The US State Department stands opposed to the kind of critical thinking exemplified by Edward Said with its new formal definition of anti-Semitism.
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Prefatory Note by the author: This post consists of my written text for a public presentation on the theme of “Edward Said’s Humanism and the Rejection of the State Department’s Definition of Anti-Semitism” at a conference at Fresno State University, Nov. 6, 2015, bearing the title “Universities at the Crossroads: The Assault on Academic Freedom,” which was the last event of the “Edward Said Lecture Series” organized by Professor Vida Samiian of the Department of Linguistics at FSU. My talk as given departed considerably from this text.
In these remarks, I will present the following analysis: (1) the most ardent Zionist forces have longed tried to conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with hatred of Jews, the traditional understanding of anti-Semitism, but this effort has intensified recently, and even has been endorsed by the US Government and is currently under consideration by the University of California and elsewhere; (2) examine the definition of anti-Semitism adopted by the U.S. State Department, and discuss briefly why it has pernicious implications for academic freedom, and indeed even for an understanding of the genuine nature of anti-Semitism; (3) show why Edward Said despite his intense opposition to anti-Semitism would nevertheless be vulnerable to allegations of being an anti-Semite if the State Department definition were to be applied to his writings and activities; (4) and finally to point out that according to the imperatives most influentially expressed by Noam Chomsky and Said, the ‘responsibility of the intellectual’ would perversely require them to be ‘anti-Semitic’ according to this pernicious wider conception.
My personal experience with this theme of anti-Semitism and Israel can be summarized by recalling two different occasions: The first was in Greek Cyprus more than a decade ago at a meeting of the Inter-Action Council (composed of ex-heads of states) devoted to conflict resolution in the Middle East. I had been invited as a resource person. At a session devoted to Israel/Palestine the Israeli ambassador to Greece spoke at some length, insisting that it was anti-Semitic to express strong criticisms of Israel and Zionism. As the only other Jew at the table, I felt it to be almost a duty to clarify what I believed to be a mischievous manipulation of ideas. In my intervention, I explained that Zionism was a project or ideology, Israel was a state, and that Jews were a people or persons. I attempted to explain that to disagree with Zionism or to criticize Israeli policies and practices as a state was not at all anti-Semitic, but to exhibit hostility, hatred, and discrimination against Jews as a people or as individuals was indeed anti-Semitism. Recall that Hitler did not persecute Jews for being Zionists, but for being Jews, for partaking of a race or ethnicity.
After the meeting recessed, several participants thanked me for my comments, indicating that only a Jew could offer this kind of clarification, which they found persuasive. In contrast, the Israeli ambassador and his NGO sidekick came to me to complain vigorously, insisting that Zionism had become synonymous with Jewish identity through the establishment of Israel as a state of the Jewish people, making the three ideas interchangeable. In effect, their separation was now deemed deeply hostile to the Jewish experience, and was properly viewed as ‘anti-Semitism’; I walked away unconvinced, yet disturbed by the encounter.
This trivial incident still seems relevant as it illustrates what I believe has been an effective effort by unconditional Israel supporters to stifle criticism of Israel by inappropriately playing such an anti-Semitic card. It is inappropriate as it merges what might be called genuine hate speech with an attempt to intimidate freedom of expression in a domain where it seems needed, that is, in justifiable questioning of Israel’s state behavior and the colonial nature of the Zionist project as it is playing out in the 21st century. It is a doubly unfortunate and dangerous tactic as it tends to weaken and confuse opposition to real anti-Semitism by this misleading linkage of a contentious political argument with a condemnation of racism.
My second experience was to receive an email a couple of years ago informing me that the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, a non-governmental organization devoted to unconditional support of Israel, had issued its annual list of the ten most dangerous anti-Semites in the world, and that I was listed as third. I found it quite astounding, especially after discovering that #1 was the Supreme Guide of Iran and #2 was the then Prime Minister of Turkey. Others on the list included such notable authors as Alice Walker and Max Blumenthal.
