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NYT editorial on Trump executive order illustrates equivocations of liberal Zionism

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The New York Times coverage of Israel and Palestine has long illustrated the equivocations of liberal Zionism. On the one hand, a mild wipe of the eye about some particularly shameful acts of Israeli brutality towards Palestinians; on the other, repeatedly mischaracterizing as antisemitic Boycott Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS), the global movement to hold Israel accountable for these and other human rights violations. This week’s Times editorial, “Trump’s Executive Order and the Rise of Anti-Semitism” (12/11/19), is a perfect example of its on-the-one hand-and-on-the-other approach to all stories touching on Palestine and Israel.

The Times rightly notes that the Executive Order’s attempt to silence the BDS campaign to boycott Israel threatens free speech rights. Of course, it’s a position that has been taken by editors, civil libertarians, and Jewish leaders across the country, so the Times hardly went out on a limb. Still, it’s useful to have the “newspaper of record” say that censorship of BDS advocacy violates the First Amendment.

But then, there’s the other hand: comments that, if they don’t exactly make the case for censorship of BDS advocacy, at least express sympathy for those who advocate for such censorship.  For example, the editorial says that “B.D.S. has helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students, most of whom support Israel.” The support cited for that assertion is an alleged incident at Emory University when “students with mezuzot on their door posts were served with mock eviction notices.” The story then links to a report of the Anti-Defamation League. Both the editorial and the ADL imply that Jewish students were singled out for the notices.

The ADL’s longstanding hostility to BDS and Palestinian rights are no secret, and the Times should have been skeptical of the link. Even modest skepticism and a minimum of digging would have led the Times to an Emory investigation which concluded that there was “no evidence that individual students or a particular group were targeted.” Further, the mock eviction notices—which stated clearly at the bottom that they were not real—simply highlighted Israel’s ongoing abuses toward the Palestinian people. Nothing slightly anti-Semitic about that even if some students who were Jewish didn’t like it.

“According to the Times, such incidents are frightening.” But no others are mentioned, and those commonly cited by opponents of BDS – such as a similar mock eviction at NYU – have proved to be as baseless as Emory’s.

But even without these supposed anti-Jewish incidents, pro-BDS speech, according to the Times, “makes some Jews feel unsafe, especially those who feel that Zionism is intrinsic to Jewish identity.” That does sound regrettable –  speech that makes people feel unsafe – especially in these days when women, queer people, and people of color, among others, have good reason to feel unsafe on campuses that welcome speakers spouting white supremacist, misogynist hatred. But there is no good reason that BDS advocacy should make Jews feel unsafe, and if they believe that Jewishness and Zionism are inseparable, then the Times might refer them to their own columnists (Michelle Goldberg, Michelle Alexander) to understand the fallacy of such a belief.

Then the Times says that there are those who worry because there are allegedly “critics of Israel [who] too often blame all Jews for the actions of the Jewish state halfway around the world.” That is a strange worry given Israel’s insistence on representing all the world’s Jews.

Finally, the Times notes that some students – presumably Jewish – who oppose “Israeli actions…find themselves unwelcome as allies, because of hostility toward the Jewish state.” If there is any logic to that statement, it’s the implication that those who aren’t Jewish and are critical of Israel’s actions do not welcome Jews as allies in their cause. But that’s, of course, nonsense. There are Jewish members of Students for Justice in Palestine on campuses across the country, and on scores of campuses, SJP chapters work hand-in-glove with campus chapters of Jewish Voice for Peace.

Some on the left have praised the Times editorial for its defense of free speech. But like so much else in what the Times says about Israel and Palestine, it gives with one hand what it takes away with the other.

Alan Levine

Alan Levine is a civil rights and constitutional lawyer, and a member of Jews Say No! and Jewish Voice for Peace—South FL.

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Donna Nevel

Donna Nevel, a community psychologist and educator, is a founding member of Jews Say No!, Facing the Nakba, and Jews Against Anti-Muslim Racism (JAAMR), and is a member of JVP-South FL.

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5 Responses

  1. James Canning on December 14, 2019, 8:19 am

    A number of those who support BDS see it as a way to help Israel end the occupation of the West Bank, which would be a good thing for Israel. NYT should make note of this fact.

