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Are We Making the Same Mistake With Anti-Zionism as We Did with BDS?

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Amid still raw emotions, with demonstrations ending and campuses emptying, what have we learned? Have attempts to remove students – and university presidents – decreased antisemitism, or merely stifled debate? And is stifling debate a mistake?

In 2015, I organized a forum at our Connecticut synagogue about the Palestinian led boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, which seeks to use against Israel tactics that helped end apartheid in South Africa. However, a core goal of BDS, the “right of return” to Israel of descendants of Palestinians from before Israel’s 1948 independence, might apply to millions of Palestinians, preventing Israel from being both “Jewish” and “democratic.”

Although BDS had gained support from some mainstream U.S. churches, one of its then relatively new American proponents was Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP). A Jewish organization supporting BDS was anathema to mainstream Jewish organizations, which were in turn accused of stifling free speech on college campuses, and Jewish foundation’s reportedly refused to approve “donor-advised” gifts to JVP.

Our BDS forum was to include JVP and one or more mainstream Jewish organizations. JVP accepted our invitation, but mainstream Jewish organizations, state and national, refused to participate, most stating that appearing with JVP would confer “legitimacy.” One local Jewish Federation reported being asked by the Israeli Consul office to “kill” the forum.

Being unwilling to entertain debate about BDS was already creating problems at universities. Hillel, the mainstream Jewish organization for university students and a primary means of conveying Jewish views on campuses, had prohibited chapters from hosting pro-BDS speakers (some chapters left and created a new Open Hillel).

Eventually, J Street, a (then) non-mainstream Jewish organization, spoke at the forum against BDS.

The Rabbi and I wrote about the experience in Forward, a leading U.S. Jewish periodical. We argued refusing to engage is a mistake theoretically and practically: that “legitimacy,” and the critical loss of support, results instead from ideas being unrebutted when presented. University students should (and wanted to) hear diverse views. The approach we suggested, informed by our American free speech principles and core Jewish value of respectful debate, as well as our support of Israel, was that speech and speakers we dislike should be countered, not forbidden, or ignored.

Unfortunately, the continued failure to engage directly may have helped lead to the much larger pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel movements across college campuses (and general society) even before the current Israeli-Gaza war. As may have states passing anti-BDS laws and universities stifling more discussion, left and right. And JVP has continued its role in the 2024 pro-Palestinian campus protests (having moved from not caring whether two-states or one to now more actively opposing Zionism and a separate Jewish state).

Are we now making a similar mistake with our reliance on claims of “antisemitism” to cut off dialogue about Israel?

Antisemitism essentially means hatred of Jews (discrimination, prejudice, hostility, or violence). Yet it has been used to address opposition to Israel. Criticism of Israeli policy is recognized as not inherently antisemitism. But criticism of the concept of a Jewish state (Zionism) is routinely called antisemitic, including by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), perhaps the most prominent organization addressing antisemitism (and one to which I contribute annually). Many countries have adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s “working definition” of antisemitism, which includes “examples” that equate anti-Zionism with antisemitism,  a view opposed by many scholars worldwide. The Trump Administration adopted the IHRA definition and examples relating to educational institutions, and a bi-partisan U.S. House of Representatives (with essential Democrat support) just passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act, expressly adopting the IHRA definition and examples. Are we again trying to control – and quash – debate?

To those not as committed to Israel, including many young Americans and young American Jews even before October 2023, the equation of “anti-Israel” with “antisemitic” may backfire. Even ignoring the current war, at least serious questions are raised by opposition to Israel since its creation through UN Resolution 181 (1947), the sometimes forced departure of Arabs, and Israel’s rejection of the “right of return” in UN Resolution 194 (1948). And many oppose “Islamic States” without being necessarily “anti-Islam.” We may disagree with the arguments and consider opposition to a Jewish state to be ill-informed, but to our youth and universities it hardly seems outside reasonable debate, nor reason to be expelled, arrested or “cancelled.”

As with BDS, the unwillingness to discuss openly the legitimacy – and importance – of a Jewish state, as well as the questions that arise from that, may simply confer greater weight (and “legitimacy”) on anti-Israel views. Addressing arguments against Israel/Zionism simply with claims of “antisemitism” leave the arguments unrebutted by facts and reason. Academic culture likely rejects views seemingly based only on others’ sense of “political correctness.” And, as any parent knows (and perhaps some universities now realize as well), simply forbidding something only makes it more attractive!

Refusing to dialogue also misses the opportunity to moderate views and work toward a solution of deeper issues – by both sides. Cutting off discussion doesn’t allow your opponents to see your humanity nor merits in your positions – nor you to see theirs.

And perhaps most important, quashing debate encourages the view that there is a monolithic Jewish viewpoint, a hallmark of antisemitism that those of us in the Jewish community knows couldn’t be farther from the truth.

Our American tradition of free speech not only protects but encourages advocacy of controversial positions – not only to test the market of ideas but to encourage democracy. By allowing speech we hate, we encourage open debate, so that views don’t fester underground, only to reemerge as bad or worse.

In giving the 2024 address on the state of world Jewry, Bari Weiss focused on freedom as the single most important determinant of Jewish success as a minority. It has also been the unique avenue for American success. Our freedom depends on supporting and even encouraging others’ freedom as well, particularly freedom to share ideas, however distasteful. And addressing them directly.

Refusing to debate Zionism is particularly problematic where younger generations are not steeped in the historic and worldwide antisemitism to which Zionism has been a response, which neither began nor ended with the Holocaust. As with BDS, young people are not being presented with pro-Israel arguments precisely when it counts: when they are hearing from those – including Jews – who oppose a separate Jewish state.

Each year at the Passover holiday, Jews are reminded that we must teach our history to each generation. Never has that instruction been so important.

About the Author
Andy Schatz, a retired attorney, has been a synagogue president and chair of social action, a director and officer of a Jewish community foundation, is currently active in J Street and serves as a member of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism, which recommends policies for the movement that represents as many as two million Americans. He has also served as president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Connecticut and on the national ACLU board and executive committee. The views expressed here are personal and not the views of any organization.
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