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UC Zionism: A self-pity party

Self-pitying appeals to power, and a failure to draw a distinction between unfair criticism and all-out Jew hatred, undermines the credibility of those who would speak for Israel on campus

Last week a petition came across my desk from the pro-Israel group StandWithUs. This petition calls on the University of California  (UC) President’s Advisory Council on Campus Climate to endorse a July 9, 2012, report titled “University of California Jewish Student Campus Climate Fact Finding Team Report and Recommendation.” The report concludes that Zionist Jews on the various UC campuses have been  subjected to harassment, intimidation and anti-Semitism due to the “imagery and language” used by pro-Palestinian groups during on-campus protests and speeches that are critical of Israel. One of the recommendations of the report is for UC to adopt a hate speech-free campus policy and to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that includes some manifestations of anti-Israel speech.

I signed the petition, admittedly rather hastily, and now I am regretting that decision in full. After reading the petition in its entirety, it is now clear to me that the Zionists of UC have taken the easy and cowardly way out by attempting to stifle anti-Israel speech on campus through administrative fiat. Debate is not a pain-free exercise, especially when it deals with the life-and-death issues surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The sooner these young Zionist activists learn that the better. While of course no student should feel physically threatened (and as the report states, no students “indicated feeling unsafe on UC campuses”), it is not the administration’s duty to protect students from feelings of discomfort and hurt induced by arguments, opinions or “facts” with which they disagree.

I call on the Zionist activists and Israel supporters on UC campuses to show some grit and confront their opponents face to face — with the truth as their sword — as opposed to hiding behind legal mechanisms and emotional appeals to authority. Their faith should be in the notion that the truth will emerge from the marketplace of ideas, and that speech should  be countered with more speech. This is one of the core ideals of the First Amendment and of academic freedom.

Israel Apartheid Week activists at the University of Texas, Austin (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)
Israel Apartheid Week activists at the University of Texas, Austin (photo credit: CC BY monad68, Flickr)

The war for Israel’s legitimacy has many fronts, and university campuses are one of the the most important battlegrounds. It is here where opinions are shaped and minds won over. We need impassioned and fearless recruits who are prepared for the most rigorous of debates and zealous advocacy. If there is an “anti-Zionism week” fully equipped with mock checkpoints, an “apartheid wall,” and accusations of genocide and ethnic cleansing, then the response should be equally aggressive. Tactics could include a mock terrorist massacre that would have taken place but for the anti-terrorism fence; a mock missile attack on Sderot that would help explain the legal embargo of Gaza; the repetitive airing of television clips of Hamas children’s cartoons praising jihad and the killing of Jews; or the videos of sheikhs and imams calling for the same during Friday prayer. In these perilous times, Zionists can no longer afford to bring a knife to a gun fight.

Another troubling aspect of the report and the petitioners’ strategy is that by conflating anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism, our collective credibility is undermined when real cases of anti-Semitism do arise. The sky can’t always be falling. It is important for Zionists not to overuse the allegation of anti-Semitism or exploit it to suppress speech that is hate directed at something we love (Israel) rather than hate directed at who we are (Jews). A failure to make this distinction allows our opponents to mischaracterize us as silencers of debate and honest inquiry, the implication being our inability to form a coherent counter-argument. Moreover, many of the pro-Palestinian protesters are themselves Jews (some even identify as Zionists), making the accusation in this case all the more ridiculous.

It’s gut-check time for pro-Israel activists at UC.

About the Author
Nicholas Saidel is Associate Director of the Institute for Strategic Threat Analysis & Response (ISTAR) at the University of Pennsylvania