  2. Misterioso on December 14, 2019, 9:36 am

    “For example, the editorial says that ‘B.D.S. has helped to create a hostile environment for Jewish students, most of whom support Israel.’”

    Oh, boohoo!! These poor Zionist propagandized American Jewish students experience a “hostile environment” when confronted with the ugly thoroughly documented reality of “Israel’s” illegal and brutal 71 year occupation, dispossession and expulsion of the indigenous Palestinians from their ancient homeland, i.e., including their ancestors, a presence of at least 15,000 continuous years. They live in a fantasy world and despite the overwhelming evidence, are unable or refuse to see the monstrous entity Zionism has created between the River and the Sea. So be it!! Common sense tells us that Zionism will inevitably be a curse upon them.

  3. Misterioso on December 14, 2019, 9:44 am

    From the LA Times:

    “Editorial: Trump’s campus anti-Semitism order could undermine free speech”

    “Anti-Semitism is pernicious and dangerous wherever it appears, including on college campuses. It’s appropriate for the federal government to investigate and if necessary penalize federally aided colleges and universities that fail to protect Jewish students from harassment or discrimination.

    “But an executive order signed by President Trump on Wednesday, supposedly to further that goal, includes language that is far too broad and could end up undermining free speech on campus, a cause to which the president also has committed his administration.

    “We have no quarrel with the thrust of Trump’s executive order, which is that the federal government should make use of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act to monitor anti-Semitic incidents on college campuses.

    “Title VI explicitly prohibits discrimination on the basis of ‘race, color or national origin’ in programs that receive federal funding, but it doesn’t mention religion. Nevertheless, the federal government has interpreted Title VI as empowering it to investigate discrimination against members of groups that can be defined by religion as well as ethnicity. As the Department of Education’s Office of Civil Rights notes on its website: ‘Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, and Sikh students are examples of individuals who may be harassed for being viewed as part of a group that exhibits both ethnic and religious characteristics.’

    “So there is nothing sinister about Trump suggesting that Title VI can be used to investigate acts of anti-Semitism on college campuses. But his order is troubling for a different reason. It directs federal agencies in monitoring discrimination on college campuses to ‘consider’ a definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

    “That statement, which also has been endorsed by the U.S. State Department, accurately defines anti-Semitism as ‘a hatred toward Jews.’ But then it provides ‘contemporary examples of anti-Semitism’ — also mentioned by the White House — that blur the distinction between hatred of Jews and criticism of the State of Israel. It includes as examples of anti-Semitism: ‘Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor’ and ‘Applying double standards by requiring of [Israel] a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.’

    “Harsh criticism of Israel — even if it involves questioning the existence of a Jewish state — is speech protected by the 1st Amendment. It should also be permitted by private colleges that receive federal funds. Students have a right to be protected from harassment and discrimination, but they don’t need to be shielded from opinions they find objectionable or offensive.

    “Earlier this year, Trump issued an executive order designed to protect free speech on college campuses. In remarks at the time, the president said: ‘Universities that want taxpayer dollars should promote free speech, not silence free speech.’ If Trump were serious about protecting free speech on campus, he wouldn’t be signing a directive that could be used to undermine that right.”

  4. Elizabeth Block on December 14, 2019, 1:12 pm

    I just wrote this to the NY Times. Think they’ll print it?

    The Israeli government, with the support of Donald Trump and Zionists, wants to criminalize non-violent protest against Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

    I am an anti-Zionist Jew. I don’t support violent protest, though I can understand it, as the New York Times can understand those who want to make it against the law to support the non-violent Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions (BDS) movement.

    Palestinians and their supporters are trying, in the words of the Declaration of Independence, to “let Facts be submitted to a candid world.” It appears that when they do so on campuses, they make some Jewish students (presumably the Zionists) uncomfortable. I’m glad. It should make them uncomfortable. It shows that their consciences are still alive.

  5. Misterioso on December 14, 2019, 3:01 pm

    Exposing the ignorance of Trump and his toady son in law, Jared Kushner:

    The Guardian 13 Dec 2019

    “I drafted the definition of antisemitism. Right wing Jews are weaponizing it. The ‘working definition of antisemitism’ was never intended to silence speech, but that’s what Trump’s executive order accomplished this week.’

