Edmonton Journal: The difficulty of speaking about Palestine

By Laurie Adkin, Edmonton Journal, November 25, 2011. The Ideas Cafe

I recently attended a panel discussion about the Palestinian Authority’s attempt to win recognition of Palestinian statehood at the United Nations. Three academics had been invited to contextualize and analyze the meaning of this action. The event was sponsored by the University of Alberta’s department of political science and the local Palestinian Solidarity Network. A few days later, a letter appeared in The Journal, authored by Joseph Mandelbaum, in which he accused the department of “complicity in the spread of misinformation,” and, by implication, of legitimizing anti-semitism.

My intention in writing this is not to refute point-by-point Mr. Mandelbaum’s claims, but to place his accusations within the context of a broader campaign to discredit and silence critics of the actions of the state of Israel. This campaign has created an environment in which it is difficult for anyone to say anything critical of the Israeli state without being accused of anti-semitism. It particularly targets university professors, and has a chilling effect on academic freedoms as well as on political debate.

As a professor of politics I have for many years introduced students to the work of the brilliant Jewish-American historian, George L. Mosse, who showed how anti-semitism was constructed within Nazi discourse on the foundation of beliefs that were pervasive in Europe at the time. I have also taught students to identify the elements of islamophobic discourse, which bears many similarities to anti-semitism.

In recent years, French scholars have debated whether a “new anti-Semitism” has taken hold among marginalized youth from North African backgrounds who strongly oppose Israeli occupation of the Palestinian Territories. The American anthropologist, Paul Silverstein, identifies instead a “generalized anti-zionism” that has grown out of an identification of the 1990s generation of North African youth with the Palestinians – as fellow victims of imperial states.)

Organizations in the United Kingdom such as Engage argue that “contemporary” anti-semitism may take the forms of criticism of Israel or of “anti-zionism.” The European Union Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia and the British All-Party Parliamentary Group against Antisemitism (the model for its Canadian counterpart), have adopted a definition of anti-Semitism that includes certain criticisms of Israeli policies. The advocates of this broadened definition of anti-semitism range from right-wing Zionists to leftist Jewish intellectuals who fear that some of the condemnations of Israel they are hearing are associated with radical Islamism, or, that such criticisms may fail to differentiate between Israeli state and civil society. It is not hard to imagine why Jews might fear that criticisms of Israel conceal anti-semitic attitudes or why they might fear a conflation of Zionism with Jewish identity.

So where does this leave people who do not question the veracity of the Holocaust or the history of anti-semitism that preceded it, who fully comprehend the desire of European Jews – following the Second World War – to create a safe homeland outside of Europe (and who know the sordid history of the refusal of the American and Canadian governments to accept Jewish refugees), but who also know that the State of Israel was founded on the forcible expropriation of the land of the Palestinians who were driven into exile? This is an historical injustice that cannot simply be “disappeared” by the “fact” of the state of Israel — an injustice compounded by many more injustices committed over the last 60 years (many of which have been opposed by Jews inside and outside of Israel). So long as there are millions of Palestinians in need of their homeland, we cannot avoid the necessity to speak of Palestine.

The Palestinian Solidarity Network organizers and the academics who addressed the forum made no anti-semitic statements: no hatred of Jews was expressed, no conspiracy of Jewish world domination advanced. No one attributed the actions of the State of Israel to some collective Jewish character. On the contrary, the organizers explicitly stated that they would not tolerate anti-semitic or any other racist interventions. The speakers recognized the existence of differences within Israeli civil society, as well as within Palestinian communities. It is notable that Mr. Mandelbaum offered no evidence of anti-semitic statements having been made at this event. Rather, his characterization of the panel discussion (“demonization of Israel,” “degeneration of academic debate”) is based solely on his equation of criticism of Israeli policies with hatred of Jews.

As examples of “hateful” speech, Mr. Mandelbaum pointed to the characterizations of Israel’s “security wall” as an “annexation wall” and of its blockade of Gaza as a form of “collective punishment.” Similarly, we may not speak of the violent, colonial foundations of the state of Israel, or compare Israel’s domination of the West Bank and of Gaza to South African apartheid without being accused of anti-semitism. The strategy employed by Mr. Mandelbaum – and by organizations such as Campus Watch (a right-wing Zionist organization founded in the United States to identify and harass university scholars who make public statements critical of Israel) – is to equate informed criticism of the actions of the State of Israel with anti-semitic hate speech, thereby eliminating any possibility of legitimate criticism.

Regrettably, the Canadian Parliamentary Coalition to Combat Antisemitism (CPCCA), co-founded by Conservative MP Jason Kenney and Liberal MP Irwin Cotler, has played a role in this campaign, urging the government of Canada to accept a definition of anti-semitism that includes criticism of the State of Israel (viewed as a “Jewish collectivity”). The CPCCA believes that “singling Israel out for selective condemnation and opprobrium . . . is discriminatory and hateful,” and constitutes a form of anti-semitism. And therein lies the problem: What constitutes “selective condemnation and opprobrium”? Who decides? Leaving aside Canadian academics, what about the many Israelis who also oppose the actions of their governments? Their voices, too, are apparently ruled beyond the pale of legitimate democratic debate by those who are framing this new definition of anti-semitism.

Meanwhile, the branding of Palestinian solidarity with the mark of anti-semitism deflects our attention from the larger, global framework of human rights and international law within which most of the world (outside of North America) comprehends the roots of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – that is, the framework created by multiple reports by human rights organizations, the resolutions passed by the United Nations, the Geneva Convention, the decisions of the International Court of Justice, and even the Supreme Court of Israel itself (which has ruled that the country’s “security wall” violates international law).

What is at stake is the environment for political debate about such important questions as our country’s policies towards Israel and Palestine. The costs of speaking are increasingly high – although they pale in comparison to the enormous suffering of the victims of this conflict. The necessity to speak has never been greater.

Laurie Adkin is an associate professor of political science at the University of Alberta.


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