Monthly Archives: September 2010

Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort, Hillel on Campus


[Editor's note: The Jewish Telegraphic Agency's video report (above) on Israel-defense training for students made me think that now would be a good time to re-publish Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort. My colleague Sydney Levy and I wrote it this summer in response to the UC Berkeley divestment struggle and Israeli Consul General Akiva Tor's rather strange response to the effort.

In watching the JTA video in which the national head of Hillel is trying to make a subtle point but revealingly ends up comparing Muslims to vampires, I'd add that it has never been so clear to me how older Jews have failed this younger generation. Students are smart enough to handle an open conversation about complexity and Israel. But many in the older generation in power don't want that to happen. The fundamental irony, of course, is that when it comes to both delegitimizing and existentially threatening Israel, no critic can hold a candle to Israel itself and its ever-expanding settlement project (and human rights abuses etc...) There is no faster way for Israel to continue down the path of self-destruction than to continue the status quo, unhindered. In that very important sense, the BDS movement may be Israel's last chance. Especially now that we know that Congress and the Obama administration is no more willing to hold Netanyahu accountable than previous administrations.]

Lessons from the UC Berkeley Divestment Effort

By Cecilie Surasky and Sydney Levy, Jewish Voice for Peace

(June 1, 2010) Israel right-or-wrong apologists have reason to be worried after three lengthy UC Berkeley student senate hearings concluded each with a solid majority of votes (60% or more) in favor of divestment from companies that profit from the Israeli occupation. Though in the end, the vote fell 1 short of the needed supermajority required to overturn a veto, neither our opponents nor we forget that a clear majority consistently supported the bill.

Now, a few weeks after the hearings are over, it is a good time to examine how familiar tactics were deployed to stop the divestment effort and are now being used to prevent future similar ones. These tactics do not advance the cause of peace and have the unintended potential to cause harm to Jews in the US. Silencing debate, confusing the facts, taking over student senates, making indiscriminate charges of anti-Semitism, criminalizing anti-occupation activism, implicitly or explicitly condoning widespread hostility against Muslims, Palestinians, and anti-occupation Jews – these are the tactics with which we’ve unfortunately become too familiar. We’ll review them below.

1) Silencing debate

The first tactic, which predates UC Berkeley’s divestment initiative, is the effort to shut down debate within the Jewish community. The story is an old one, but given the growing level of desperation among the Israel right-or-wrong crowd, the measures being deployed are increasingly bold and destructive.

Just a few months ago, the San Francisco Jewish Community Federation issued the most restrictive funding guidelines in the country. These guidelines aim to silence open discussion within the institutional Jewish community on Israeli policies and the merits of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions movement. And they also have led to an old-fashioned blacklist of well-known human rights groups now banned from the Federation’s donor designated fund’s acceptable charities list.

The guidelines’ impact has not gone unnoticed. An open letter in The Forward signed by Jewish professors, rabbis, and other notables from both the left and center describes the San Francisco Federation guidelines in these terms:

Despite the guidelines’ repeatedly stated commitment to the values of free and open discussion and diversity, they will have a chilling effect on the entire spectrum of community institutions, including educational, service, social justice and arts organizations. They will also limit American Jewish exposure to the range of art, literature, scholarship, and political discourse that exists in Israel. The guidelines will encourage self-censorship. Organizations will fear losing their funding; individuals will fear losing their jobs.

Though the ad is written in future tense about the negative effects the guidelines will have, we know for certain that these effects have already taken hold. Fearing loss of jobs or funding, people are staying quiet.

More recently, the guidelines were directly linked by a Haaretz columnist Bradley Burston to Israel’s banning of political linguist Noam Chomsky and other indications of incipient “fascism.”

This effort to stifle debate inside our communities has ironically meant that the only way that Jews have been able to speak face-to-face with other Jews about divestment has been at the UC Berkeley hearings. And what the hearings revealed was striking: an authentic crisis in the Jewish community. By all appearances, the number of Jewish supporters of divestment on campus easily matched the number of opponents. The group that sponsored the divest initiative, Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), includes many Israelis and Jews as well as Palestinians and Muslims and many others of various faiths and nationalities, and the co-author of the divest bill himself is an Israeli Jew. Many Jewish professors, including members of the Jewish studies program, came out in support of the divest bill.