    By Kenneth Stern

    “Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special adviser, wrote in the New York Times that the definition ‘makes clear [that] Anti-Zionism is antisemitism.’

    “Fifteen years ago, as the American Jewish Committee’s antisemitism expert, I was the lead drafter of what was then called the ‘working definition of antisemitism.’ It was created primarily so that European data collectors could know what to include and exclude. That way antisemitism could be monitored better over time and across borders.

    ‘It was never intended to be a campus hate speech code, but that’s what Donald Trump’s executive order accomplished this week. This order is an attack on academic freedom and free speech, and will harm not only pro-Palestinian advocates, but also Jewish students and faculty, and the academy itself.

    ‘The problem isn’t that the executive order affords protection to Jewish students under title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The Department of Education made clear in 2010 that Jews, Sikhs and Muslims (as ethnicities) could complain about intimidation, harassment and discrimination under this provision. I supported this clarification and filed a successful complaint for Jewish high school students when they were bullied, even kicked (there was a “Kick a Jew Day.”)

    “But starting in 2010, right wing Jewish groups took the ‘working definition,’ which had some examples about Israel (such as holding Jews collectively responsible for the actions of Israel, and denying Jews the right to self-determination), and decided to weaponize it with title VI
    cases. While some allegations were about acts, mostly they complained about speakers, assigned texts and protests they said violated the definition. All these cases lost, so then these same groups asked the University of California to adopt the definition and apply it to its campuses. When that failed, they asked Congress, and when those efforts stalled, the president.

    “As proponents of the executive order like the Zionist Organization of America make clear, they see the application of the definition as ‘cover[ing] many of the anti-Jewish outrages … frequently led by … Students for Justice in Palestine, including … calls for ‘intifada’ [and] demonizing Israel.’ As much as I disagree with SJP, it has the right to make ‘calls.’ That’s called free speech.

    ‘If you think this isn’t about suppressing political speech, contemplate a parallel. There’s no definition of anti-black racism that has the force of law when evaluating a title VI case. If you were to craft one, would you include opposition to affirmative action? Opposing removal of Confederate statues?

    “Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and special adviser, wrote in the New York Times that the definition ‘makes clear [that] Anti-Zionism is antisemitism.’ I’m a Zionist. But on a college campus, where the purpose is to explore ideas, anti-Zionists have a right to free expression. I suspect that if Kushner or I had been born into a Palestinian family displaced in
    1948, we might have a different view of Zionism, and that need not be because we vilify Jews or think they conspire to harm humanity. Further, there’s a debate inside the Jewish community whether being Jewish requires one to be a Zionist. I don’t know if this question can be resolved, but it should frighten all Jews that the government is essentially defining the answer for us.

    “The real purpose of the executive order isn’t to tip the scales in a few title VI cases, but rather the chilling effect. ZOA and other groups will hunt political speech with which they disagree, and threaten to bring legal cases. I’m worried administrators will now have a strong motivation to suppress, or at least condemn, political speech for fear of litigation. I’m worried that faculty, who can just as easily teach about Jewish life in 19th-century Poland or about modern Israel, will probably choose the former as safer. I’m worried that pro-Israel Jewish students and groups, who rightly complain when an occasional pro-Israel speaker is heckled, will get
    the reputation for using instruments of state to suppress their political opponents.

    “Antisemitism is a real issue, but too often people, both on the political right and political left, give it a pass if a person has the ‘right’ view on Israel. Historically, antisemitism thrives best when leaders stoke the human capacity to define an ‘us’ and a ‘them,’ and where the integrity of democratic institutions and norms (such as free speech) are under assault.

    “Rather than champion the chilling of expressions that pro-Israel Jews find disturbing, or give the mildest criticism (if any) of a president who repeatedly uses antisemitic tropes, why weren’t those Jewish officials who were present when Trump signed the executive order reminding him that last year, when he demonized immigrants and called them ‘invaders,’ Robert Bowers walked into a Pittsburgh synagogue because he believed Jews were behind this “invasion” of brown people as part of a plot to harm white people, and killed 11 of us?”
    Kenneth Stern is the director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate,
    and the author of the forthcoming “The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate.”

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