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Calling Criticism of Israel “Anti Semitic” Is Challenged as a Way to Silence Free Speech

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
August 2016

There is a campaign on campuses across the country to silence criticism of  
Israel as “anti-Semitic,” particularly the advocacy of boycott, sanctions  
and disinvestment (BDS).  
At the University of California, a single right-wing Jewish group, Amoha  
Initiative, called on the university to condemn all forms of opposition to  
Zionism. One of the group’s founders, Rossman Benjamin, said: “BDS is in  
virtually all its aspects anti-Semitic.” At the City University of New York  
(CUNY), the Zionist Organization of America made the same argument.  
In fact, argues Eric Alterman, professor of English and journalism at  
Brooklyn College and a strong opponent of BDS, the movement calling for BDS  
“… is filled with young Jews. The pro-boycott group Jewish Voice for Peace  
is perhaps the fastest growing Jewish organization on campus nationwide. And  
many liberal Zionists share the movement’s complaints about the brutality  
and self-defeating nature of Israel’s nearly 50-year occupation, even if  
they believe BDS language and tactics to be counterproductive to the goal of  
a peaceful two state solution.”  
In an article, “Free Speech, Even If It’s Obnoxious,” in The New York Times  
(March 29, 2016), Alterman states: “I’ve never heard a single anti-Semitic  
syllable on any CUNY campus in the dozen years I’ve been on the faculty. My  
classes on Jewish history and culture discuss extremely delicate questions  
of Jewish identity without anyone, Jew or gentile, evincing the slightest  
discernible discomfort … The notion that politicians can demand that a  
university prohibit certain types of political speech it finds distasteful  
by threatening its funding not only makes martyrs of those whom it seeks to  
silence, it also bespeaks a lack of confidence both in its own beliefs and  
in the value of reason itself.”  
In March, the University of California Board of Regents adopted a set of  
principles that condemned anti-Semitism. But it rejected the demand that all  
opposition to Zionism be condemned. Pro-Palestinian groups complained that  
this was designed to stifle opposition to Israel’s policies. Dima Khalidi,  
the director of Palestine Legal, an advocacy group, said that pro-Israeli  
groups had “succeeded in convincing the regents that Palestine advocacy is  
inherently anti-Semitic and should be condemned. It’s very clear that they  
have as a goal a restriction on political speech criticizing Israel and its  
Naomi Dann, media coordinator for Jewish Voice for Peace, says that, “As a  
recent graduate of Vassar College … I work daily with the growing number of  
Jewish students who see the BDS movement as the most effective way to shift  
the conversation from a debate over whether or not Israel’s nearly 50-year  
military occupation is a moral problem to one that centers on Palestinian  
rights to freedom and equality. … For many anti-Zionists, opposing the  
ideology that led to a state that privileges Jewish lives at the expense of  
Palestinians is an anti-racist position based on the value of equality for  
all people.” (The New York Times, April 1, 2016).  
Jewish Voice for Peace endorses the call by Palestinians for BDS until  
Israel abides by international law. It states: “We reject the idea that BDS  
is inherently anti-Semitic and defend activists who employ the full range of  
BDS tactics when they are demonized and wrongly accused of anti-Semitism. We  
believe BDS is a meaningful alternative to passivity engendered by two  
decades of failed peace talks and is the most effective grassroots means for  
applying nonviolent pressure to change Israel’s policies.”  
There is some sympathy in Israel for a boycott of products from the occupied  
territories. Israeli peace activist Uri Avnery and his group, Gush Shalom,  
have published a list of products made in areas beyond the Green Line.  
Israeli politician, Zehava Gal-Oh, head of the Meretz opposition party, said  
that while she opposes international boycott efforts against Israel as a  
whole, she refrains from consuming settler products since there “must be a  
price for the occupation.”  
Whatever one thinks of the BDS movement, it enjoys widespread Jewish  
support, making charges of “anti-Semitism” seem a tactic to silence open  
debate. •

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