Criticism of Israel is not antisemitism
Grave implications for free speech, distracts from actual racism
UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS AT URBANA-CHAMPAIGN. (INSTAGRAM)
OPEN LETTER, Mondoweiss, DECEMBER 23, 2020
As faculty and staff within the University of Illinois system, we are writing to renew our outrage at the rampant anti-Semitism and racism at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. We condemn all forms of racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, anti-Blackness, xenophobia, and other forms of hatred and dehumanization.
We are also deeply concerned about the way anti-Semitism is defined in a joint statement issued by UIUC, the Jewish United Fund, Hillel groups, and the Brandeis Center in response to complaints that these avowedly pro-Israel groups filed against the University based on student speech and activism for Palestinian human rights.
Specifically, the statement identifies incidents “that demonize or delegitimize Jewish and pro-Israel students…[or] subjects them to double standards” as expressions of anti-Semitism. This conflation of Jewish religious and ethnic identity with a viewpoint that supports the state of Israel or Zionism as a political ideology is a dangerous tactic that is expressly aimed at silencing any and all debate about Israel and Zionism on college campuses.
The way that anti-Semitism is defined in UIUC’s statement correlates with a definition that has been pushed by pro-Israel groups in legislatures, agencies, and institutions around the country and that was adopted by Donald Trump in an executive order issued in 2019. Those same groups have often funded Islamophobia across this country and have allied themselves with right wing organizations. The definition itself is uncontroversial, but it is accompanied by several illustrative examples intended to guide its interpretation and use. For instance, critiques of Israel as a racist state are treated as expressions of anti-Semitism. As the Brandeis Center has said explicitly in the complaint it filed against UIUC, the definition means that: “anti-Zionism is a contemporary form of anti-Semitism.”
The political project to equate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is harmful on several levels, and we urge the University of Illinois administration to reject this effort because of the grave implications it has for academic freedom and student free speech on our campuses, the way it distracts from actual racism happening on our campuses, and the ironic consequence of creating an anti-Palestinian/Arab/Muslim environment on campus by targeting students for expressing their experiences and views.
1) The harm to academic freedom and student speech
Whether or not one agrees with Israeli policy, anyone concerned about academic freedom should be gravely concerned about this definition because repressing the free exchange of ideas is antithetical to the purpose of campus life and the opportunity for students to learn how to engage with diverse viewpoints.
Part of the university experience means hearing ideas that may clash with your own, being challenged to consider different perspectives, and approaching issues with intellectual rigor. UIUC’s statement eviscerates this by demanding that students with a certain political viewpoint – that is, support for Israel – be shielded from opposing ones. That is impossible, and untenable. No one would expect the university to protect students from Myanmar from criticism of its treatment of Muslims, or supporters of South Africa’s apartheid regime from its critics. That’s because we do not conflate criticism of a country with hatred of people who are from or support that country’s policies. And we must not do that for Israel either. Neither Israel, nor any other country, can be shielded from criticism in a university setting, and people who support Israel – as with any other issue – must learn to contend with differing viewpoints.
We are especially concerned about the impact this definition will have upon academic freedom in the area of teaching and debate in our classrooms, as well as on our scholarship. This creates an environment of fear in our classroom, making even faculty worried about being attacked for scholarship they assign in their courses and lectures and research projects they pursue. At colleges and universities across the US, pro-Israel organizations have called on the US Department of Education to enforce this definition by silencing students, faculty, courses, and events expressing support for Palestinian freedom. It is particularly concerning to see the adoption of this definition by the UIUC administration, in light of Prof. Steven Salaita’s experience having a job offer withdrawn by UIUC for comments made on his personal social media and other experiences of harassment of faculty and graduate students at UIUC. Indeed, the University has at times been responsive to ensure that explicit Islamophobic comments are not tolerated by staff, especially those in key positions on campus. Yet these responses are not nearly enough. Anti-Muslim sentiment and practices are integral to today’s unleashing of white supremacy across the country. Students across various U of I campuses continue to raise grave concerns about the lack of administrative response to the ways Islamophobia impacts their lives and academic success and they continue to fear for their safety. In January 2020, UIUC extended an invitation to JUF to train staff of the housing department. And now, for example, the University is dismissive of student concerns.
If UIUC accepts that criticism of Zionism, or opposition to Israel’s establishment as a state in historic Palestine that privileges Jews over indigenous Palestinians, is the equivalent of anti-Semitism, the University will insert itself into the position of a political censor of classroom, scholarly and campus discourse. The First Amendment won’t allow that, and neither will faculty or students who are here to experience a diversity of thought and to think and associate freely.
