Column: BU Israel Advocacy Groups Aren’t Prepared for Substantive Conversation on anti-Semitism

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By Jon Lohnes

The specter of anti-Semitism haunts all discussion of Palestine and Zionism. This is in and of itself unavoidable, and, indeed, allegations of anti-Semitism are entirely appropriate where some dimensions of the conflict are concerned. The Hamas Charter, for example, is overflowing with anti-Semitic rhetoric, something all people of conscience should condemn. But it is also demonstrably true that every major regional conflict since the June 1967 War has been accompanied by overwrought and largely spurious claims about the rise of a “new anti-Semitism” from pro-Israel activist and intellectual circles. When Israel’s defenders brandish the charge of anti-Jewish bigotry as a crude political weapon, it has the triple negative impact of trivializing historical and contemporary Jewish suffering, immunizing the State of Israel against legitimate criticism, and obscuring the symbiotic (as opposed to purely antagonistic) relationship between European anti-Semitism and Zionism. If recent campus back-and-forth is an appropriate measure of the level of critical thinking on these important subjects, I can only conclude that Binghamton’s alphabet soup of Israel advocacy groups are not prepared for a substantive exchange.

I will leave it to the original authors to address the accusations leveled against “March out, soldier parade: the IDF brigade.” I am interested in exploring the links between anti-Semitism and the Palestine Question, both on campus and more broadly. On the first count, muted reaction to a recent piece from the right-wing Binghamton Review is instructive. In “9 Reasons Why Bing Nightlife Sucks,” Chris Gil describes the fraternity scene as follows: “Who would have known that so many students from a school dominated by Jews would pay $5 for a frat party admission? That’s $5 for one, maybe two, warm and disgusting keg beers or sketchy punch. That’s just not cost effective. Silversteins worldwide are saddened.” The line separating legitimate criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism is sometimes murky. That ambiguity ensures that Israel advocacy groups can shift the goal post at will and thereby police opposition discourse. Gil’s remarks, on the other hand, represent an unambiguous case of anti-Semitism masquerading as satire. Why wasn’t his article condemned in the campus press? Binghamton University Zionist Organization and other pro-Israel student groups seem to have an altogether different conception of what constitutes hate speech when it’s coming from their political allies. The silence over Gil’s piece underscores the cynicism and hypocrisy of those who cry foul at an imagined anti-Semitism and fall silent on the transparent anti-Jewish bigotry of anyone whose politics align with their own (reminiscent of the marriage of convenience between Britain’s Zionist right and the anti-Semitic English Defense League).

This brings us to another problem. Received wisdom holds that Zionism is a political ideology absolutely opposed to anti-Semitism, which of course it nominally is. But if we consider the cultural and intellectual history of the Zionist mainstream, a different picture emerges. In its analysis of the Jewish condition in turn-of-the-century Europe, Herzlian political Zionism reproduced the logic, and many of the tropes, of European anti-Semitism. Herzl’s writings showcase a contemptuous attitude toward European Jewish cultural life. He described his coreligionists’ Yiddish as “the stealthy tongue of prisoners” and advocated jettisoning it in favor of “proper” European languages in the new Judenstaat. Zionist patriarch Max Nordau’s critique of “ghetto” and “bourgeois” Jewish bodies was, likewise, totally in line with anti-Semitic caricatures of Jewish men as feeble, deviant, and emasculated.

The Zionist mainstream was in broad agreement with European anti-Semites that European Jews were an indigestible element for whom the only viable option was departure. With the understanding that gentiles would never accept Europe’s Jews as equals on the continent, Herzl, Nordau, and other major Zionist thinkers championed a program of making Jews “truly” European at a geographical remove. Herzl’s suggestion that Jews should form in Palestine “a rampart of Europe against Asia, an outpost of civilization as opposed to barbarism” speaks to the Zionist movement’s mimicry of European anti-Semitism and colonialism. The fact that mainstream contemporary Israeli politicians like Defense Minister Moshe Ya’alon openly call Palestinians a “cancerous” threat to Jewish national integrity tells us a great deal about Zionism’s projection of anti-Semitic stereotypes onto its victims.