The Federation guidelines not only prevent an open conversation on these critically important issues, but they also banish these Jewish studies professors and the Jewish and Israeli students from any public forum on Israel funded by the Federation. The guidelines banish some of our best and most knowledgeable minds from the conversations where we truly need them most. By silencing debate, the Israel right-or-wrong advocates get to act like they’re speaking for the majority of Jews. But we know that they are not. For now, they’ve shut down public debate inside the Jewish institutional world, and their McCarthyite methods cast a long shadow. But the divestment hearing shows that whether or not the Jewish institutional world is ready, these conversations will take place because people, including many Jews, want to have them.

2) Confusing the Facts

The second tactic we saw used, yet again, was a consistent campaign to mislead the public about the nature of specific divestment resolutions. Many in the Jewish world, including the director of Berkeley Hillel ignored the fact that the UC Berkeley divestment resolution addressed only the Israeli occupation and repeatedly suggested instead that it targeted Israel as a whole.

3) Take over student senates

The Forward reported that,

At an AIPAC conference in Washington in late March, AIPAC leadership development director Jonathan Kessler said that his organization would “make sure that pro-Israel students take over the student government and reverse the vote,” as recorded in a video taken at the conference by the JTA. “This is how AIPAC operates in our nation’s Capitol. This is how AIPAC must operate on our nation’s campuses,” he said.

You can watch the chilling but frank video with Mr. Kessler’s statement here, where Mr. Kessler explicitly refers to the Berkeley resolution. This of course did not stop an AIPAC spokesperson from declaring:

“We took no position on the Berkeley student election, since like in any other election, we don’t rate or endorse candidates. Of course we would always, publicly and consistently, encourage pro-Israel students to be active in civic and political life.”

This year alone, about 1,300 students from all 50 states were offered a travel junket to DC to attend an AIPAC conference and learn the finer points of Israeli Hasbara. About a quarter of those in attendance were student government presidents, the kinds of leaders that can veto a divestment bill, just like UC Berkeley student senate president Will Smelko did. What is striking, as documented in the AIPAC video, is that a number of these student leaders had not heard of AIPAC before the offer of the free trip.
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Salahi calls for real understanding of Anti-Semitism AND Islamophobia

Yaman Salahi was criticized by Rabbi Shmully Hecht on the Washington Post’s On Faith blog for Salahi’s earlier piece on Islamophobia at a conference on Anti-Semitism at Yale. Salahi responds ably, and in much fuller detail in the same site.

I was particularly struck by his admonition against explaining the actions of contemporary people purely in terms of their religion.

We should not look either exclusively or primarily to Islamic scriptures to understand Palestinians, Palestinian politics, or Palestinian resistance to Israel for the same reason that we do not look to the Torah, the Talmud, and the work of Maimonides in order to explain Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s settlement expansion plans. We should not look there even to explain former Chief Rabbi of Israel Ovadia Yosef’s recent call for the death of the entire Palestinian people and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas. I do not think so poorly of millennia of Jewish tradition, practice, and co-existence with Muslims as to attribute either Israeli policy or Rabbi Yosef’s genocidal remarks to Judaism. I would, therefore, understand if Rabbi Hecht took offense to aggressive and unwarranted requests for him to condemn violent and racist statements and policies for which I have no reason to hold him responsible merely on the basis of his shared religion.

However, there is a reason why many people choose to adopt this methodology: it provides an excuse to ignore the legitimate grievances of people afflicted by violence or oppression. Take, for example, the recent statement by Martin Peretz, the neoconservative editor of The New Republic, that “Muslim life is cheap, most notably to Muslims” as he wonders aloud whether American Muslims deserve First Amendment Rights. These unfounded and deeply offensive notions are part of a political agenda that focuses selectively on Muslims. Relying on stereotypes, selective quotations, and misinformation, it seeks to obscure the role of powerful political, economic, and social forces in shaping the identity, beliefs, and politics of Arabs and Muslims around the world.

