Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s statement, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” could not be more apt for our moment. But we’re living in a time which has moved beyond neutrality. A moment in which The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a piece that explicitly calls for neutrality regarding Israel’s genocidal war on Gaza, lest they have to examine the historical context that led to Hamas’ resistance in the first place. Indeed, we’re in a moment where brazen support of an oppressor’s genocidal war moves through our academic, political and media landscapes without question.
Watching U.S. and European responses to the latest Israeli assault on Gaza, and to Israeli leaders’ blatant genocidal rhetoric, has made it crystal clear who really matters to corporate news outlets, academia and political leaders in the West.
It’s not the Palestinian people.
Whether it’s the media spreading unfounded and unverified claims about Gaza’s extraordinary act of resistance, or whether it’s nations giving green lights to Israel’s rampage, in this escalation against Gaza — and to be sure the West Bank as well — there is a deliberate silencing of Palestinian voices in the West.
I don’t hesitate to use the word genocide because I know that when Raphäel Lemkin defined the term in 1944, and when the United Nations adopted it four years later, they intended the crime to apply to any group of people who are being targeted because they comprise the same national, ethnic, racial or religious group. (Similarly, in the context of international law, the crime of apartheid is applicable beyond South Africa, where it originated, which is why it applies to Israel as well.) What has unfolded in Gaza over the past couple of weeks most certainly qualifies as genocide, as Raz Segal lays out in Jewish Currents in “A Textbook Case of Genocide.” It’s critical that international statutes and frameworks embrace language that allows for a wide application. Unfortunately, this is not the case with the rise of the codification of a definition for antisemitism over the past few years.
The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA), the organization behind the push to define antisemitism legally and globally, has taken the opposite tactic. Instead of defining antisemitism, as the Oxford English Dictionary does, as “prejudice, hostility, or discrimination towards Jewish people on religious, cultural, or ethnic grounds,” the IHRA mentions Israel nine times to underscore that it correlates antisemitism with negative criticism of Israel. Consequently, the IHRA definition has been widely acknowledged to detract from human rights rather than assist colleges, governments, or other international bodies to track or prosecute instances of antisemitism. Indeed, because of the way it conflates anti-Zionism with antisemitism, the people who have been most adversely affected by it are Palestine solidarity organizations and their members, especially those who want to educate Americans about the Palestinian Nakba and those who have been actively pursuing the nonviolent South African model of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel.
As a college counselor, I spent the earlier part of my career advising Palestinian and Lebanese students when I lived and worked as an English professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem, An-Najah University in Nablus, the American University of Beirut, and Brummana High School in Lebanon. I know what happens when my Arab students go to the United States, and other Western nations, for higher studies. I know the discomfort and alienation they experience when they face very real threats from Zionist students on campus, as well as the generally acceptable climate of Islamophobia (whether they are Muslim or not). My concern for their well-being continues whether they stay abroad or return home after graduation. It’s what I’m feeling at this moment again as I watch what unfolds not only in Palestine, but also on university campuses as I listen to their stories of harassment.
As an American Jew (a fact I shouldn’t have to state in order to make my case), I know how the language of antisemitism has been weaponized against many Arab and Muslim students in the United States, especially since 9/11. If we took the etymology of the word Semitic at the heart of antisemitism, we would find that it isn’t just Jewish people who would qualify under that heading: “Designating or belonging to a family of languages of which Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Ethiopic, and ancient Assyrian are members.” But the widespread adoption of the IHRA definition of antisemitism on American college campuses has unleashed unhinged and unchecked violence against Palestine solidarity activists.
Such behavior almost always occurs on the heels of Israeli violence against Palestinians. Just as Israel’s latest assault began, New York City councilwoman, Inna Vernikov, threatened Palestine solidarity activists at Brooklyn College by brandishing a gun. At UCLA, Students for Justice in Palestine faced a spate of threats as well. And at Harvard, Palestine solidarity activists are feeling unsafe because their personal information was made public. At the University of Pennsylvania, donors are threatening to cut funding because the Palestine Writes Literature Festival was held on their campus.