It was obvious that I was placed on the list as a consequence of my role as UN Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine in the period between 2008 and 2014. In the fulfillment of this role, I had indeed written very critically from the perspective of human rights and international law about the manner in which Israel was administering the occupation, which involved elements of annexation, ethnic cleansing, and apartheid. But nothing in my reports directly or indirectly exhibited hatred or hostility toward the Jewish people or toward Jews as Jews.
My prominence on the Wiesenthal list at first troubled me deeply, fearing that it would damage my credibility as well as be a painful and unjustified attack on my identity that would be humiliating and probably ineffective to oppose. I never overcame these feelings, but they became somewhat balanced by my realization that highlighting my name in this way could only be explained by the degree to which my UN reports were exerting some influence on the way in which the Israel-Palestine conflict was being more generally perceived, especially within UN circles. I continue to feel a certain pride in bearing witness as best I could to the realities under law of Israel’s occupation policies, and the extent to which prolonged Palestinian suffering has been the result.
These personal experiences relate to the current debate nationally, internationally, and here in California. The essential argument is that Jews in Europe feel threatened by what they describe as a new wave of anti-Semitism, which is deliberately linked to the rise of anti-Israeli activism, and was dramatized by several recent terrorist incidents, especially the 2014 attack on the French magazine Charlie Hebdo. The European migration crisis is undoubtedly giving rise in Europe to a strengthening of the political right extreme, including its neo-Nazi fringe that does express real anti-Semitic hatred, but it is far less virulent in its racism toward Jews than toward Muslims. One problem with this focus on anti-Semitism is to treat Jews as accorded extra protection while at the same time immunizing hostility to Islam by reference to freedom of expression. There is no doubt that Charlie Hebdo, while victimized for its opinions, was disseminating toward Muslims the kind of hate images and messages that if directed at Jews would be regarded by almost everyone as anti-Semitism, including myself.
It is somewhat understandable that Europe would be sensitive to any return of anti-Semitism, given that it was both the scene of the Holocaust, the historic center of anti-Semitism, and in many ways provided the historic vindication of the Zionist movement. We should not forget that the international validation of the Zionist quest for a Jewish homeland received its first formal encouragement in the notoriously colonialist letter written by the British Foreign Secretary, Lord Alfred Balfour, in 1917. As well, during the 1930s, prior to Hitler’s adoption of the Final Solution, the preferred solution of the so-called Jewish Problem in Europe was mounting widespread pressure on Jews to emigrate to Palestine or even to face forced expulsion, and this was not solely a consequence of Nazi policies.
Timothy Snyder in his important recent book, Black Death, documents the extent to which Polish anti-Semitic political leaders collaborated with Zionist leaders, including even providing military training and weapons that developed the Zionist militias that later challenged the British mandatory presence in Palestine and then successfully waged a war of independence. In effect, many European anti-Semites, who were prominent throughout the continent, shared with the Zionist leadership the belief that the way to solve ‘the Jewish problem’ was to support the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine, and in keeping with the prevailing colonial mentality gave little thought to the impact of such a development on the indigenous Arab population of Palestine.
The contemporary American argument and debate has less historical baggage compared to Europe and is more subtle, mainly focused on campus activity and is a reflection to some extent of the U.S. government’s ‘special relationship’ with Israel. It is evident that Israeli officials definitely project the view that hostility to Israel or Zionism is indistinguishable from what the State Department calls ‘traditional anti-Semitism,’ that is, hatred or persecution of Jews because of their ethnicity. What is most troublesome in the State Department approach is its incorporation of what it calls ‘new anti-Semitism,’ which “manifests itself in the guise of opposition to Zionism and the existence and/or policies of the state of Israel.” [Contemporary Anti-Semitism: A Report Provided to the U.S. Congress, U.S. Department of State, n.d.; See also fact sheet of U.S. Dept of State, June 8, 2010, on defining anti-Semitism.] This “new anti-Semitism, characterized by anti-Zionist and anti-Israel criticism that is anti-Semitic in effect—whether or not in intent—[and] is more subtle and thus frequently escapes condemnation.”
