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Students, faculty grapple with defining anti-Semitism

U.S. Senate passes bill seeking to define anti-Semitism for U.S. Department of Education

Updated on Dec. 8, 2016 at 2:06 a.m.

This is the first of a two-part series that explores how students and faculty members engage with the Israel-Palestine conflict in their work and social lives on campus.

The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act Dec. 1. The bill aims for the U.S. Department of Education to use the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism in investigations of religious hate crimes in educational institutions nationwide.

Modeled on the European Union’s definition of anti-Semitism, the U.S. State Department’s definition states that “anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The bipartisan bill proposed by U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-PA, and U.S. Sen. Tim Scott, R-SC, does not intend to infringe on any rights protected by the First Amendment, according to a press release.

“I want to thank Senator Casey for joining me to introduce the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which is urgently needed, as anti-Jewish attacks rise on campuses across the nation. By clarifying exactly what anti-Semitism is, we will leave no question as to what constitutes an anti-Semitic incident,” Scott said in the press release.

In addition, the U.S. State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism includes a section on anti-Semitism in the context of Israel. The section includes as examples of anti-Semitism efforts to demonize or delegitimize Israel and apply double standards “by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Professor of Judaic Studies David Jacobson expressed discomfort with the scope of the State Department’s definition and its adoption by the Education Department. “We have to be sensitive to freedom of expression,” he said, adding that while he believes “that the government has a role in establishing certain standards to evaluate hate crimes,” he does not see policing speech on college campuses as being within its charge. “Speech is important, and we should be paying close attention to it. But it’s not the same as actions like drawing swastikas on walls.”

Since the State Department drafted its definition in 2010, organizations such as Jewish Voice for Peace and Palestine Legal have voiced concerns that the definition conflates anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism and that it is used to silence criticism of Israel.

In 2016, the University of California system amended the section pertaining to Israel in its institutional definition of anti-Semitism, condemning only “anti-Semitic forms of anti-Zionism.” President Christina Paxson P’19 did not confirm or deny whether or not the University has an official definition of anti-Semitism of its own.

Director of the International Relations Program Nina Tannenwald’s concern about the politicization of anti-Semitism is exemplified by the website Canary Mission, she said. Canary Mission compiles a database of college students and professors that it considers to promote hatred of the United States, Israel and Jews or to be anti-Semitic according to the State Department’s definition, according to the website.

Amidst potential new regulations, faculty members and students have struggled to reach a consensus regarding their definitions of anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism in their academic and activist work.

Canary Mission

“It’s a McCarthyist smear campaign engaged in the politics of personal destruction,” Tannenwald said of Canary Mission. Quotes are taken out of context and misinterpreted or mischaracterized, and individuals are linked to organizations or movements that are then linked to anti-Semitic activity or violence, she said. Brown students, alums and professors are listed on it.

In September, a petition condemning Canary Mission was signed by faculty members nationwide, including Tannenwald. “As faculty who serve, have served or are likely to serve on an admissions committee at graduate and undergraduate university programs across the country, we unequivocally assert that the Canary Mission website should not be trusted as a resource to evaluate students’ qualifications for admission,” the petition stated.

“They’re attempting to create fear among pro-Palestinian activists,” said Josh, a student whose first name has been changed to protect him from online backlash. “It’s also clear to me that Canary Mission is playing on people’s Islamophobia and hateful rhetoric that exists around Islam in the (United States),” he said.

A disproportionate number of students profiled on the site are Muslim or Palestinian, according to the petition. The petition has currently garnered 1,010 signatures.

The website relies on student informants to alert it of anti-Semitic activity on college campuses and claims to draw on material in the public domain to write its profiles. The founders and managers of the site remain anonymous.

Canary Mission frequently shares profiles with potential employers via social media, Josh added. “It seems not to have been effective. My concern is not about my job, not about my profession. I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to return to Palestine,” he said, adding that he is aware of other Palestinians who have been denied entry by Israeli officials based on their views of Zionism and the occupation.

“This is a feeble attempt at intimidation,” Tannenwald said, adding that while she was initially concerned, “It doesn’t change what I will say in class.”

“I almost consider it a pro-Palestinian networking site now,” she added. “They did all the work for us.”

Brown Students for Israel has not been approached by Canary Mission and does not cooperate with them on a matter of principle, said Ben Gladstone ’18, president of Brown Students for Israel. “People bring up Canary Mission to make a monster out of Zionism as a whole,” he said, adding that Canary Mission is a “fringe group” in the American Zionist movement.

Zionism and anti-Semitism

While Gladstone condemns Canary Mission’s methods, he does not agree with the proposition that the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism in the context of Israel has no merit.

“I think it’s important because it acknowledges that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are linked,” Gladstone said. Zionism is the struggle for “Jewish self-determination, liberation and statehood” and does not preclude criticism of Israel, he said.

“I would argue that in order to be truly Zionist, you would have to support Palestinian rights and a Palestinian state,” he said. There is a false dichotomy that people have to choose between being Zionist and being pro-Palestinian, he added.

“To be anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic is to accept the existence of the Jews as long as we cannot mobilize politically,” Gladstone wrote in the Jewish Daily Forward in September.

“This is not a question of abstract political mobilization,” Josh said. “Zionism advocates for a very particular kind of ethnic nationalism, that with the state of Israel is dependent on the expulsion of the Palestinian people.”