I do occasionally encounter someone who is convinced the Torah and other Jewish texts are the most important cause of Israeli policy today, which strikes me about as insightful as those who would use the Bible as a real estate deed. I am indebted to Salahi for pointing out that doing so for Palestinians is equally absurd.

Salahi closes his piece by pointing out how such bigoted proponents actually hinder the cause of understanding Anti-Semitism.

On a final note, I must make it emphatically clear that I do not wish, as Rabbi Hecht alleges, to censor the study of Jewish persecution. Anti-Semitism is for not only Jews, but all people to study. Indeed, in light of rising anti-Arab and anti-Muslim incitement in the United States, Europe, and Israel, there is certainly a great deal left for the world to learn about the horrors of anti-Semitism. If the purpose, however, of studying anti-Semitism at Yale or anywhere else is to justify or distract from Israel’s own racist laws and policies, or from anti-Muslim bigotry in the United States and the unpopularity of US policies abroad, then we have certainly missed the point – and that is a tragedy indeed.

The juxtaposition between this thoughtful argument and Hecht’s “Condemn Hamas?” piece as well as Marty Peretz’s ignorant pronouncements couldn’t be greater.

–Jesse Bacon

Fighting Anti-Semitism with Islamophobia at Yale

Audre Lorde used the metaphor of the masters tools not being able to dismantle the masters house to explain why racism could not be used to fight sexism. Unfortunately, no one told many of the scholars who attended the recent Yale conference Global Antisemitism: A Crisis of Modernity. In no case can one oppression effectively or ethically used to combat another, but particularly in the case of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, where one is threatening to take the place of the other.

Yaman Salahi writes about the virulence of many of the speakers. First up

Among the many anti-Arab and anti-Muslim speakers was Itamar Marcus, a member of the Israeli settler movement who offered a keynote speech on “The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity.” The title alone reduces an entire people and its history to irrationality and hatred; worse, it was but one of dozens of talks with a similarly problematic theme.

It is hard to imagine any other conflict where Yale would allow a front line and privileged member of a conflict to hold forth on their opponent. Would Yale invite Chinese settlers in Tibet to hold forth about the inferiority and irrationality of Tibetans? Members of Sudanese militias to criticize the perfidity of people of Darfur?  Salahi gives several other examples of speakers’ problematic past records and then points out to the larger problem.

<a href=’http://www.oncampusweb.com/delivery/ck.php?n=21672435&cb=11040234′ target=’_blank’><img src=’http://www.oncampusweb.com/delivery/avw.php?zoneid=121&cb=11040234&n=21672435′ border=’0′ alt=” /></a>

The center’s failure to adhere to consistent anti-racist principles makes it vulnerable to the charge that it is motivated by a political agenda. Indeed, many of its speakers hailed from partisan, right-wing, pro-Israel organizations including NGO Monitor, Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and Palestinian Media Watch — not to mention the Israeli government. In addition, many talks functioned as apologia for recent controversial Israeli actions, including an attack that killed nine civilians on a humanitarian aid flotilla to Gaza this summer that one speaker called “the Jihad flotilla.”

Using Arabic terms as a slur does not seem like an effective way of combating Anti-Semitism, to say the least, but hardly suprising from this crew. And neither is their rigid view of acceptable Judaism.

In addition, speakers at times seemed to conflate anti-Israel sentiment with anti-Semitism. For example, in a plenary about anti-racist Jewish critics of Israel titled “Self Hatred and Contemporary Antisemitism,” Richard Landes’ speech asked, “What Drives Jews to Loathe Israel Publicly?” as if those dissidents’ claims were based not on merit but on some pathological psychosis. Landes and others were not speaking about radical organizations but rather reputable human rights organizations, prominent Jewish dissidents and international student activists — exactly the kind of people a center purporting to fight bigotry should celebrate.