As many of you know, the Board of Regents of the University of California is currently considering whether to adopt such a conception of anti-Semitism as official university policy. The principal arguments advanced in its favor are that pro-Palestinian student activism, especially around calls for boycotts and divestments, are making Jewish students feel uncomfortable, even under threat, with the further implication that such insecurity should not be present in any academic community. This rationale skirts the issue that the BDS campaign has been gaining significant traction in recent years, and this effort to brand the activist dimension of solidarity with the Palestinian struggle as anti-Semitic is motivated by a major multi-pronged Israeli effort to weaken BDS by having those who support such an unacceptable campaign as guilty of ‘anti-Semitism.’
Such developments go back to my experience in Cyprus, and reflect this determined effort to meet the rise of Palestinian solidarity efforts with its suppression being justified as opposition to the new anti-Semitism. [See also to the same effect, Michael Oren’s Ally, which depicts Israel’s former ambassador to the U.S. making an effort to render unacceptable any public utterance of criticism of Israel.] Note the features of this negative branding: only the sensitivities of Jews are singled out despite the far greater discomfort confronting Muslim minority students and others on campuses and throughout America; the initiative is overtly designed to weaken popular support for a just and sustainable peace in Palestine given the collapse of diplomatic efforts to produce the two-state solution; the BDS campaign is being challenged in ways that never occurred during earlier comparable campaigns, especially in the American civil rights movement and the BDS movement contra South African apartheid, both of which relied on boycott and divestment tactics.
Part of the context that is rarely mentioned in debating the scope of anti-Semitism is the degree to which this surge of pro-Palestinian nonviolent militancy is in reaction to two developments: Israel’s reliance on excessive force, collective punishment, and persistence with such unlawful activities as settlement expansion and the completion of the separation wall.
It is in this atmosphere of endowing anti-Semitic smearing with respectability that outrages to academic freedom such as the revocation of a tenure contract issued to Steven Salaita by the University of Illinois was revoked because of some allegedly anti-Semitic tweets written during Israel’s 2014 attack on Gaza that would make his students uncomfortable. In fact, Salaita possesses an outstanding performance record in the classroom; his teaching is greatly appreciated by his students, including those who were Jewish and pro-Israeli.
Undoubtedly more serious than high profile cases are the invisible effects of this inflammatory and aggressive use of anti-Semitism, exhibited by the reluctance to hire or promote individuals who have engaged in Palestinian solidarity activity or even to invite speakers that would be attacked as bringing an anti-Semite onto campus. Again my experience is relevant. During the six years that I held the UN position, everywhere I went to speak, including at my former university, Princeton, or in foreign settings as remote as Beirut or Sydney, Australia concerted campaigns were conducted by Zionist groups to persuade university administration to cancel my lectures. The claim being made was that I should not be allowed to speak because I was a notorious anti-Semite. These efforts were backed up by threats to withhold contributions to the university if the event went ahead as scheduled. These efforts failed, and my talks went given without incident, but what the campaign did accomplish was to shift media and audience attention from the substance of my presentation to the utterly false issue of whether or not I was an anti-Semite, which of course, required me to deal with accusations that were hurtful as well as false.
It is against this background that I wanted to mention Edward Said’s humanism, which in the context of this State Department approach, would clearly qualify as an unacceptable, if disguised, form of the ‘new anti-Semitism.’ As many of you know Edward Said was the most passionate and influential voice of the Palestinian people, and indeed of people worldwide seeking liberation. His books Orientalism and Culture and Imperialism continue to be read all over the world more than a decade after his death. I was privileged to have Edward Said as a close and cherished friend who over the years nurtured my interest in and engagement with the Israel/Palestine conflict, and whose remarkable life remains an inspiration to many of us. His views are peculiarly relevant to the theme chosen for my remarks as he was both a fierce opponent of the old anti-Semitism and an exemplary exponent of the new anti-Semitism, which as I am mainly arguing should not be considered anti-Semitism at all, and these attempts to discredit criticisms of Israel and Zionism should themselves be discredited, especially in view of recent behavior.
As his colleague and close friend at Columbia University, Akeel Bilgrami, an Indian professor of comparative literature observed, Said “despised anti-Semitism as much anyone I know.” [Kilgrami, Secularism, Identity, and Enchantment (Ranikhet, India: Permanent Black, 2014).] Humanism was the only –ism with which Said was comfortable. His circle of identification embraced the human species, although rooted in the particularity of his Palestinian background. His academic training, publications, and career were situated firmly in literature until awakened by the 1967 Six Day War to take up the Palestinian struggle in a dedicated manner for the rest of his life.
