Political Anti-Semitism Is Still Anti-Semitism. It's Time For San Diego State To Recognize That.

San Diego State University
San Diego State University

This Wednesday afternoon, students at San Diego State will debate and discuss the merits of a finalized student resolution condemning anti-Semitism. This week, Jewish students on campus will also be celebrating Passover — a holiday celebrating the Jewish people’s emancipation from slavery, a holiday which reminds Jews across the world of their peoplehood and humanity.

Some will call the timing an unfortunate accident, but others might call it concerning. Concerning because students will be debating a resolution that shouldn’t be controversial, especially since the goal of the resolution ― which was submitted earlier last month by members of the Jewish Student Union ― was not to politicize anti-Semitism, but to humanize the Jewish experience.

When you read the resolution, statements calling to condemn the “justifying or harming of Jews” or acknowledge that the “Jewish people like all peoples, have a collective right to self-determination,” should be unremarkable ― as unremarkable as someone who says Black Lives Matter or women’s rights are human rights. When Jewish students on campus assert their humanity, stating that they won’t accept contemporary anti-Semitism as a reality on campus, these assertions should be unremarkable.

But, at a time when white nationalist groups are openly recruiting on American college campuses, when world leaders peddle conspiracy theories and engage in latent anti-Semitism, when Jewish students are being harassed and intimidated for their connections to the Jewish state and when old anti-Semitic myths are regurgitated by those on the far-left and right ends of the political spectrum, these declarations of humanity become necessary, remarkable and radical.

However, in the weeks since it was introduced to student government, the resolution has been heavily edited, toned down and essentially neutered of all its potential power. Sections calling for student government to “respect the right of the organized Jewish community at SDSU to define, within the guidelines of national definition, what is or is not anti-Semitic” or to condemn “[accusations of] Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nation,” were effectively erased.

Even more so, while the resolution in its original form adopted the State Department’s definition of anti-Semitism, acknowledging that anti-Semitism — allegations of blood libel, global conspiracy and other demonizing historical anti-Semitic caricatures — can manifest in the form of demonizing and delegitimizing criticism of Israel, the resolution in its current form excludes any mention of the Jewish state. The exclusion of “Israel,” where a majority of global Jewry lives today, from the resolution reflects a dangerous ignorance regarding how contemporary anti-Semitism often manifests on college campuses today.

Critics of the resolution have made it clear that this is where they diverge: the State Department definition of anti-Semitism, which holds that anti-Semitism can manifest in the delegitimizing, demonizing and holding of double standards against the Jewish state. In a letter to the editor published in the school paper, Mustafa Alemi criticized the resolution for “wrongfully [conflating] criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.” He argued that the resolution would not only “stifle free speech” surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian debate, but also strip away students rights to “criticize Israel” and support the “burgeoning BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) movement.”

Here is where I agree with Alemi: criticism of Israel, similar to that leveled against other counties, is not anti-Semitic. The resolution, in its original form, acknowledged this and the State Department definition also explicitly states this: being a critic of Israel’s actions does not mean you are a Jew hater. Defense attorney, Kenneth S. Stern wrote in his book, “Antisemitism Today,” that “there is no antisemitism in honestly disapproving of a party, a program, a policy, or a political leader.”

This is a generally accepted fact within the Jewish establishment. Take the Anti-Defamation League, a civil rights organization (where, full disclosure, I’m currently interning) dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism and bigotry in the United States, who recently criticized the Israeli parliament’s measure legalizing West Bank settlements built on private Palestinian land. The ADL also simultaneously maintains that the State Department’s definition “includes illustrative examples” and “can be an important resource” to detect anti-Semitic criticism.

Stern argues that anti-Semitism today exists in three strains: religious, racial and political, all three forms which employ the same rhetoric and structure. Stern defines the criticism that demonizes and delegimitizes the Jewish state as “political anti-Semitism,” which he writes is the “most recent and least understood form of this prejudice.” Abba Eban, an Israeli diplomat, once said that with the establishment of the Jewish state, anti-Semitism has morphed and evolved over the years. Eban said, “all that has happened is that the discriminatory principle has been transferred from the realm of individual rights to the domain of collective identity.”

