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The new anti-Israel normal on campus is corrosive

The debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has moved from unfair to sickening

Against a backdrop of intimidation and ugliness that increasingly sullies academia when it comes to discussions of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Harvard Law School was treated on April 14 to an illustration of just how bad things have gotten. At a discussion on the conflict featuring American diplomat Dennis Ross and former Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni, a third year law student and a member of Students for Justice in Palestine at Harvard rose to ask Livni: “How is it that you are so smelly?…A question about the odor of Tzipi Livni, she’s very smelly, and I was just wondering.”

The stereotype that Jews are “dirty” and “smell” is an old anti-Semitic line that was perfected by the Nazis. It is as if a Harvard Law student wore a Ku Klux Klansman’s white sheets into a classroom, and it should have been treated by the entire Harvard community exactly that way. That it wasn’t speaks volumes about the way anti-Semitism posing as questioning Israeli policies has become mainstream on American campuses.

Harvard Law Dean Martha Minow’s condemnation of the student’s “question,” however, was justly praised.

“It was an embarrassment to this institution,” Minow said. “This is a moment for each of us to pause, and perhaps ask, ‘Who am I?’ — and, more importantly, ‘What kind of person do I wish to be?’”

The student, who has generally been permitted to remain anonymous and avoid the public shaming due him, issued a disingenuous statement allowing that he supposes he can imagine how his words could have been “misinterpreted.” “I want to be very clear that it was not my intention to invoke a hateful stereotype,” he said.

Really? In that case what, precisely, was he doing? He has not said, leaving observers to scratch their heads puzzling over which word describes him better: bigot or liar.

The gross, anti-Semitic slur directed at a respected Israeli leader at Harvard coincided in depressing fashion with some unsurprising congressional testimony last week about the individuals responsible for promoting and funding anti-Israel activities on American campuses. The Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Jonathan Schanzer, a former terrorism finance analyst for the Treasury Department, detailed the way former employees of organizations prosecuted, sued or shut down for financing the terrorist enterprise Hamas have simply moved over to the Boycott, Divest and Sanctions (BDS) movement targeting Israel in academia.

“In the case of three organizations that were designated, shut down or held civilly liable for providing material support to the terrorist organization Hamas,” Schanzer told Congress, “a significant contingent of their former leadership appears to have pivoted to leadership positions within the American BDS campaign.”

The Holy Land Foundation, the Islamic Society for Palestine and — with a name that would have cheered George Orwell — Kind Hearts for Charitable Development each had prominent members jailed or deported. But many of their high and mid-level employees have transitioned to an organization called American Muslims for Palestine, which according to Schanzer, is “the leading driver of the BDS campaign.”

The group pours tens of thousands of dollars into the funding of anti-Israel activities on campuses, providing speakers, anti-Israel leaflets and, of course, “Apartheid Walls” intended to suggest that Israel erected a security fence not because of the wave of Palestinian bombings that were blowing Israeli civilians to pieces, but just for the heck of it.

The move from funding Hamas to BDS has hardly meant a dramatic career change for those involved. Hamas’ charter states that “our struggle against the Jews is very great and very serious,” and calls for Israel’s obliteration.

The debate over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has moved from unfair to sickening in certain quarters, and there is no point pretending otherwise. It will get worse unless those responsible are held to 
account by the rest of us.

Originally published in the Boston Herald.

About the Author
Jeff Robbins, a former United States Delegate to the United Nations Human Rights Commission in the Clinton Administration, is an attorney in Boston, Massachusetts
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