Purging Jewish Students From the Israeli/Palestinian Debate
by Richard L. Cravatts, PhD
In the campus war against Israel, the all too familiar refrain from student anti-Israel activists, many of whom form the loose coalition of groups and individuals spearheading the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, is that their quarrel is only with Israel and its government’s policies, not with Jews themselves. But that specious defense continues to fall away, revealing some caustic and base anti-Semitism, representing a seismic shift in the way that Jews are now being indicted not just for supporting Israel, but merely for being Jewish.
At McGill University this week, as the latest example, three board members of the University’s Students’ Society were removed from their appointments after a vote at the Fall General Assembly due to what was reported to be their perceived “Jewish conflict of interest.” The ouster was led by a pro-BDS student group, Democratize McGill, which was campaigning against pro-Israel students in the wake of a September ruling by the Judicial Board that, once and for all, rejected the BDS movement on the McGill campus, stating that it was violative of the SSMU’s constitution because it “violate[d] the rights of [Israeli] students to represent themselves” and discriminated on the basis of national origin.
In retaliation, and to eliminate pro-Israel views on the board, Democratize McGill launched an effort to clear the board of BDS opponents, based on the cynical notion that these members harbored clear conflict of interests which arose from their purported biases, those conflicts of interests and biases stemming from the poisonous notion that because the students were Jewish or pro-Israel, or both, they could, therefore, never make informed or fair decisions as student leaders.
Ignoring their own obvious biases and the lack of any balance in their own views on the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the pro-BDS members nonetheless felt comfortable with suppressing pro-Israel voices and Jewish students on the board, asserting that they sought to remove these students because they “are all either fellows at the Canadian Jewish Political Affairs Committee (CJPAC), an organization whose explicit mandate is to promote pro-Israel discourse in Canadian politics, or primary organizers for the anti-BDS initiative at McGill.” In other words, they were being disqualified for having views that differed from those student leaders seeking to purge them from SSMU. The Jewish board member and two other non-Jewish, pro-Israel board members were subsequently voted off the board.
McGill has a previous history of seeking to suppress pro-Israel thinking by Jewish students, not in the student government but in its press. An example of that was the 2016 controversy involving The McGill Daily and its astonishing editorial admission that it was the paper’s policy to not publish “pieces which promote a Zionist worldview, or any other ideology which we consider oppressive.”
“While we recognize that, for some, Zionism represents an important freedom project,” the editors wrote in a defense of their odious policy, “we also recognize that it functions as a settler-colonial ideology that perpetuates the displacement and the oppression of the Palestinian people.”
Leading up to this revealing editorial, a McGill student, Molly Harris, had filed a complaint with the Students’ Society of McGill University’s (SSMU) equity committee. In that complaint, Harris contended that, based on the paper’s obvious anti-Israel bias, and “a set of virulently anti-Semitic tweets from a McGill Daily writer,” a “culture of anti-Semitism” defined the Daily—a belief seemingly confirmed by the fact that several of the paper’s editors themselves are BDS supporters and none of the staffers were Jewish.
An attempted purging of a pro-Israel student from student government, very similar to the inquisition that just occurred at McGill, took place in February of 2015 at UCLA, when several councilmembers on the USAC Judicial Board, UCLA student government’s highest judicial body, grilled Rachel Beyda, then a second-year economics student, when she sought a seat on the board.
The focus on her candidacy was not her qualifications for the position (which no one seemed to doubt), but specifically the fact that she was Jewish and how her “affiliation with Jewish organizations at UCLA . . . might affect her ability to rule fairly on cases in which the Jewish community has a vested interest in the outcome, such as cases related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” as the student newspaper described it.
“Ruling fairly” in this case, of course, meant that she was likely not to support the increasingly virulent anti-Israel campaign on the UCLA campus, so she failed to pass the political litmus test that so-called progressive students, enthralled with their pursuit of social justice, see as their default position—namely, being pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel.
It was the same thinking that inspired a similarly discriminatory proposal the previous May by two members of UCLA’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) which attempted to bar Jewish candidates from filling council positions if they had taken trips to Israel subsidized by the Anti-Defamation League, American Jewish Committee, or other organizations, which, according to the sententious activists, “have openly campaigned against divestment from corporations that profit from Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights.”