Anti-Semitism is not a secondary concern. It is central to understanding the conflict over Palestine. The invocation of historical Jewish suffering to deflect criticism of Israel, the lenient treatment meted out to pro-Israel anti-Semites, and political Zionism’s essentially anti-Semitic orientation are serious problems. If our campus community wants a serious conversation about anti-Semitism, we must wrestle with the substantive issues involved instead of allowing ourselves to be derailed by a sideshow.

Ed. Note: the Pipe Dream declined to run this editorial for technical reasons; it is posted here for the the campus community to access to it regardless.

Suggestions for further reading:

 

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Column: A Reply to JPost’s Op-Ed

by Jon Mermelstein, Binghamton University SJP Secretary

Glad to be putting up my first blog post. I just want to share a quick response to my classmate Justin Hayet’s recent Op-Ed in the Jerusalem Post.

First, I am alarmed by Justin’s accusation that supporting a boycott of Israel is a form of anti-Semitism. We who support BDS view it as a potentially viable means of liberating occupied Palestinian land. Most Jews have absolutely nothing to do with Israeli policies, so there would be no logical reason to blame them for Israeli policies. Our SJP chapter has many Jews, including our President.

Those who proudly support Israel may disagree with our conclusions. But to utterly disregard the substance of our critique of Israel as simply anti-Semitism is quite juvenile.

Speaking of substance, Justin asks why we call for a boycott of Israel, when other states too have murky human rights records. We, like our Zionist friends, view the Israeli Palestinian conflict as one of the most important issues of our day. Given the American government’s position as a strong ally of Israel over the years, American citizens are in a unique position here to actually have a say on international politics. Why else would AIPAC spend tens of millions of dollars annually on lobbying in Washington? Boycotting China economically would be literally impossible. We clearly have no say on anything Putin does, so boycotting Russia would be pointless. However, our relationship with Israel gives us leverage to reform their oppressive policies.

He spends a paragraph discussing how wonderful life is for Arabs living in Israel. Indeed, he seems to celebrate the notion of Jews and Arabs living together peacefully. Yet, Israeli policies consistently strive to create second-class citizenship for non-Jews. Whether it’s continuing to build settlements or denying refugees the right of return, Israel is acting as if peaceful coexistence is impossible.

Lastly, I agree with Justin that many students at Binghamton are relatively uninterested in the issue. Since so many aren’t informed, public opinion can still be swayed in one direction or the other. Organizations like CAMERA do actively promote the interests of the Israeli right wing. While many Israelis and Jewish Americans alike question fundamental aspects of Israeli policies, both parties in Washington preach unquestionable support for the Israel at the expense of rational criticism.

SJP has an important role to play in spreading our perspectives to the masses. That’s why protests and other types of publicity-oriented events are necessary to spark curiosity around campus. Most of us in the organization agree that education should be our top priority. We can have a dialogue about BDS on a larger scale once people are informed.

JPost publishes Binghamton CAMERA Fellow’s Irresponsible Self-Plagiarism

Today, The Jerusalem Post published an article by “proud CAMERA Fellow” and SUNY Binghamton student Justin Hayet called “My university won’t stand up for Israel”, in which he self-plagiarizes paragraphs of his February 11th column in the Pipe Dream on the ASA boycott, but this time adding irresponsible and volatile accusations against Binghamton SJP, including the claim that SJP members “bordered on anti-Semitism in their proud display of hate toward anything related to the Jewish state” during our Haifa Symphony protest on Feb 12th. The supposed “hatred” displayed at the hour-long demonstration is the reason, Justin alleges, that he has “not slept in days.”

Justin also writes that “roughly 80% of the student population, many of whom are Jews, are strategically being targeted for support by SJP” but does not explain what this means or where this number comes from.