Jacobson said that while personally he believes a denial of Israel’s right to exist is anti-Semitic — as he believes that Israel is necessary for the continuity of the Jewish people — he can still understand why Palestinians would question that right. “My Zionism does not preclude understanding,” he said, adding that he would nonetheless avoid codifying opposition to Israel’s existence as anti-Semitic to avoid playing a “zero-sum game” in which only one of the two views is conscionable.

“The trouble with this debate is that Zionist students often end up having to defend the nation-state as a concept,” Gladstone said, adding that many of the critiques of Zionism can be applied to other forms of nationalism but nonetheless are not. For someone to be anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic, they would have to be equally active in opposing all forms of nationalism, and when they are not, they are applying a double standard to the state of Israel, he said.

“My concern about the double standard argument is that I don’t want that to be an excuse to not hold Israel to a high moral standard,” Jacobson said. He posited that Israel may have captured the American left’s attention regarding whether or not the United States is complicit in Israeli military occupation.

“As an Israeli myself, I expect my country to uphold my values,” said Adi Ophir, visiting professor of humanities and Middle East studies, adding that his criticism of Israel is informed by his Jewish identity. His post-Zionist critique is influenced by his understanding of Zionism as contributing to the militarization of the state of Israel. “Commitment to the Zionist cause in Israel came with being willing to serve in the army. It took over what it means to be Jewish,” he said.

Zionism is not a cause rooted in the suppression of Palestinian people, Ophir added. Nonetheless, as an embodiment of Zionism, one might look at contemporary Israeli policy and arrive at the conclusion that the human rights “price is too high,” he said. “I am not saying I agree with that position, but I think it is a morally legitimate position to have,” he said.

Brown Students for Justice in Palestine, which supports a one-state solution, has members who are active and passionate about a range of social justice issues, said Peter Makhlouf ’16, a former member of Brown SJP and a former Herald columnist. He emphasized that members have regularly expressed solidarity with other movements critiquing the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the United States and nationalist movements in general.

“SJP has formed incredibly intersectional deep partnerships in African-American (and) LGBTQ student groups. It’s been focused on creating reciprocal solidarities and being present for parallel struggles,” said Sa’ed Atshan, a former postdoctoral fellow at Brown and a current visiting assistant professor of peace and conflict studies at Swarthmore College.

Zionism as a dirty word

On Brown’s campus, it is often Zionist students who have to defend that their position is conscionable, Gladstone said, adding that Zionism has been codified as an ethically untenable position to hold.

As an openly Zionist student, Gladstone wrote in the New York Times of his experience being excluded from social justice work on Brown’s campus while organizing a demonstration supporting Syrian refugees.

“I do reject the idea that people who embrace Zionism … need to be involved in social justice movements,” Josh said, emphasizing that activists have the right to refuse to work with Zionist students based on “ideological differences.”

Many Jewish students don’t feel comfortable voicing their Zionism as a result of this campus climate, Gladstone said. He drew parallels between the ostracization of Zionists on campus and the Canary Mission blacklist. Public discrediting is a pervasive tactic “of the anti-Zionist side,” he said.

“I don’t want to be talking about Palestinian rights in the context of any sort of debate,” said former Herald columnist Sara al-Salem ’17 — who is profiled on Canary Mission — about why she doesn’t engage with Zionists on campus.

In her Yom Kippur address, Rabbi Michelle Dardashti, associate university chaplain, spoke to these fears among members of the Jewish community when she stated that Jews are being restricted from movements for social justice “unless they show up burning an Israeli flag and holding a Palestinian one,” said Andrew Marmor ’18.

Marmor, who identifies as a Zionist, said he was initially concerned that Rabbi Dardashti seemed to be equating pressure on Jewish students to support Palestine with anti-Semitism. After speaking with her, he believes her aim was to encourage Jewish students to continue to “show up” in solidarity with other social justice work and call out anti-Semitism when they feel it necessary.

Marmor said he thinks the Black Lives Matter movement’s reference to the Israel-Palestine conflict as a genocide was an instance of anti-Semitism, but that will not stop him from supporting the movement. Similiarly, Marmor considers actions taken during the Janet Mock incident anti-Semitic but will continue to express solidarity with social justice movements on campus that supported those actions.

Makhlouf, who is listed on Canary Mission, considers the contention that Brown’s campus community is largely pro-Palestinian an oversimplification. While public opinion at Brown is largely sympathetic to pro-Palestinian activists on campus working with SJP, Makhlouf said that Brown SJP is not supported by Brown’s administration.

“We do see a particular backlash from Paxson,” Makhlouf said, referring to her decision to comment publicly on Mock’s cancellation of her speech last year following a petition to have her talk disaffiliated with Brown/RISD Hillel.

Makhlouf added that in the past, SJP has faced administrative intervention from a “disciplinary dean.”

“I don’t expect support, but I do expect some degree of neutrality,” Makhlouf said. For instance, he would have liked to see Paxson write to the community regarding Canary Mission as well. “Members of universities nationwide condemned Canary Mission, but there’s not a word from Paxson.”

On this matter, Paxson wrote, “There are likely thousands, if not tens of thousands, of websites (and) blogs … that are in opposition to Brown’s mission of advancing freedom of inquiry. It would be impossible to confront them all.”



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