This was supposed to be yesterday’s problem, a stale relic of the old world in Europe. And yet, today, in the New World of the Americas, too many (not all) Jews feel tense on campus, especially if they dare to be pro-Israel. Today, in the New World, my kids – and others – have had to pass through security guards or other elaborate security systems to enter their Jewish day schools, in Westmount, in Cote St. Luc, otherwise among the world’s safest neighborhoods.
Today, in the New World, synagogues have been defaced, graves desecrated, people harassed, for the sole crime of being Jewish. So, I thank you for taking the time to explore this problem. I wish you not only Godspeed but real speed. Please complete your work quickly, solve this problem clearly, and make your commission and this whole topic irrelevant, anachronistic – an unpleasant ghost from the past – as swiftly as possible.
Alas, it won’t be so easy. Although this commission has not even issued any recommendations, you are being falsely accused of squelching genuine criticism of Israel and support for Palestinians by invoking the powerful pejorative term “Antisemitism.” Your critics want us to believe that we cannot distinguish between being critical of Israel and antisemitic. They hide their ugly bigotry behind some of the noblest impulses in Canada and the world today, namely the fight against racism. Too many antisemites today cross the line while obscuring the line, camouflaging rank bigotry, an aggressive Jew hatred, behind a smokescreen of human rights rhetoric.
Israel and Zionism do not deserve special treatment – just equal treatment. The singling out of Israel, the demonizing of Zionism, frequently slide from the political to the pathological. The “New Antisemitism” comes from Arabs’ exterminationist rejection of Israel’s existence intensified by traditional antisemitic imagery and perfumed with human rights talk.
Anti-Zionists are honest, if not consistent. Too many show their true colors, expressing traditional Jew-hatred – throwing pennies at Jewish students during the Concordia riots against Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on campus in 2002, firebombing a Montreal Jewish day school in 2004, targeting synagogues while supposedly “only” criticizing Israel. Anti-Zionists have repeatedly crossed the line despite their rhetorical attempts at delineating the line between anti-Zionism and Antisemitism.
So, no, it is not Antisemitic to criticize Israel, to question Zionism.
However it is not “just” criticism of Israel – but reeks of Antisemitism – when the criticism is disproportionate – the obsession about Israel continues the West’s historic obsession with “the Jew.”
And it is not “just” criticism of Israel – but degenerates into Antisemitism – when Israel is demonized with traditional anti-Jewish tropes, really tics, exaggerating the power of the Jewish lobby, making the Jewish state the one pariah nation, transforming the old Big Lie of “Christ Killer” into the new Big Lie of “Apartheid state” or “Nazi-style racist.”
And it is not “just” criticism of Israel – but resonates with the historic Antisemitism – when Israel is the only nation in the world delegitimized. Zionism is Jewish nationalism, the idea that the Jews are a people, a nation, not just a religion, tied to one historic homeland, Israel, even while being spread out and serving as loyal citizens in countries around the world. That in a world where nationalism remains the major vehicle for organizing polities, nation-states, only one form of nationalism – Jewish nationalism – is rejected reflects the deep-seated bias distorting the debate.
And it is not “just” criticism of Israel – but becomes the New Antisemitism – when the BDS (boycott, divestment sanction) movement, actually the blacklist, demonize and slander movement, seeks to ostracize Israel, again, alone among the nations of the world. The burden of proof is on the blacklisters. They must explain: why exile democratic Israel from the family of nations, not dictatorships like Libya, Iran, China, the Sudan?
Underlying all this is an essentialism familiar to scholars of Antisemitism and other forms of prejudice. People poisoned by hatred denounce the actor, not the act. To criticize Israeli actions regarding the Palestinians can be justified, but why leap from criticizing actions to negating Zionism and Israel’s right to exist?
Here is the “Double Double Standard.” First, Israel is held to an artificially high standard and denounced disproportionately. Then, key groups violate core ideals in their zeal to denounce Israel. Gays overlook Muslim homophobia, feminists ignore Arab sexism, liberals forget Israeli libertarianism, to bash Israel. Academics override their professional mission to tell the truth and acknowledge the world’s complexity by caricaturing Israel in simplistic terms.
When (some, not all!) gay activists, feminists, liberals and academics violate defining values – and their own group interest – to malign Israel, they are doing what bigots do – leaving the realm of the logical for the pathological.
Allow me to focus on two practical suggestions for fighting this scourge. First, within the academic world, we need leadership, not censorship. When violence erupts, universities have failed. Professors, as the moral authorities on campus in regular contact with students should step in, from across the political spectrum, and foster civility.
Moreover, academic freedom must be preserved – but professorial bullying over politics is “academic malpractice” and must be stopped. The government can help universities establish procedures teaching students what to do when their own professors fail to act professionally in classrooms.
And second, let us fight Antisemitism by fighting bigotry all over. Wouldn’t it be great if this commission generated a Citizenship 2.0 curriculum teaching young people how to fight hatred on the Web – and in general cultivating a sense of citizenship on the Web?
Both these suggestions show that the fight against Antisemitism is a subset of a broader struggle against hatred. I’m an historian. I know there will always be haters, bigots and yes, Antisemites. But I also know that civilization relies on good people who are willing to fight the poison – and not just say no to Antisemitism, hatred and bigotry, but to say “yes” to higher ideals of democracy, civility and liberty, as you have all done, and are continuing to do.
Based on testimony to be given Monday, December 7, at hearings the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA) , consisting of 23 Members of Parliament and on Senator from all 4 parties in the House of Commons, is holding in Ottawa, Canada, this fall.
Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University on leave in Jerusalem.