Of course, there was no mention in this debate of trips paid for to send pro-Palestinian students to Israel or the territories on propaganda excursions designed to malign Israel and teach visitors an alternate, anti-Israel narrative. Once again, in addition to trying to stack the deck against the pro-Israel argument, this grotesque and inequitable proposal took as a given that anyone not committed to the Palestinian cause was by default not to be trusted, incapable of making unbiased decisions, morally compromised, and unjustified in even harboring pro-Israel opinions.
Another odious attempt to rid a campus of Jewish and pro-Israel voices took place in 2015 when student council leaders at Durban University of Technology (DUT) in South Africa floated a proposal that suggested, apparently without the slightest shame or moral self-awareness, that Jewish students should actually be expelled from the institution, that, as the student body’s secretary, Mqondisi Duma, put it, “We took the decision that Jewish students, especially those who do not support the Palestinian struggle, should deregister.” This is, one would think, a rather shocking sentiment from students who themselves benefited from a world-wide campaign in the 1970s and 1980s to end South Africa’s racist apartheid system.
The moral arrogance of the South African student’s proposal was breathtaking, not only because of its grotesque version of the anti-Semitic practice of making any and all Jews responsible for the political actions of Israel; more serious than that, it revealed that the pro-Palestinian movement is so enthralled with the righteousness of its cause that anyone who harbors or expresses other views is considered a pariah, unworthy to even express his or her ideas in the marketplace of ideas on campus.
Progressive students have decided, in their own moral self-righteousness, that the Palestinian campaign for self-determination is such a sacred cause that anyone who questions it or speaks for the Israeli point of view is a moral retrograde. To even support Israel is to risk being deemed a racist, an imperialist, a tacit supporter of apartheid. And more than that: now, if you are Jewish and even a student in South Africa—nowhere near or involved in the affairs of Palestinian Arabs and Israelis—if you have not publicly proclaimed your allegiance to the Palestinian cause and denounced the Israeli one, you can be deemed morally unworthy of serving as a student leader or even attending a particular university.
The student leaders who, in the context of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, now try to suppress all thought of which they disapprove have sacrificed one of the core values for which the university exists. In their zeal to be inclusive, and to recognize the needs and aspirations of victim groups, they pretend to foster inquiry but have actually stifled and retarded it.
And as this otherwise noble purpose for the university has devolved, the first victim in the dilution of academic free speech and debate, unfortunately, has been the truth.
Richard L. Cravatts, PhD, President Emeritus of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, is the author of Dispatches From the Campus War Against Israel and Jews.
The most grotesque aspect of the intense anti-Israel campaign orchestrated by the Arab states and Iranian President Ahmadinejad is their stated obsession to wipe Israel off the face of the map and “imagine” (which is all they can do at the moment) a “World Without Zionism”. They have at their beck and call a large “pliant majority” of U.N. member states ready, willing and able to join this crusade or keep silent.
In so doing they ignore not only the millennial old tie of the Jews to their land, language, culture, and religion, but distort an important theme in Western civilization stemming not only from the Bible and two thousand years of Judeo-Christian tradition but even the Koran (Surah 17: 104). The “Z word” has been pirated, perverted, parodied and prostituted and linked with a hideous and infamous “racist”, “apartheid regime” tied to a pariah state and people.
No matter that a million Arabs are citizens of Israel and are found at every level of society enjoying a standard of living and rights beyond the fondest expectations of most of the region’s population. This minority is guaranteed full cultural expression of its identity and participates in the government, police, the universities, arts, sports, and business whereas practically no more than a handful of Jews remain in the Arab states as if they were exotic plants on display in a hothouse when in 1948 they numbered more than 800,000 including large sections of major cities such as Baghdad and Cairo.
The Danish philosopher Andreas Simonsen, has remarked on the great respect most Jews feel towards the past, old friends and their parents as well as the long historical memory of nationhood and the many religious obligations and commemorative holidays. This is what he termed the Jewish ability “to carry their past with themselves and be nourished by it”. It is the best definition of Zionism, but a characteristic completely out of tune with most of contemporary culture and its anti-historical attitude.
According to Simonsen “Jews live because they remember, anti-Semitism lives because people forget”, and “the better people remember their past and are able to integrate it with their appreciation of life, the better they are able to develop their intellect, humanity and vitality”.
Generations of Christian clergymen and statesmen from Disraeli through Sir Winston Churchill and President Harry Truman came to advocate the Zionist cause. Without their help and encouragement there would be no Israel today – “a world without Zionism” as the Iranians would like to contemplate. Israel cannot be undone and not just because of the heritage of the Bible alone. As early as February 1941 in spite of the wholehearted desire of the American Protestant establishment not to risk involvement in World War II, Reinhold Niebhur spoke out convincingly through the journal he founded “Christianity and Crisis” and sounded a clarion call of warning about Nazism.