The majority of the provisional board of Binghamton SJP is Jewish, and Jewish folks make up a significant part of our general body. Binghamton SJP stated its stance against anti-Semitism in its Feb 21st Pipe Dream column. If our organization turned out to be a front for anti-Semitism and racism, that would be pretty strange.

Binghamton University Zionist Organization Plans To Implement “Hasbara Fellowships Impact Planning” Against BDS

Binghamton University student Yael Rabin writes articles for the Pipe Dream‘s Release section. She is also the Binghamton University Zionist Organization President and is a fellow at Hasbara Fellowships, an Israeli government propaganda organizer. On February 17th published an article called “Fighting BDS at Binghamton University” on The Hasbara Campus Blog. In this article she states (emphasis added):

It’s difficult to believe SJP’s intentions are good or progressive towards any sort of proper education since its members have said they do not wish to engage in dialogue with BUZO or Bearcats for Israel, another pro-Israel group on campus. Their goal is to promote the boycott, divest, and sanctions and in doing so de-legitimize and demonize the State of Israel and its supporters. The BDS movement cannot be ignored on college campuses and it cannot be ignored at Binghamton University. With the help of Hasbara Fellowships’ impact planning, BUZO will engage and cultivate relationships with student groups in order to fight BDS. We can easily cower away from these students or find ourselves on the defensive, but through coalition building we aim to build lasting relationships with a number of student groups on campus.

If we are to believe Yael, an outside propaganda organization is currently strategically advising Binghamton University Zionist Organization on how to co-opt the support of student groups for use against BDS-related activism and campaigning on SUNY Binghamton’s campus.

Hasbara Fellowships has organized events on SUNY Binghamton’s campus in the past, including:

  • Noam Bedin: Stories from Sderot (Mar 10, 2013) – Sponsors: CAMERA, Hasbara Fellowships, BUZO, Bearcats for Israel, Binghamton College Republicans, Newing College Council, The New BTV, Maimonides Society
  • Benjamin Anthony (Nov 13, 2012) – IDF Sgt. Anthony “discusses the reality of Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza.” Sponsors: Hasbara Fellowships, BUZO
  • Oct 27, 2010 – “Binghamton students were very excited to have Elliot Mathias, Founder and Director of Hasbara Fellowships, come in for a successful Advocacy Training session. Tamar Skolnick, VP of Bearcats for Israel said, “Rabbi Mathias was amazing as expected.” Students at Binghamton are getting equally eager for Neil Lazarus’ advocacy training program on November 1, brought to them by BUZO with the help of fellow Teddy Stalbow, President of Binghamton University Zionist Organization.”

Pipe Dream Publishes SJP Statement, Others

Today the Pipe Dream, Binghamton University’s undergraduate-run student newspaper, published a statement prepared by members of Binghamton SJP, in the wake of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra protest and the perceived response from some students, called “Dialogue is inadequate against Israeli oppression” (a notable modification of our own title for the piece). The first two paragraphs below:

In 2001, conductor Daniel Barenboim violated a long-standing taboo in Israeli society by leading selections from notoriously anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” before a Jerusalem festival audience. For that brazen move, he was greeted with cries of “Fascist!” by some in attendance and was subsequently censured by a Knesset committee. Recent evidence that Theodor Herzl, father of political Zionism, was so (privately and shamefacedly) devoted to Wagner that he wrote significant portions of “Der Judenstaat” while attending performances of the latter’s opera “Tannhäuser,” was likewise greeted as a scandal in Israel. Where Palestine and Zionism are concerned, high art and politics are not easily disentangled.

Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) protested the Haifa Symphony Orchestra’s (HSO) presence on our campus precisely because we cannot do as Herzl did; we cannot regard culture as “antiseptically quarantined from its worldly affiliations” (to paraphrase Edward Said). There is an indissoluble connection between the orchestra’s tour and the state that sponsors it. Indeed, a major Israeli banking institution that facilitates and profits from the colonization of the West Bank is one of the chief benefactors of the HSO.