Said’s writing on Palestine was always informed by fact and shaped by his deep grasp of history and culture, initially in his important The Question of Palestine. What is striking about Said’s approach, despite his anger about the refusal of the world to appreciate and correct the terrible injustices done to the Palestinian people in the course of establishing the Israeli state, is his steadfast appreciation that Zionism did what it did beneath the shadow of Nazi persecution, especially culminating in the Holocaust. In other words, his sense of the conflict with Israel is conceived in inclusive terms as pertaining to Jews as well as Palestinians. In his words, “I have spent a great deal of my life during the past thirty-five years advocating the rights of the Palestinian people to national self-determination, but I have always tried to do that with full attention to the reality of the Jewish people, and what they suffered by way persecution and genocide.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) He never endorsed a solution to the struggle that was not sensitive to both Palestinians and Jews, and in a sense his approach embodied a principled rejection of the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were intent on pushing the Jews into the sea.
While insisting that Jews must never experience in Israel the sort of dispossession inflicted upon the Palestinian people by the Zionist project, Said was unrelenting in linking a sustainable peace to acknowledging the justices of the past. As he expressed it to Ari Shavit in one of his last interviews, “[U]ntil the time comes when Israel assumes moral responsibility for what it has done to the Palestinian people, there can be no end to the conflict.” He goes on to add, “[W]hat is needed is a ‘bill of particulars’ of all our claims against Israel for the original dispossession and for the occupation that began in 1967 [Power, Politics, and Culture, 446] In effect, the injustices of the past can be superseded but only if they are acknowledged in an appropriate format with due solemnity. On at least one occasion Said seems to suggest a truth and reconciliation process modeled on what was done in South Africa after the fall of apartheid.
Said central contribution of developing a critique of West-centric views of the Arab world are most influentially set forth in Orientalism, one of the most widely studied and seminal books of the past century. Among many other facets of the analysis in the book it led Said to offer this surprising convergence: “Not accidentally, I indicate that Orientalism and modern anti-Semitism have common roots.” (Orientalism, XXVIII) This convergence is explained by the dual effort to achieve “a better understanding of the way cultural domination have operated.” (Orientalism 27).
At the same time, Said felt that Zionist exclusivism sought to keep the issue as one of what Jews had endured in the Holocaust as a sufficient vindication of Zionism and the creation of Israel, with the adverse effects on the Palestinians as self-inflicted or irrelevant to this hegemonic Israeli narrative. Said writes that “all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.” [Question, 59] Long before the present debate he believed that such an informal tactic prevented truthful conversation as non-Jews were inhibited by “the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.”  Writing in the late 1970s Said felt that criticism of Israel was often insensitive to the background of its establishment as a last bastion of defense for the Jewish people after the ordeal of the Holocaust.
Almost 40 years later the context has altered, but not the effect of treating anti-Zionism as anti-Semitism. Because of the failure to establish some kind of solution, and given Israeli defiance of international law through the settlements, separation wall, reliance on excessive force and collective punishment, the issue has captured the imagination of many people around the world, especially students, to become the leading unresolved moral struggle of our time, a successor to the South African struggle against apartheid a generation earlier, as acknowledged by Nelson Mandela and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Now the government itself intrudes its influence on American society to make sure that the extended definition of anti-Semitism as incorporating strong criticism of Israel and Zionism is treated as hate speech. This is not only threatening freedom of expression and academic freedom, it is undermining the capacity of American citizens to fight nonviolently for what they believe is right in the world.
When the government adopts punitive measures to discourage the BDS campaign or even academic conferences addressing the conflict, it is behaving in a profoundly anti-democratic manner. Such behavior follows directly from the understanding given to the ‘special relationship’ binding Israel to the United States in a manner that often contradicts proclaimed national values and even national interests. Our Secretary of State, John Kerry, boasts of the hundreds of occasions where the U.S. has blocked votes critical of Israel within the UN without even bothering to consider whether any of such initiatives were justified or not.