Its final goals were not simply the eradication of the Jews but the extirpation of Christianity and the abolition of the entire heritage of Christian and humanistic culture. This is the only kind of “World Without Zionism” that the Iranian and many Arab leaders long for. Niebhur based his views not on any literal “Evangelical” interpretation of Biblical promises but the essentials of justice for the nations and also called for some form of compensation to those Arabs in Palestine who might be displaced if their own leaders refused to make any compromise possible.
There was much about Israeli society and its rough edges as well as what has been called “post-Zionist” Israel that made idealism wear thin. The litany of daily frustrations, the pressure of an intense hothouse atmosphere of constant tension, the political involvement of many ultra-Orthodox Jews and their rejection of any other mind-set or alternative form of Jewish identity as well as an aggressive, archaic, obtuse and obdurate bureaucracy exerted a heavy toll and like so many others the “final straw” issues that drove us away had little to do with great political issue of war or peace.
Nevertheless. Israel has become one of the most vibrant and optimistic countries in the world. where Jewish life blossoms as it has nowhere else. It succeeded due to the devotion, enthusiasm and idealism that its enemies can never erase. This need not have been at the cost of anyone and certainly not the Palestinian Arabs but they and their allies wish to convince themselves and all others (most successfully among those who ironically call themselves “progressives” today) that the “Z word” is an anathema to be shunned. Their obsession is not based on what happened to them but in their own intense hatred and envy projected on to others.
The Middle East has been growing date palms for centuries. The average tree in the region is about 18-20 feet tall and yields about 38 pounds of dates a year. By contrast, Israeli date trees now yield 400 pounds/year and are short enough to be harvested from the ground or a short ladder. The difference is not explained by any exploitation by anyone or seizure of any land or a change in the climate. It is the outcome of Jewish research, the application of capital and hard work combined with a love of the land unmatched anywhere. The same level of accomplishment can be found in fishing and military strategy as well (fields that countless anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers claimed throughout centuries in Europe that the Jews were incapable of mastering) and in practically every field of human endeavor.
“Zionism” has endured and become not just an outdated Jewish sentiment or whipping boy of the Muslims and Arab world. Throughout the ages, the Christian scriptures have added to the Old Testament in hallowing the longing of the Jews for a return to their ancestral homeland.
Hundreds of gospel songs and Negro spirituals equate crossing the Jordan to return to Zion as the realization of freedom for Afro-Americans. The same “Zionist” image resonated in Christian hymns of the English, Welsh, Scots and other peoples as well as the use of many of the “Zion” psalms in much “reggae“ music (witness Bob Marley’s big hit “By the Rivers of Babylon“.
Marley was a “Rasta prophet” who used his music to promote the Jamaican cult religion that accepts former Ethiopian Emperor Haile Selassi I, as King of Kings, Lord of Lords and the Lion of Judah in Pslams 68:4 and part of the Holy Trinity (about ten percent of Jamaicans identify themselves as Rastafari). The term comes from Ras Täfäri, the pre-coronation name of Haile Selassie (Amharic for “Power of the Trinity”). This movement emerged in Jamaica among working-class and peasant black people in the early 1930s. It stemmed from Black social and political aspirations, and the teachings of Jamaican black publicist and organizer Marcus Garvey who preached a “Return to Africa“. Political Zionism and the scriptures’ expression of “Longing for Zion” have inspired many Overseas Armenians, Greeks, Irish, Scots, Germans, Hungarians, Finns and Chinese as well to cultivate a close tie with their ancestral homelands.
The same “Longing for Zion” theme is endeared to countless Europeans by Verdi’s first successful opera, “Nabucco” (Nebuchadnezzar), written in 1842 relating the story of the exiled Hebrews in Babylon in the 7th century B.C. In the opera, the chorus “Va, pensiero” (a paraphrase of Psalm 137) is sung by the exiles on the banks of the Euphrates, lamenting the loss of their homeland. In Austrian ruled Italy, Nabucco quickly became a popular anthem expressing the nationalist sentiments of the Italian People expressing their own longing for political freedom. In 1901, a crowd of more than 25,000 people spontaneously began singing the stirring chorus “Va pensiero“ as Verdi‘s coffin was borne through the streets to his final resting place.