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Commentary

Prejudice and Politics Mix in Slurs on Israel

October 24, 2002|Norah Vincent | Norah Vincent is a writer and a senior fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a think tank set up after Sept. 11 to study terrorism. Web site: www.norah vincent.com.

Last month, Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers aired his concern about the rise of anti-Semitism and its apologists on campus. Pro-Palestinian groups and their sympathizers howled in protest, maintaining that criticism of Israeli policy does not automatically constitute anti-Semitism.

They were right. But they also were being more than a little disingenuous because they know very well that free-floating criticism of the Ariel Sharon government wasn't what Summers was decrying.

Clearly, a definition of terms is in order. After all, the phenomenon of anti-Semitism as paranoia, to which Palestinian advocates refer, is very real. It's true that some Jews, like some gays, some blacks and some Latinos, have at times been too quick to bigotize, as it were, anyone who criticizes them.

Summers, however, is no such knee-jerk critic. Neither are others among those who have expressed concern over rising anti-Semitism on campus. It is real.

At the University of Chicago, according to the Middle East Forum's Campus Watch, a Jewish student walking at night on campus was verbally assaulted when a car drove up beside him and a passenger screamed: "Death to Jews, Hitler should have finished you all off when he had the chance."

At San Francisco State University, in addition to physically threatening a Jewish studies professor and her students at a pro-Israel march, a group of anti-Israel students shouted phrases like "Die, you racist pigs" and "Hitler should have finished the job."

These were not criticisms of Israel or Israeli policies. These were incontrovertible acts of anti-Semitism, and they are not the only ones. They must be categorically distinguished from the kind of uninformed, inflammatory and unscholarly -- but not necessarily anti-Semitic -- things that are being said and taught.

Take, for example, Douglas Card, who teaches a University of Oregon course called "Social Inequality." Campus Watch reports that Card called Israel a "terrorist state" and Israelis "baby-killers."

This is bias, misinformation and jaundiced demagoguery of the type found all too often on our leftist-dominated campuses. It's also anti-Israeli, in the same way that calling the U.S. a terrorist state is anti-American. But it isn't anti-Semitic.

It's no different in kind from a whole host of other hysterical opinions that flow from leftist political prejudices and "correct" ideas -- including Marxism, pacifism, multiculturalism and postmodernism -- that worm their way into every aspect of campus life.

The distinction must hold, then, between anti-Semitism and anti-Israeliism. The former is racism and is sometimes characterized by hate crimes. The latter is opinion and is often characterized by mindless hyperbole.

But what then of the divestment campaign, in which groups are pressuring universities to sell their holdings in companies that do business with Israel? Is this anti-Semitism?

It depends. Some advocate divestment because they object to Israeli policy, saying that Palestinians are being treated as blacks were in apartheid South Africa. This is an erroneous comparison because blacks in South Africa were not in the habit of sending suicide bombers into Johannesburg. But it is not anti-Semitic.

Others favor divestment because they believe that Zionism is inherently fascistic and illegitimate, because they object on principle to a Jewish homeland and because they see divestment as a means of bringing about the destruction of the Jewish state. This, by definition, is anti-Semitism.

Baldfaced anti-Semitism is real and growing on our nation's campuses, as is anti-Israeliism. Both need redressing. But failing to make a distinction between the two plays directly into the hands of the most cynical extremists on both sides, who would like nothing better than to turn their critics into paranoid straw men.

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