We live in a world where the actions and policies of any state are, and should be, subject to criticism. One would assume that this holds true and is to be expected, in particular when a state wages a war that kills thousands of innocent civilians and destroys hospitals, houses of worship, bakeries, and schools. Calling for a ceasefire, condemning the displacement of one million civilians, and calling out statements by that state’s politicians explicitly calling for annihilation are all what common sense calls for. Yet, there seems to be an exception.
It has almost become impossible to critique Israel and the genocidal acts of its army without being targeted verbally or otherwise. Many have been silenced, censored, doxxed, fired, or disinvited. The list is very long. While attempts to silence or slander those who critique Israel and its policies are not new and go back decades, the current climate has taken matters into a more difficult terrain. It is no longer discursive but punitive social and legal measures that critics face. Moreover, any critic of Israel or Zionism is easily consigned to the category of “anti-Semite.” Even Jewish and Israeli critics are silenced.
Since Hamas’ October 7th deadly attack, a license has been granted to effectively weaponize antisemitism against any and all critics of Israel. This license, just like the film “The Purge,” has become an open season to root out various forms of universally recognized, legally legitimated, and independent human rights organizations’ sanctioned critique, activism, text, and protests that highlight the human rights violations perpetrated by the state of Israel. This is done simply by uttering a few words in the form of interrogative questions to which any unequivocal answer amounts to treason of sorts: e.g., do you condemn Hamas?
Despite Israel’s slaughter of more than 15,000 Palestinians, almost half of them children, we witness a cynical McCarthyism in the United States, from University campuses to the halls of Congress and all the way to the very streets that hosted numerous civil rights movements and marches. No one, and no nuance about history, is safe. Respond swiftly, unequivocally, and even enthusiastically, otherwise, you are implicated in the horrors of antisemitism. A license is not just political bias: rather, it is often a gravely consequential permission to judge and adjudicate without evidence, and on the spot, in almost any public space. Those on the receiving end know precisely what this means and feels like. The recent shooting of three Palestinian students in Burlington, Vermont, is a manifestation of this open license to engage in anti-Palestinian racism, discursively and physically. Their decision to wear keffiyehs and speak in Arabic framed them as a security threat and target for the shooter, who pleaded “not guilty” at his arraignment.
This license has threatened students, journalists, teachers, activists, human rights advocates, and many media personalities. Every day, in nearly every public interaction, one must contend with the growing intensity and scope of the weaponization of antisemitism, increasingly backed by semi-legal rules and regulations intended selectively to stifle free speech and criminalize words and phrases (e.g., “from the river to the sea”) that some of the same prosecuting institutional sources (e.g., ADL) simply disagreed with as a matter of politics, prior to this “purge.”
Undoubtedly, the purge and the license will wither in time, but it should be confronted head on with evidence of its own discriminatory and often racist underpinnings and registered for future legal retribution for those who have been deliberately targeted, persecuted, or sanctioned by it. It might not be apparent at the very moment, but so much is at stake in a polity that prides itself on being democratic and where free speech is holy. More concretely, the demographic and generational changes that we are witnessing, not least in voting patterns, reveal a future where the morality, ethics, and mores of today’s powers that be are going to be a thing of the past, before they themselves actually pass. The future will not be kind to this precedent or its perpetrators.
Taking antisemitism and Islamophobia seriously
For those of us who have actively, not just in spirit, fought against antisemitism and similar hateful speech and action, such as Islamophobia and beyond, we also desire to fight the trivializing of these crucial struggles. Today, it is antisemitism that is being particularly and insidiously weaponized. The opportunistic personal application and public deployment of these stigmatic accusations diminish their power by dramatically lowering the bar for what might pass as antisemitism. Criticizing Israel’s policies should not even come close to being synonymous with anything smacking of antisemitism. The same applies to criticizing the policies of Muslim-majority countries (we’d be out of a job if the same standards was applied). The unintended and highly problematic medium-term effect is that this trivialization of the accusation actually raises the bar for what might be considered antisemitic, thereby normalizing real antisemitism.
Just as the proliferation of the accusation of “terrorism” was expansively deployed to go after most of “our enemies” (as opposed to the perpetrators of the attacks of 9-11), the opportunistic application of antisemitism produces a gray area in a realm that should be clearly black and white in the overwhelming majority of instances. In both instances, the power and efficacy of these terms are diminished by opportunism and, more seriously, by absolving real culprits. Thus, and in keeping with the analogy with the loose proliferation of the term “terrorism,” the overarching climate of politically motivated persecutory charges has the effect of neglecting and even temporarily absolving actual antisemites and antisemitic discourses and actions that do not fit the immediate political charge. What’s more, and in tandem with the deployment of “terrorism/terrorist,” much of the accusations of antisemitism themselves emanate from Islamophobic stances regarding the essence of Muslims (or Arabs, as the distinction is often missed).
This open license must be revoked. For all the foregoing reasons, basic critique of Israeli policies– which a myriad of Jewish scholars, activists, artists, journalists, and laypersons engage in–should be decoupled from the automatic charge of antisemitism. Judging from what we are witnessing today, including structural policies of occupation and ongoing displacement of Palestinian populations for decades now, it is irrefutable that, like any other country, Israel should be amenable to serious criticism as it violates basic human rights.
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