The Pipe Dream also published a second guest column, “A Zionist call to end the occupation,” by two authors, one of which is the current president of the J Street U chapter at SUNY Binghamton. The writers claim:

To “stand with Israel” suggests in practice, if not in theory, that support for Israel and all Israeli policies must be unconditional, unwavering and unambiguous. To demand boycott, divestment and sanctions against Israel implies a blanket condemnation of all Israelis for their supposed collective complicity in the denial of Palestinian sovereignty.

Lastly, the Pipe Dream published a statement by part-time student Ben Sheridan, who last fall was “asked to step down from [his] role as executive vice president of Bearcats for Israel, a subgroup of Hillel at Binghamton University, as well as campus intern for MASA Israel” as per Hillel’s partnership policies as interpreted by a Hillel director, after he hosted an event in which he gave a Palestinian a platform to express emotions other than gratitude regarding the Israeli government and occupation (the New York Times reports the events in its December 2013 article “Members of Jewish Student Group Test Permissible Discussion on Israel”). In the article he expresses disagreement with the policy, “welcome[s] the formation of SJP on our campus” and makes reference to an earlier post on Binghamton SJP’s blog.

Binghamton University SJP Protests the Haifa Symphony Orchestra

For over an hour tonight, our diverse group of students showed their disagreement with the hosting of the Haifa Symphony Orchestra, an Israeli music group, outside of the Anderson Events Center at Binghamton University.  At it’s peak, about forty undergraduates and graduate students stood at the entrance chanting “FREE, FREE PALESTINE!” and “Music, culture that’s all great, but not in support of apartheid state!”, and for a time a subgroup was stationed inside the lobby. We distributed flyers stating the reason for our presence to students and community members as they walked into the theater.

The demonstration went without incident, as all SJP members were respectful to the patrons’ ability to use the facility. Spokespeople for our group gave interviews to the Pipe Dream and other campus organizations. We appeared out of our dedication to human rights and out of the cultural boycott implicit in the SJP and BDS campaign, though we expect the news to be skewed any which way. So far, the results of today have only left us encouraged and excited to move forward with BDS activism on SUNY Binghamton’s campus.

 

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Pipe Dream Publishes CAMERA Fellow’s Anti-ASA Boycott Piece

Today the Pipe Dream newspaper (the “voice of the student body at SUNY Binghamton”*) published a guest opinion article called “American Studies Association Israel boycott is unjust” by political science sophomore Justin Hayet, in which he names three SUNY Binghamton professors who signed the American Studies Association’s resolution last December for an academic boycott of Israel, and calls for an “uproar condemning the boycott” in the BU community. Justin was an intern with the Jewish Times and is a fellow at the Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA), a Hasbara organization that, in 2008, was discovered to be “orchestrating a secret, long-term campaign to infiltrate the popular online encyclopedia Wikipedia to rewrite Palestinian history, pass off crude propaganda as fact, and take over Wikipedia administrative structures to ensure these changes go either undetected or unchallenged.” CAMERA is named in Jonathan Cook’s 2007 Guardian article about hasbara as one of the many organizations facilitating “voluntary propaganda work” for the Israeli government. Given that the current Opinion Editor of the Pipe Dream won a “Hasbara international op-ed competition” in 2011, and is/was the vice president of the Binghamton University Zionist Organization, pieces such as Justin’s could be considered par-the-course for the paper (and according to a writer at hasbarafellowships.org, par-the-course for our school as well).

Binghamton University SJP remains in solidarity with these three professors, to the extent of their support of BDS values, and their Constitutionally-protected practice of free speech. We also express solidarity with the ASA in general. Justin ends the article asking “Will you too opt to continue to remain silent?” to which we answer: no, we will not remain silent. But you probably won’t like what we have to say.

*Update (Feb. 21 2014): Pipe Dream’s “Pipe Walk” website no longer claims that the newspaper is the “voice of the student body at SUNY Binghamton.” On its main website, it describes itself as “Binghamton University’s oldest and largest student newspaper.”