Fight anti-Israel week by rejecting the apartheid smear
As the first university semester winds down, it's time to plan for the inevitable attack.
By GIL STERN STERN TROY
How could it be that in 2008, whenever a certain professor mentions the market meltdown, he blames specific economists and businesspeople whom he identifies as Jewish - but never mentions other people's religion? (And this before Bernard Madoff became anti-Semites' newest poster child even though he most hurt Jews.) How could administrators dither as Jewish students feel bullied during the week perpetuating the libel that Israel is recreating South African racist apartheid? How could a campus "free speech forum" feature one speaker after another bashing Israel, with hecklers shouting down anyone who defends Israel? These are some of the challenges Jewish students on one Canadian campus are facing.
AS SOMEONE who has spent his life in the university, it pains me to identify campuses as centers of the new anti-Semitism. The new anti-Semitism is subtler than the traditional, more recognizable, type. But recent conversations with Jewish students reminded me how vulnerable many feel, how unsettling this new epidemic is for many.
Analyses of campus anti-Semitism must acknowledge that Jews are enjoying a golden age on campus. There never have been so many Jewish students, professors and university presidents. Most North American campuses are neither anti-Jewish nor anti-Israel battle zones. Nevertheless, we cannot ignore many students' distress - or fail to help them.
The new anti-Semitism is not wholly dependent on the controversies surrounding Israel. The Israel-Palestinian conflict has legitimized the hatred and confused the issue. The growth in blatantly anti-Jewish remarks, the insensitivity to Jewish concerns despite hyper-sensitivity to racist, sexist or homophobic epithets, and the singling out of Israel and Zionism for particular hatred, not just condemnation, transcend Israel's policies. It often feels that too many university communities accept Count de Clermont-Tonnerre's proposal to the French National Assembly of 1789: "The Jews must be granted everything as individuals - but nothing as a nation."
THIS CAMPUS hostility toward Israel and Jews collectively is rooted in the 1960s. Students' noble fight against Southern segregation curdled into attitudes romanticizing Third Worlders while demonizing whites and Westerners. The great modern sins became colonialism, imperialism and racism - along with sexism, heterosexism and now, the latest, Islamophobia.
Palestinian propagandists cleverly tagged Israel with the first three sins - caricatured as a colonialist, imperialist project of racist Zionists. This labeling is absurd. Jews returned to their historic homeland; they did not join a colonial expedition. Moreover, Palestinian Jews fought against the British Empire in the 1940s. And calling Zionism racist is itself racist, singling out Jewish nationalism for special disapproval in a world organized by nation-states.
Casting the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as a racial rather than national struggle demonized Israelis as Western whites stealing noble, colored Palestinians' land - despite the many non-Western, non-white Israelis, the many white-looking Palestinians and the fact that some Arab Palestinians who left in 1948 were as new to Palestine as some European Jews, because Mandatory Palestine attracted many Jews and Arabs.
These distortions underline the latest anti-Israel smear, the odious attempt to link Israel with South African racism. When we simply repeat the name of the week that is often observed in early February, without putting many words between the Jewish state and the word apartheid, we fail. Repetition creates a link just as Jewish nationalism was linked with that awful word racism. We should rename the week "Anti-Israel Week."
AS THE first semester winds down, now is the time to plan for the inevitable attack. Zionist activists should fashion a strategy based on these principles:
This is politics, not physics; not every action demands a reaction. The goal is not to try dissuading Israel's enemies. If Israel's attackers are being ignored or - as frequently happens - alienating bystanders by being aggressive, leave them alone. Only engage in battles which can build Jewish pride or present Israel to those who are open-minded.
Learn from feminists. In opposing sexual harassment, feminists have sensitized us to "hostile environments," the subtle ways intentional or unintentional aggression can make people feel demeaned. Students, their parents, alumni and professors must demand that administrators foster safe learning environments. The feminist idea of "taking back the night," is to celebrate where others may simply defend. So use the Z-word "Zionism" even if it is maligned, and turn "anti-Israel week" into a week-long celebration of Israel's accomplishments and Zionism's righteousness.
Students should be good consumers. If professors commit educational malpractice by not listening, or being so biased they squelch debate, students should file detailed complaints not against bad politics but demanding good education.
Find allies. The established Jewish community should find former black South Africans who endured apartheid and African scholars to explain apartheid's pernicious racism. We should seek South Africans offended by propagandists hijacking apartheid just as Jews resent hijacking the Holocaust to score cheap political points. Every comparison of the Israeli-Palestinian national conflict to apartheid dilutes the evil, racist injustice South African blacks and "mixed colors" endured under the color-conscious, depraved system which is not similar to the security measures Israel adopts in response to Palestinian terrorism.
Fight the upcoming Durban conference. Rather than simply reacting defensively, let this year's anti-Israel week become a consciousness raising moment for the university and broader Jewish community about the attempt to recreate the Durban conference this April in Geneva - again targeting Israel. Rather than stewing, and accepting the anti-Zionist agenda, use the attacks to fight the epidemic of Jewish apathy and mobilize a powerful pro-Israel response.
SADLY, PREPARATION for the next semester must be political not just educational. But we must master political jujitsu - a negative force, if properly met, can be transformed into a positive one. This February let us transform anti-Israel week's negative force into a positive force celebrating Israel, redeeming Zionism and moving forward with an effective, upbeat response to Durban.
The writer is professor of history at McGill University and the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today.
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