We urge the UIUC administration to stand up against external pressure and put the mission of the university before the political interests of organizations external to the university. These groups cannot dictate the terms of our academic and extracurricular discourse.
We are at a critical point in the history of free speech and racial justice on U.S. college campuses. Will the University of Illinois administration commit to being consistent in its support of free speech and academic freedom around all issues of racial justice? Or will the University of Illinois adopt a strategy that ends up undermining racial and social justice work because external right-wing political groups insist on dictating the agenda and determining what is acceptable discourse on our campuses?
2) Actual racism on our campuses
Anyone truly committed to ending anti-Semitism should be equally concerned about UIUC’s statement, and its response to incidents on campus. Indeed, this definition prioritizes protecting Israel from critique over ending anti-Jewish animus, as its deployment against campus advocacy for Palestinian rights – including at UIUC – has vividly shown. To truly address anti-Semitism, we must work together to root out white supremacy from our communities and institutional structures.
Emboldened by four years of the Trump regime, white supremacists are publicly expressing hatred and regularly perpetrating acts of racist violence towards Jewish, Black, Latinx, Asian, Arab, Muslim, immigrant, LGBTQ, and gender non-conforming people. White supremacists are in various positions of power within the Trump administration and various reports have continued to record and document their influence in and out of the White House. These groups are fueling anti-Semitic incidents across the country.
Incidents of anti-Jewish hatred at UIUC, including swastikas on university buildings, reveal the danger of white supremacy on our campuses and in our society. We condemn these incidents in the strongest terms. At the same time, incidents of racism and bias continue to take place on campus; many carry the historical legacy of racism, such as noose hangings, and others manifest themselves at particular moments in response to our context, such as racial slurs related to COVID-19.
Throughout the University of Illinois system, Jewish students, faculty, and staff are actively helping to build joint struggles against white supremacy. Jewish activists around the country are speaking up against injustices and building alliances to address all forms of racism, including anti-Semitism, anti-Arab/anti-Muslim/anti-Palestinian racism, and Zionist support of Israeli settler-colonialism.
We expect our university administration to be able to distinguish political speech from hatred of a people, and to address racism in all its forms in a holistic way that takes into account the needs of our vulnerable and targeted students, not in a way that reinforces power dynamics and further oppresses groups.
3) A hostile climate for students
The definition that pro-Israel groups are insisting on will undermine the university’s effort to promote inclusion in the face of discrimination and hatred on campus. As we have seen when similar definitions have been adopted elsewhere, it will specifically silence and exclude Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students and anyone who speaks up for justice, democracy, and human rights for Palestinians living in the face of Israeli state violence.
It is unacceptable that students speaking about their experiences as Palestinians, and students organizing to get their campus to divest from human rights abuses and racial injustice, should face the barrage of harassment and condemnation that UIUC students have been subjected to. UIUC’s statement makes clear that their viewpoints and experiences are unwelcome because those who support Israel don’t approve.
We feel strongly that students should not have to fear investigations and attacks from the university for sharing their experiences and viewpoints. Nor should they be put in a position where other faculty, staff, students and online communities are emboldened to complain about, harass, intimidate, or threaten them with impunity.
Therefore, we call on the UIUC administration to reject the politicized and distorted definition of anti-Semitism pushed by pro-Israel groups and imposed by the Trump administration on executive agencies like the Department of Education. Criticism of Israel must not be conflated with expressions of white supremacy or anti-Semitism, and universities like UIUC have a constitutional obligation to protect speech for Palestinian rights from censorship and punishment.
We demand that the University of Illinois stand on the just side of history by standing up against external efforts to suppress academic freedom and the free exchange of ideas on our campuses. We ask that:
- The University retracts its previous statement equating anti-Semitism with critique of Israel.
- Create a U of I wide committee on Arab and Muslim affairs to ensure Islamophobia and anti-Arab and anti-Palestinian incidents are swiftly addressed and provide trainings to various campus units.
- Establish a Middle East and North Africa Cultural House at UIUC to act as a home and a support space for students and provide educational events to our campus community.
It is well established that students learn most when they are exposed to a variety of viewpoints and taught how to think critically and come to their own opinions. As co-signers, we stand with all of our students and everyone on our campuses to support their learning and growth, not to protect a few from ideas that challenge a state’s policies.