Instead Jews who differ from these groups view of Israel are marginalized and their Judaism question.

the same logic, inverted, often provides a pretext for racist ideas about Jews around the world, for those who imagine that Jews, no matter where they are or what they say, form a monolithic body that can be blamed for Israel’s actions.

Of course, Arabs and Muslims are the primary targets of Islamophobita, but Salahi also realizes the cost to Jews of this kind of mindset.

While the center’s failure to abstain from inflammatory anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric is offensive and dangerous, the real tragedy is its failure to recognize that a successful and principled stand against anti-Semitism requires a principled stand against all kinds of racism, including anti-Muslim/anti-Arab bigotry in America and anti-Palestinian racism in Israel.

So Jews who have differing views on Israel cannot count on these self appointed fighters of anti-Semitism, We would not be welcome at such a conference, and such bigotry will not protect us. Fortunately we have allies like Salahi who we can partner with to fight both our oppressions together.

Magnes ZIonist also reporting on the conference, asks where were the progressive Jews who study Anti-Semitism?

Do only hard-line Zionists care about anti-Semitism? No, not really. But the study of anti-Semitism has gravitated in that direction because it has been taken over by Israelis and Zionists, and is supported mostly by hard-line Zionist money. Sorry to be blunt, but I can think of no other explanation.

–Jesse Bacon

Alex Kane alerts us to a muzzle in progress

Blogger Alex Kane who previously demonstrated the far-right origins of the anti-”Ground Zero Mosque” campaign, has the scoop on the latest muzzling campaign. This time the target is Arab American professor Moustafa Bayoumi.

In an opinion piece for the Post, Ronald Radosh, a neo-conservative adjunct fellow at the Hudson Institute, [last seen on Muzzlewatch funding attempts to scrutinize Israeli syllabi for 'left wing bias'] argues that the Bayoumi book assigned to all incoming freshmen, How Does it Feel to be a Problem? Being Young and Arab in America, is “extremely slanted.”  Radosh argues that, while it may be legitimate to assign Bayoumi’s book, what’s also needed is “a contrasting opinion, one challenging the view that Americans and New Yorkers in particular are completely Islamaphobic.”

Reading the whole column, it’s clear that underneath all the concern for Brooklyn College students being “indoctrinated” is an aversion that Radosh feels to any airing of criticism against Israel, especially if it comes from an Arab or Palestinian point of view.

Radosh mentions Bayoumi’s associations with Edward Said and Rashid Khalidi, without explaining why that is relevant to what he terms the “scandal” at the college.  The mentions of Said and Khalidi are really a wink and nudge to hard-line supporters of Israel who don’t want to hear Khalidi’s and Said’s perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He also goes after Bayoumi for editing Midnight on the Mavi Marmara, which is about the Israeli attack on the flotilla last May.  Radosh labels the book as a”pro-Islamist” work that includes “selections from such noted foes of Israel as Noam Chomsky, Alice Walker, Max Blumenthal, Philip Weiss and scores of Arab authors.”  Radosh is too polite to really say what he’s thinking, but he apparently thinks there’s a problem with “scores of Arab authors” criticizing the Israeli raid that killed 9 people in international waters.

So here we have guilt-by-association, the attacking of respected figures for their very effectiveness, and the demand for “contrasting views,” which is never made by these same people when the person is defending the Israeli Occupation. The targetting of someone for speaking out against the Mavi Marmara killing echoes the Israeli moves against Member of Knesset Haneen Zouabi. In particular, I love that Radosh is trying to refute Islamophobia while labelling people of diverse backgrounds who oppose him politically “pro-Islamist” and not even able to mention “scores of Arabs” by name. Definitely no need for college students to read a book about anti-Arab racism. Not when we have one public figure against Islamophobia!

At a time when Mayor Bloomberg stands out for his insistence on the right of Muslims to build the “Ground Zero mosque,” the view that our country is taking out its anger over 9/11 against decent American Muslims is clearly overstated.
Radosh does not mention the cabdriver stabbed for being a Muslim, or any other descriptions of actual Islamophobia. Is it just the decency of American Muslims that Radosh thinks is being overstated?
Thanks for the heads up, Alex.