Political anti-Semitism is not so different from political racism. When President Barack Obama took office in 2009 as our first Black president, his approach to domestic and foreign policy invited criticism from figures both on the left and right. Was criticizing Obama’s proposed policies a racist act? Certainly not, however in the months that followed, critics of Obama’s policies started regurgitating old racist myths of black-on-white rape (which, historically, has lead to violent lynch mobs) within a new, contemporary context to demonize our country’s first Black president. When, in 2009, Rush Limbaugh said “we are being told that we have to [...] bend over, grab the ankles, bend over forward, backward, whichever, because his father was black, because this is the first black president,” he was not criticizing Obama, but rather espousing recycled, racist rhetoric. In 2010, racist criticism of Obama surfaced again when actor Jon Voight read a letter on FOX News arguing that “[Obama uses] a socialistic, Marxist teaching, and with it, he rapes this nation.”

Political anti-Semitism operates under the same dynamics. The controversial area that the resolution seeks to condemn with the inclusion of the State Department’s definition is political anti-Semitism, which could be condemned and combated through education efforts should student government decide to address the concerns of the Jewish Student Union. This isn’t an effort to stifle criticism of Israel on campus or define all criticism as anti-Semitic — which would, as Alemni noted, ironically label some Jewish students as anti-Semitic. It would encourage free speech by establishing standards for students to engage civilly in critical discussions surrounding sensitive issues such as Israel and Palestine.

Political anti-Semitism is employed through semantics, rhetoric and tone — all of which is used by the radical right and left to dehumanize and “otherize” Jewish lives. Political anti-Semitism is part and parcel to “the ideology of anti-Semitism,” which German philosopher and sociologist, Theodore Adorno defined as “stereotyped negative opinions describing the Jews as threatening, immoral, and categorically different from non-Jews, and of hostile attitudes urging various forms of restriction, exclusion, and suppression as a means of solving ‘the Jewish problem.’”

Political anti-Semitism is still racial and religious anti-Semitic prejudice in a new package. Stern wrote that “the political anti-Semite likely has no problem with an individual Jew. It is the collective identity of Jews — expressed in the existence of the modern State of Israel — which animates him. Not surprisingly, the myths that fuel the older types of antisemitism are recycled here: Jews are seen as secretly influencing U.S. policy or public attitudes [...] whereas most racial and religious-based antisemites would not deny their prejudice, political antisemites generally deny their bigotry.”

When students are calling for student government to condemn instances of anti-Semitism in relation to Israel, they are talking about instances like last semester, when an on-campus student group believed that it was appropriate to invite a speaker who tweeted, after the United States signed a Memorandum of Understanding for military aid to Israel, that Israelis should not be “surprised Jews have reputation 4being sleazy thieves.” The speaking event was cancelled, but the point is that when you regurgitate rhetoric that permeates anti-Semitic texts such as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, you are not criticizing Israeli policy. You are condoning and perpetuating bigoted prejudice.

With this resolution, students are addressing incidents that have happened both on campus and nationally, where Jewish students are faced with demonizing criticisms of Israel that invokes the language, imagery and tones of historical anti-Semitism. When blanket statements are made demonizing the Jewish state as a collective of being “baby-killers,” “thieves,” “Nazis” and even, “blood thirsty,” Jewish students, who know the violent and often deadly historical roots of this rhetoric, should be rightfully outraged.

When people make the factually inaccurate and offensive claim that Israel is perpetuating a “genocide” against the Palestinians, those who know the history of Jews being accused of ritual murder or poisoning wells, see the old hatreds being parroted under a new name — demonization. When panels are put on campus arguing that Judaism is merely a religion, and not also a collective people that identifies as a nation, students are justified in feeling like their history and identities are being whitewashed — racism. When students on campus march and shout chants with a genocidal history calling for the end of a Jewish state, when students on campus don’t just argue that the Jewish state shouldn’t exist in its current borders, but shouldn’t exist at all (a sentiment heard on SDSU’s campus), they are effectively dehumanizing Jews by rejecting their collective right to stand on the international stage with self-determination — delegitimization.

Political anti-Semitism, gone unchecked, contributes to global, systemic anti-Semitism.

It is insulting to see on campus that opponents to the resolution are painting real grievances with anti-Semitism related to rhetoric surrounding Israel on campus, as a political tool to silence critics of Israel. Ben Gladstone from Brown University wrote that “the practice of derailing conversations about anti-Semitism by claiming that accusations of anti-Semitism are little more than cynical projections of political power [is a] variant of gaslighting called the ‘Livingstone Formulation,’ in which any allegations of anti-Semitism are dismissed as Jewish attempts to silence political opponents.”

The erasure of “Israel” effectively ignores a facet of anti-Semitism that is a contemporary issue in the United States. By ignoring the ways in which political anti-Semitism manifests through superficial demonizing and dehumanizing caricatures of the world’s only Jewish state, those who edited the resolution, certainly those who opposed it and those who will likely fight on Wednesday to keep Israel out of it are on the wrong side of history.

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