Divesting in Israel

Anti-Semitism unleashed?

October 18, 2002|By Steven Lubet

CHICAGO -- It would be foolish to suggest that all criticism of Israel is motivated by anti-Semitism, but it would be irresponsible to believe that none of it is.

Consider the continued insistence of New Jersey poet Amiri Baraka that "4,000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers" were told to stay home the day that the World Trade Center was attacked.

Mr. Baraka carries on the ancient tradition of blaming Jews for all types of disasters, from plagues to poisonings, in this case repeating a canard that was first issued by a Lebanese radio station. It is flatly a lie, but it is not merely a lie. In fact, it is a malignant new myth, linking classic anti-Jewish slanders with contemporary anti-Israel politics.

While one might dismiss Mr. Baraka as a disingenuous crank, it is harder to ignore the actions of left-wing, pro-Palestinian militants on college campuses.

At San Francisco State University in May, demonstrators assaulted a Jewish prayer minyan (gathered, in fact, to pray for peace in the Middle East), shouting, "Hitler didn't finish the job." Their officially recognized campus organization circulated a poster showing a dead baby with the words "Palestinian Baby Meat -- Slaughtered According to Jewish Rites."

At Montreal's Concordia University last month, pro-Palestinian demonstrators violently disrupted a scheduled speech by former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, smashing windows and punching attendees, while shouting "Kill the Zionists" and "Itbah al Yahud" [Kill the Jews].

For years, supporters of the Palestinian movement have attacked Jewish institutions -- including synagogues in France and Tunisia, a religious school in Belgium and a Jewish community center in Argentina -- that have no connection to Israeli policies other than the Jewish identity of the intended victims. In the same vein, anti-globalism demonstrators in Washington recently carried banners celebrating suicide bombers as "Martyrs not Murderers," even though the targets of the bombers were overwhelmingly Israeli civilians.

Blaming Israel, some say that the resurgence of anti-Semitism has been provoked. The more frightening likelihood is that it has been unleashed.

Then there are the considerably more complex actions that Lawrence Summers, president of Harvard University, calls "anti-Semitic in their effect" though not their intent. Speaking of the many writers and academics who are opposed to the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza, Mr. Summers agreed that there is "much in Israel's foreign and defense policy that can be and should be vigorously challenged."

Nonetheless, as Mr. Summers pointed out, some forms of opposition go beyond protest, edging into more questionable territory. One example is a European-promoted boycott of Israeli academic, research and intellectual institutions. Another is the demand for university "divestment," meaning the removal of all investment funds from companies doing business in Israel.

These are the tactics of delegitimization, aimed at isolating and destabilizing Israel. They are the sort of extreme measures previously taken only against a few outlaw regimes. A call for the radical isolation of Israel, alone among nations, is at the very least an indefensible double standard.

There are countries in the world with human rights records that might make Saddam Hussein flinch: at least 800,000 Tutsis were hacked to death in Rwanda, Christians are enslaved in Sudan, religious expression leads to jail in China, minority groups are ruthlessly suppressed across the former Soviet Union and the sexual exploitation of children is a major industry in Southeast Asia. Yet it is Israel -- struggling for survival -- that is uniquely threatened with the extraordinary sanctions of boycott and divestment.

Of course, this does not mean that the signers of the boycott and divestment petitions are motivated by anti-Semitism. Who could fail to be moved by the Palestinian tragedy? But many of the signers are willfully blind, for whatever reasons, to the discriminatory targeting of Israel.

Many Americans, myself included, believe that the Israeli occupation has resulted in a moral and political disaster. But we also recognize that the Palestinian leadership has consistently opted for violence rather than compromise, making a secure peace impossible. Advocates of boycott and divestment take a recklessly one-sided view of the situation, blaming Israel for all that has gone wrong.

They ignore, among other things, Yasser Arafat's rejection of the proposal made at Camp David in July 2000 by then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and then-President Bill Clinton that would have ended the occupation through negotiation. Worse, the boycott and divestment movements encourage the intransigents on both sides, placing a political solution ever further out of reach.

Sweeping accusations of anti-Semitism are unfair and self-defeating, tarring the well-intentioned along with the truly bigoted. But anti-Israel prejudice is a real and dangerous phenomenon, no matter what you call it.

Steven Lubet is a professor of law and comparative literary studies at Northwestern University.

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