I had a disorienting experience in New York two weeks ago. I attended a discussion about Israel on campus that lacked hysteria, acknowledged complexity, and advocated nuance. The David Project launched its white paper “A Burning Campus? Rethinking Israel Advocacy at America’s Universities and Colleges.” The question mark after “Burning Campus” reflected a growing sophistication in American Jews’ conversation about Israel on campus.
The writers of the David Project’s analysis – with whom I consulted and for whom I wrote the foreword – dared announce that “Campus is largely not a hostile environment for Jewish students.” Actually, Jews are enjoying a golden age in American universities. There have never been so many Jewish students and professors, Jewish studies programs and identity-building experiences. “Relatively few” of the more than 4000 post-secondary American institutions “have an anti-Israel problem.” Yet, this also is a golden age for Israel-bashing on campus. The study correctly warns that “pervasive negativity toward Israel on key leading American university and college campuses is likely to erode long-term bipartisan support for the Jewish state.”
We cannot be complacent. American university culture welcomes hard left views that trend against Israel. Too many professors commit academic malpractice, preaching not teaching, frequently propagandizing to demonize Israel. Outside class, an aggressive, self-righteous anti-Israel movement intimidates many pro-Israel students and has discouraged pro-Israel forces from using the Z-word – Zionist. This anti-Israel movement will soon launch anti-Israel hate weeks in a dozen or two campuses across North America, perpetuating the New Big Lie that Zionism is racism and comparing Israel to South Africa’s racist apartheid.
In A State Beyond The Pale: Europe’s Problem with Israel, the British journalist Robin Shepherd accurately diagnoses the problem afflicting Israel on campus: All these attacks’ cumulative effect on Israel’s “reputation” is “devastating…. “Consider the words and images with which Israel has in recent years been associated: ‘shitty,’ ‘Nazi,’ ‘racist,’ ‘apartheid,’ ‘ethnic cleanser,’ ‘occupier,’ ‘war criminal,’ ‘violator of international law,’ ‘user of disproportionate force,’ ‘liability.’ …. No other state in the world is talked about in such terms.” Shepherd’s insight resonates with one of Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s fears after the UN General Assembly passed the “Zionism is Racism” resolution when he was America’s UN ambassador in 1975. Moynihan worried that, increasingly, “Whether Israel was responsible,” for particular world problems, “Israel surely would be blamed: openly by some, privately by most. Israel would be regretted.”
While recognizing these dangers, pro-Israel circles – they should call themselves Zionist! – are debating the dangers of overreaction. When Zionists spotlight some anti-Israel conference or hate week, do we highlight activities that otherwise would be ignored? We must choose our battles carefully – although our campus problem partially stems from too many decades of being too passive.
We need jujitsu moves, turning negative forces into positive energies – while telling our story, and offering our affirmative vision. If, as is occurring in nearly fifty campuses this spring, anti-Israel hate week triggers rounds of “Israel Peace Week,” then Israel’s adversaries will be the ones seeing their strategy backfire. Whoever calls themselves pro-peace must learn to be anti-delegitimization. In relationships between countries -- as with people -- you cannot go into a defensive crouch and an expansive hug simultaneously. Fighting against delegitimization is fighting for the conditions that facilitate peacemaking.
Similarly, let the week perpetuating the Apartheid libel trigger weeks of learning about what Zionism is – a movement of Jewish national liberation – and what it isn’t – racist. Let’s learn what the American civil rights leader Vernon Jordan said in 1975 after the UN’s Zionism is Racism Resolution:“Smearing the ‘racist’ label on Zionism is an insult to intelligence,” Jordan wrote. “Black people, who recognize code words since we’ve been victimized by code words … can easily smell out the fact that ‘Zionism’ in this context is a code word for anti-Semitism.” Jordan blasted the General Assembly for “saying that national self-determination is for everyone except Jews.” And he detailed Arab discrimination, against Christian Copts, Kurds, Sudanese Blacks and Jews – especially dark-skinned Sephardic Jews.
Back then, thirty years after the Holocaust, most Americans, left and right, black and white, would never link the word “racism” to anything connected to Zionism or Judaism. The former Black Panther Eldridge Cleaver was “[s]hocked because of all people in the world, the Jews have not only have suffered particularly from racist persecution, they have done more than any other people in history to expose and condemn racism…. To condemn the Jewish survival doctrine of Zionism as racism is a travesty upon the truth.”
Further left politically, the anti-poverty activist and Democratic Socialist Michael Harrington joined the chorus of outrage. “If one preposterously charges that Zionism is racist, then so are all nationalisms which joined to condemn it at the U.N.,” Harrington said. “And that is to drain the concept of racism of any serious meaning.” Harrington warned that “By inventing a non-existent racism in Israel, the UN has undermined the effectiveness of mobilizing serious action against the real racism of Southern Africa.” Jean Daniel, a French radical and frequent critic of Israel called this “diabolic idiocy,” which discredited “the Arab cause” and the Third World, “counter-revolutionary and anti-Socialist.”
Since then, the New Big Lie has become a broadly accepted truism despite remaining untrue. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is national not racial. The Soviet-Arab decision to call Zionism racism and compare Israel to South Africa was a clever propaganda move to demonize and ostracize Israel – and Jews. That the Soviet Union fell, the UN repealed the Resolution in 1991, and Israel made peace with some Arab neighbors shows that history can get better. That this libel outlived its Soviet concocters should spur our fight against this New Big Lie, and for Zionism, with strategy, with nuance, with effective education not just indignation, no matter how justified.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The History of American Presidential Elections. Follow Gil on Twitter: @Gil_Troy