At Columbia University, professor Joseph Massad is once again being targeted for writing about Palestinians in a historical and contextual manner, in this case about Hamas’s resistance operation. Meanwhile a six-year-old Palestinian-American boy, Wadea Al-Fayoume, was murdered in a Chicago suburb on October 14 because his landlord had been riled up by Islamophobic media.
Amid these stories of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims being harassed and attacked, somehow it is Jewish faculty and students who are feeling afraid for their safety. It’s an irony that seems to be lost on my colleagues who believe that there is an exponential rise of antisemitism in the United States, even though such claims have been debunked. They think that only their Jewish students must be protected. They think that only Jewish students are silenced. They think that Palestinians don’t face any such threats on campuses. Therefore, when I inquired as to why our organization, the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA), drafted a statement in support only of our Jewish students, I was met by a great deal of hostility. IECA’s core statement reads:
We have watched with horror and sadness the unspeakable acts of violence that have unfolded in the Middle East. Further, actions on and off campuses in recent days have re-opened the painful history of antisemitism. We offer our deepest sympathy and support to those in harm’s way, to all who have been affected, particularly our Jewish members, fearful students on college campuses, and those with direct ties to the region.
Attached to their statement was a list of Zionist resources including Hillel International and the Anti-Defamation League (ADL). There were no words of support or resources for colleagues who might want to understand and learn about how they could support their Palestinian, Arab or Muslim students. (Fortunately, the Middle East Children’s Alliance’s Teach Palestine Project is updating its resource page for educators.)
Beneath a barrage of accusations, I’ve received an even more troubling amount of Israeli propaganda in my inbox. They don’t realize how deeply flawed the methods used by organizations like the ADL are — not only in terms of fabricating data, but also in terms of conflating antisemitism with anti-Zionism; indeed, in their rush to support Israel, they are oblivious as to how conflating Jewish people and Israel is in fact the very essence of antisemitism.
This bring me to a key question: What do Jewish students on campus need to be protected from? Is it from hearing the truth about the context behind the recent genocidal war? From hearing about Israeli apartheid? About Israel’s ongoing Nakba or ethnic cleansing that has continued unabatedly since before 1948? About Israel’s ongoing siege of Gaza that has kept its population of over two million people hostage within the world’s largest open air prison for over 18 years? Novelist and activist Sarah Schulman reminds us what happens when we are afraid to examine our past, when we erase it and the people who live in its wake:
“At the root of this erasure is the increasing insistence that understanding history, looking at the order of events and the consequences of previous actions to understand why the contemporary moment exists as it does, somehow endorses the present. Explanations are not excuses — they are the illumination that builds the future. But the problem with understanding how we got to where we are is that we could then be implicated. And innocent victims cannot have any responsibility for creating the moment.”
And yet it is only Jewish students on campus — who, because their institutions use the IHRA definition of antisemitism, are regularly conflated with Israelis — who are imagined to be those innocent victims. We aren’t willing to empathize with Palestinians in Gaza and in the West Bank who face terrorism from Israeli colonists and their army on a daily basis.
I recommend that we approach this differently by following other models. College counselors and other educators could look to organizations like the CUNY Jewish Law Students Association, who show what’s possible when you open yourself up to understanding points of view other than your own. It illustrates the profound power of truth and solidarity in the face of deception and propaganda all around us. Jewish Voice for Peace, in its statement against the Israeli assault, also centered historical context:
The Israeli government may have just declared war, but its war on Palestinians started over 75 years ago. Israeli apartheid and occupation — and United States complicity in that oppression — are the source of all this violence. Reality is shaped by when you start the clock.
Palestinians have faced the violence and ethnic cleansing of a settler colonial nation for more than 75 years, a fact which far too few people in academia have learned. That history, and its pall on our present, suggests that we haven’t learned the lesson of “never again” from the Nazi Holocaust. If we did, we would act when Palestine’s flagship university, Birzeit, calls on the academic community around the world to “Not Be Silent About Genocide”:
Birzeit University calls upon the international academic community, unions, and students to fulfill their intellectual and academic duty of seeking truth, maintaining a critical distance from state-sponsored propaganda, and to hold the perpetrators of genocide and those complicit with them accountable.
We need to act as if we mean never again for anyone, as if we took to heart the lessons from our past and can envision a world in which the well-being of humanity mattered.
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