Many campus voices will decry the David Horowitz hit piece for its outrageously false claims against students advocating for Palestinian freedom. Many will point out that the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate crimes, has named Horowitz the “godfather of the modern anti-Muslim movement” and many will have noted his long history of grotesque racism, including slavery apologia. If that’s not bad enough, his most recent campaign encourages students to hold mock hangings on campus with “homosexual dummies.”
But one particularly pernicious false claim may be less obvious to The Daily Californian’s readers: the reference to the so-called “definition of anti-Semitism used by the U.S. government.” The definition Horowitz links to is widely contested because it would brand critics of Israel and advocates for Palestinian human rights as anti-Semitic by blurring the important distinction between criticism of Israel as a nation-state and anti-Semitism.
This supposed definition is not adopted by the “U.S. government.” It is in use only by the U.S. State Department for the limited purpose of identifying instances of anti-Semitism abroad. It is not used domestically by any government agency because it would violate the First Amendment to restrict speech that criticizes Israel or any other nation-state.
In fact, the U.S. government agency charged with protecting students on campus from discrimination has soundly rejected the theory that criticism of Israel constitutes anti-Semitism. The U.S. Department of Education’s Office for Civil Rights conducted a lengthy factual investigation into allegations that activism for Palestinian rights at UC Berkeley created an anti-Semitic, hostile environment. It dismissed the allegations, thereby rejecting the false equation that criticism of Israel is the same as hatred of Jewish people.
Many Jews and many anti-racist activists understand that Jewish people and the Israeli state are not one and the same. Many believe that the unquestioned assumption that the Israeli government is the voice of Jewish people worldwide is itself anti-Semitic because it necessarily attributes Israel’s ideology, policies and practices to all Jews.
The faulty definition cited by Horowitz is increasingly used as an instrument of legal bullying to intimidate activists for Palestinian rights on campus. For every real incident of anti-Semitism on campus, my organization, Palestine Solidarity Legal Support, has documented many more false accusations aimed solely at thwarting serious discussions about Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. In 2014 alone, we documented more than 240 incidents of repression and requests for legal advice, nearly 75 percent on campuses. These ranged from disciplinary actions against students for peaceful speech activities to smear campaigns, death threats and anti-Arab and Islamophobic slurs and assaults against activists because they voiced their views. So far this year, we have already documented more than 116 such cases, nearly 50 of which occurred on campuses in California.
Virtually all of these cases resulted from unfounded accusations and the false equation that brands activism for Palestinian rights as “anti-Semitic.”
As a civil rights attorney, I ask the Daily Cal, and all the advocates participating in this conversation, to get the legal definitions straight.
As a Jewish alumna of UC Berkeley, I am alarmed at the intentional confusion of the term anti-Semitism because we risk losing our ability to address genuine anti-Semitism when it occurs. The British journalist Owen Jones wrote recently that “to defeat all forms of antisemitism—including those that masquerade as solidarity with oppressed Palestinians—we need to be able to identify them. That becomes impossible when the very meaning of the word is abused and lost.” This abuse is precisely what underlies claims that criticism of Israel is by definition anti-Semitic, even when it is not based on a hatred of Jews.
As a person born into a religious-ethnic group that has suffered terribly from a history of violent repression, I support the student movement for justice in Palestine because of its dedication to finding a solution that is based on equal rights for all people. To call that “genocidal” desecrates the memory of the Holocaust. And it also ignores the violence against and attempted erasure of the Palestinian people over several decades, all in the name of a “Jewish state.”
Support for this movement will only grow, especially after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made it abundantly clear that there will be no Palestinian state under his watch, and because international diplomacy on this issue has failed for over six decades. While Horowitz and Netanyahu continue to spread hate and stifle debate, Students for Justice in Palestine groups dedicate themselves to educating the campus community about real human rights concerns and a real path toward peace, justice and equality in Israel/Palestine.
Liz Jackson is an alumna of UC Berkeley’s School of Law and is a staff attorney for Palestine Solidarity Legal Support.