It is imperative that the University of Illinois live up to its mission, integrity, and values.
We stand united in opposition to hatred and discrimination against all communities.
We reject the effort to silence Palestinian narratives and criticism of Israel.
And we stand together in the struggle against white supremacy.
- Nadine Naber, Professor, UIC
- Andy Clarno, Associate Professor, UIC
- Zeina Zaatari, Director, Arab American Cultural Center, UIC
- Sarah Abboud, Assistant Professor, UIC
- Mark Martell, Director, UIC
- A. Naomi Paik, Associate Professor, UIUC
- Anonymous, Assistant Professor, UIUC
- Lynette A. Jackson, Associate Professor, UIC
- Gayatri Reddy, Associate Professor, UIC
- Kat Fuenty, Staff, UIUC
- Anna Guevarra, Associate Professor, UIC
- Eman Saadah, Director of Less Commonly Taught Languages Program, UIUC
- Nicole Nguyen, Associate Professor, UIC
- Akemi Nishida, Faculty, UIC
- Ronak K. Kapadia, Associate Professor, UIC
- Junaid Rana, Associate Professor, UIUC
- Norma Claire Moruzzi, Associate Professor, UIC
- Kishonna L Gray, Assistant Professor, UIC
- Pauline Lipman, Professor, UIC
- Patrisia Macias-Rojas, Associate Professor, UIC
- Claire Decoteau, Associate Professor, UIC
- Helen Jun, Associate Professor, UIC
- Molly Doane, Associate Professor, UIC
- Gilberto Rosas, Associate Professor, UIUC
- Cedric Johnson, Associate Professor, UIC
- Faranak Miraftab, Professor, UIUC
- Zohreh T Sullivan, Professor Emerita, UIUC
- Ellen Moodie, Associate Professor, UIUC
- Rico Gutstein, Professor, UIC
- Kenneth M. Cuno, Professor, UIUC
- Amanda Lewis, Professor, UIC
- Elena Gutierrez, Associate Professor, UIC
- Laurie Schaffner, Associate Professor, UIC
- Lorena Garcia, Associate Professor, UIC
- Xóchitl Bada, Associate Professor, UIC
- Ralph E. Cintron, Professor, UIC
- Jennifer A Jones, Associate Professor, UIC
- Michael Jin, Assistant Professor, UIC
- Jane Rhodes, Professor, UIC
- Karen Su, Clinical Assistant Professor, UIC
- Alyson Kung, Assistant Director for Education and Outreach, UIC
- Junaid Quadri, Associate Professor, UIC
- David Stovall, Professor, UIC
- Elizabeth Todd-Breland, Associate Professor, UIC
- Rosa Cabrera, Director, UIC
- Nik Theodore, Professor, UIC
- Iván Arenas, Associate Director, UIC
- Ken Salo, Lecturer, UIUC
- Wail S. Hassan, Professor, UIUC
- Joe Iosbaker, Civil Service Employee, UIC
- Rachel Havrelock, Professor, UIC
- Bruce Rosenstock, Professor, UIUC
- P. Zitlali Morales, Associate Professor, UIC
- Johari Jabir, Faculty, UIC
- Susila Gurusami, Assistant Professor, UIC
- Barbara Ransby, Professor, UIC
- Madhu Dubey, Professor, UIC
- Beth E Richie, Professor, UIC
- Ainsworth Clarke, Associate Professor, UIC
- Chelsea Birchmier, Staff, UIUC
- Logan Middleton, Staff, UIUC
- Adam Goodman, Assistant Professor, UIC
- Sabrina Jamal-Eddine, Staff, UIC
- Kathryn J. Oberdeck, Associate Professor, UIUC
- Anonymous, Assistant Professor, UIC
- Cynthia Blair, Associate Professor, UIC
Students and other supporters
- Anonymous, student, UIC
- Hiba Ahmed, student, UIUC
- Anonymous , student, UIC
- Yuki Takauchi, Graduate Student, UIUC
- Jordan R Alcantar, Graduate Student, UIC
- Andrea Herrera, Alumni, UIUC
- Estibalitz Ezkerra, Alumni, UIUC
- Anonymous, Ally
- Aminta Zea, Community member, supporter
- Pauline Park, Alumni, UIUC
- Malak Afen, Student, UIC
- Sara Rezvi, Doctoral Candidate, UIC
To add your signature fill out this form: https://forms.gle/t7mMi6M4wZ7r3i9u6