as "a Christian Act of Love," analyzed by Dr. Giovanni Matteo Quer. In parallel, a number of scholars examined the overlapping demonization of Israel and Jews in propaganda prevalent among Moslems and Arabs. And regarding the secular mirror image, Dr. Richard Landes analyzed the religion of anti-Zionism that pervades "the global progressive Left."
The discussions following each panel focused on finding points of commonality, as well as differences that would enable researchers to make sense of this hatred. In the West, anti-Zionism is often couched and justified in the language of human rights and international law, and self-appointed "experts" from the United Nations and powerful nongovernmental organizations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty give the facade of legitimacy to this process.
For all of these reasons, the Indiana conference was an important milestone in examining the factors and forces driving the intense anti-Zionism, and the points where it meets the old far-right version. A community of scholars, reflecting different views and disciplines, has been formed, and many more such meetings and resulting publications are planned.
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