–Jesse Bacon

New McCarthyist quotes his mentors directly

It is amazing to me how little the script varies from muzzle attempt to muzzle attempt, but this recent example shows remarkable fealty to muzzling’s rich history.  Josef Olmert, brother of former Prime Minister Ehud, is concerned about the BDS movement’s rise and potential for even greater growth on US college campuses. So how does he express this concern?

I possess a list of thousands of American academics calling for a boycott of Israel. The number of Jews among them is overwhelming.

What’s next, Un-Jewish-American Activities hearings at every Hillel? In a threefer, Olmert manages to reproduce the paranoia of the  Old “I have here in my hand [a list of communists]” McCarthyism as well as its obsession with the number of Jews and State Department employees amongst its enemies.

I have here in my hand a list of 205 . . . a list of names that were made known to the Secretary of State as being members of the BDS Movement and who nevertheless are still working and shaping policy in the State Department. . . .

Just kidding, that was actually Joe McCarthy, and I switched out the words “Communist Party.”

Here’s Joe Olmert,

Among students, anti-Israel sentiment is its strongest in Middle Eastern studies departments and research centers, decades ago hijacked by anti-Israel teachers. Frighteningly, present students and researchers are the future staffers of the U.S. State Department and the intelligence community. Clearly, the anti-Israel sentiment on campus is dangerous, Israel and her supporters cannot afford to lose this battle.

All we need now if for him to say something homophobic and the history lesson will be complete. So how can we fight this BDS menace?

To combat these forces, supporters on campus must do a better job at presenting Israel’s case with clear, straight, and concise facts.

Rather like a teacher trainer lecturing about the importance of avoiding lecture, Olmert’s piece does not seem too heavy on facts. But I guess that sounds better than “hysterical innuendo, paranoid hyperbole, and guilt by association.” All this for a transparent movement whose members sign public petitions and have all night open debates on the issue!

Olmert closes with the following battle call,

On the eve of a new academic year, I make an urgent call to the pro-Israel community. Time is running out. Israel can win this war currently raging on the American campus, but for that to happen, Israel’s supporters must act quickly and decisively. My only question is: Who’s coming with me?

My guess is, probably people unconcerned with civil liberties, human rights,  or academic freedom. I look forward to following this BDS-baiting further.

–Jesse Bacon

Ali Abunimah “exposed” as smooth sophisticate by bigots

StandWithUs again attempts to take someone down, in this case Palestinian American author Ali Abunimah. As one might expect from such a hateful crew, they don’t do a very good job.

Abunimah responds to their dossier,

The StandWithUs dossier is a mishmash of biographical information about me, much of it taken from my own writing, but wildly distorted and wrapped in hostility. Its main purpose it to advise anti-Palestinian activists how to “expose” me. Parts of it are quite complimentary though: “When Ali Abunimah comes to your campus, be prepared for a sophisticated, smooth advocate of radical Palestinian positions.” It warns that my “calmness, highbrow style and constant references to international law and human rights cannot conceal [my] intense hostility about the very founding of Israel… .”

Abunimah notes the absurdity of their counter strategy, confronting him with questions about his own work! I have seen Abunimah speak countless times when I lived in Chicago, and I can testify that reciting the same questions he gets every time will not phase this “smooth sophisticate.”

The document points to the bankruptcy of the “anti-delegitimization” stategy. It requires bullying, ignorant attempts to suggest something sinister about people who stubbornly refuse to be caricatured. And with the existence of the internet, the absurdity leaks out, Abunimah can easily make them look ridiculous on his blog by, proudly for me, reposting the video  from Muzzlewatch of StandWithUs members shouting slurs at Jewish Voice for Peace and our allies. Such a contrast between StandWithUs’s bigotry and Abunimah’s forceful, thoughtful advocacy is all that is required for “delegimiatzation,” nothing sneaky is required.

–Jesse Bacon