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