Let me finally raise the questions as to why this debate about what is and what is not anti-Semitism relates to the responsibility of the intellectual as understood, especially by Edward Said and Noam Chomsky. In his 2003 Preface to Orientalism Said writes these telling words: “Above all, critical thought does not submit to state power or to commands to join in the ranks marching against one or another approved enemy.” [XXII] Frequently, Said reinforces the role of the intellectual to remain on the margins, an outsider, whose only weapon is bearing witness and truth-telling, a role authenticated by the absence of any claim to have expert knowledge, more a standing in solidarity with those being victimized by oppression and injustice, a normative posture that rests on moral and legal foundations of respect for the value of all persons and peoples. Said’s succinct expression is memorable. He characterizes the public intellectual “as exile and marginal, as amateur, and as the author of a language that tries to speak truth to power.” [Representations of the Intellectual, XVI]
The irony of this orientation of the intellectual is that it collides directly with the State Department conception of the new anti-Semitism. In other words, to avoid the blanket charge of anti-Semitism as now officially defined Said would have to renounce his chosen identity as a public intellectual. This would weaken the quality of academic freedom as well as undermine public discourse. No resource of higher education is more precious, in my judgment, than the presence of those all too few public intellectuals who challenge the prevailing wisdom of the society on the basis of conscience and truthfulness. It is the foundation of vigilant citizenship, already recognized by Thomas Jefferson as indispensable for sustaining democracy, and it is also the basis for challenging vested interests and mistaken policies. This role of public intellectuals is threatened by this assault on freedom of expression wrapped up in a false effort to discourage anti-Semitism, and it relates to such broader concerns as the stifling of political discourse due to the corporatization of the media and higher education.
On no issue is this unfettered dialogue more needed in the United States than in relation to Israel/Palestine. As Michael Oren showed in his memoir Ally, the special relationship bonding Israel and the United States implies the absence of any public acknowledgement of policy disagreements and a policy of unconditional support. Israel did its bit to uphold its end of this unseemly bargain recently by being the only country of 194 in the UN that supported the United States determination to maintain sanctions on Cuba despite the Obama renewal of diplomatic relations. After all, American taxpayers have long sent annually billions of dollars to Israel, as well as a range of weapons and munitions. They are entitled to know if this money is being spent in a manner that accords with international law and American national interests. The overriding of Israel’s objections to the Iran Nuclear Agreement illustrated the extent to which Israel can challenge vital policy initiatives undertaken by the elected leaders of the American government.
Never have we more needed to protect and celebrate our public intellectuals, and never more so than in the context of Israel/Palestine. For this reason we should be celebrating the legacy of Edward Said, a world famous public intellectual, and the person, who more than anyone on the planet fulfilled the role of responsible public intellectual. Instead of defending him against these incendiary charges of anti-Semitism we should be honoring his memory by studying his ideas and enacting the values of resistance and struggle that he commends in the face of injustice.
In concluding, there is an obvious tension that exists more vividly than when Edward Said was alive, and commenting on the Palestinian struggle. Israel has created on the ground a set of circumstances that seem irreversible and are institutionalizing a single apartheid Israeli state encompassing the whole of historic Palestine (minus Jordan). The Israeli leadership has made clear the inappropriateness of establishing a Palestinian state, and given the insistence on making even the Palestinians acknowledge Israel as ‘a Jewish state,’ the dye seems cast. At the same time, the international Palestinian solidarity movement has never been stronger, with the BDS campaign leading the way, moving from success to success. And so as ‘the battlefield’ has shifted to a legitimacy war that the Palestinians are winning, the Israeli tactics have retaliated with an all-out effort to demonize as anti-Semitism these new forms of non-violent resistance.
This is the essential objective of the new anti-Semitism, and it is scandalous the U.S. State Department has endorsed such demonization with its newly adopted formal definition of anti-Semitism. To defeat this effort is essential not only for the Palestinian struggle, but to keep America safe for democratic discourse and universities hospitable to the kind of critical thinking that Edward Said’s scholarship and activism exemplified.