Weaponizing Antisemitism

by Ellen Cantarow & Jennifer Loewenstein

student protest usa gaza columbia police action

All of us—and we are legion across the world must keep our eyes on the genocide in Gaza, as well as on the vicious pogroms underway in the West Bank. A recent statement by James Elder of UNICEF reports that in Rafah, “The European hospital is crammed with severely injured and dying children. A military offensive here will be catastrophic.”

At the same time, throughout the West Bank, mobs of fascist settlers torch homes, steal possessions including livestock, kill Palestinians and drive them off their land. All of this has been enabled by President Joseph Biden, who has sent fulsome amounts of aid to Israel to carry out its genocidal and ethnic cleansing assaults on the Palestinian people. A holocaust, underwritten by the greatest military power in the world, is underway in both occupied territories.

Promoting the savageries Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, said, “Whoever perpetrates against the Jewish people like these evil ones have perpetrated on us, will be destroyed, they will be annihilated, and it will echo for decades and decades onwards.” In another statement he declared: “Rafah, Deir al-Balah, Nuseirat, total and utter destruction that will erase the memory of the Amalek from under the skies.”


This is the fulfillment of Israel’s dream of inhabiting all of what was once historic Palestine, making it a land unencumbered by its indigenous Arab population. Israel’s ongoing efforts since 1948 to kill or expel all Palestinians from what was historic Palestine have triggered student sit-ins and demonstrations on some 120 American college campuses.

Israel has become a country with powerful fascistic tendencies, headed by fanatics and demagogues catering to a population so filled with hatred of Arabs that it welcomes the genocide. In a recent article, “Dead on Arrival: Israel’s Blowback Genocide,” Ellen recalls visiting the West Bank city of Hebron in the 1980s and seeing graffiti on walls that proclaimed, “Arabs to the Gas Chambers.” At that time renowned Israeli public intellectual Yeshayahu Leibowitz warned that Israel was turning its soldiers into Judeonazis. Recent YouTube videos of soldiers mocking their victims bear out his prophecy. This hatred is pervasive in Israel. There are courageous exceptions like journalists Amira Hass and Gideon Levy who write for the newspaper Haaretz and the group Combatants for Peace. But all too many Israelis have supported their country’s assault on Gaza, or even wanted something worse.

The student protests that for weeks have been under public scrutiny have been peaceful mass gatherings of citizens outraged at Biden’s unconditional support for Israel’s relentless campaign in Gaza. Yet early on, riot police were summoned to Columbia’s campus as well as that of the City College of New York, the University of Texas-Austin, UCLA, and others, to dismantle the encampments, arrest, and sometimes beat up students and supporting faculty. Ayman Mohyeldin on MSNBC last week showed images of a mob hurling fireworks at the UCLA protesters, spraying them with pepper spray, and beating them with sticks and other weapons.

In tandem with the police actions, cries of “antisemitism” have arisen about the protests. When interviewed in print or on television, the Jewish student activists have said unanimously that these protests are neither antisemitic nor hate-filled. Moreover, the antisemitism claims are irreconcilable with the fact that thousands of Jewish students nationwide are participating. Two leading protest organizations, Jewish Voices for Peace and If Not Now, are Jewish, proclaiming that never again may genocide take place against any people, not just Jews.

Both of us writers of this article have experienced real antisemitism. Ellen remembers, in her early childhood, around 1945, her mother saying that the local grocer, a Mr. McGonigle, was glad Hitler was “mopping up all the kikes.” She remembers the child in her third-grade class who called her “a kike.” Jennifer remembers being pelted with spitballs by classmates shouting “Jew!” at her for making a Star of David design in her art class. Meanwhile, her father recalled being chased around the block by a neighborhood bully holding a knife saying, “You killed Christ!”

These experiences mirror what until now has been the guiding definition of antisemitism, that of The International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA): “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish and non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

Yet the campaign against alleged “antisemitism” has gone forward, adding criticism of Israel to the definition of the term. In Congress, the House of Representatives on May 1 passed a bill entitled “The Antisemitism Awareness Act.” It makes speech seemingly threatening the existence of Israel newly “antisemitic,” citing, for example, the cry, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” as a call for the annihilation of the Jewish state and of the Jews in it. It makes no difference that Jewish students and people like the writers of this article have chanted that slogan, intending its meaning to be that Palestinians should be free within a redefined state.

Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a longtime supporter of Israel and a Zionist, has criticized the bill: “While there is much in the bill that I agree with,” he said, “its core provision would put a thumb on the scale in favor of one particular definition of antisemitism to the exclusion of all others to be used when the Department of Education assesses claims of antisemitism on campus.” He continued that the new definition includes “contemporary examples of antisemitism,” adding: “The problem is that these examples may include protected speech, in some contexts, particularly with respect to criticism of the State of Israel.”

Omer Bartov, an Israeli-American Professor of Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Brown University, described by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial museum as one of the world’s leading specialists on the subject of genocide, is the author of an article entitled, “Weaponizing Language: Misuses of Holocaust Memory and the Never Again Syndrome.” In a recent dialogue with the Israeli Holocaust scholar Raz Segal, the two discussed antisemitism and “the perils of antisemitism and its current weaponization.”

In an April 30 interview on Democracy Now!, Bartov noted the peaceful nature of the University of Pennsylvania demonstration as well as the one at Brown University. Of antisemitism he said that it “is a vile sentiment, it’s an old sentiment, it has been used for bloodshed, for violence, and for genocide. But it has also become a tool to silence speech about Israel. And that, too, has quite a history, and numerous governments under Benjamin Netanyahu have been pushing this agenda of arguing that any criticism of Israeli policy, not least, of Israeli occupation policies, is antisemitic.” He added that there are Jewish students who feel threatened, for instance by the term “Intifada,” which literally means “shaking off,” as in the shaking off of the 57-year-long occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. “But there’s nothing threatening about opposing occupation and oppression.”

The Antisemitism Awareness Act, which indeed weaponizes antisemitism against those protesting Israel’s savagery in Gaza and the cruelty of its overall occupation policies, is soon to be voted upon by the Senate. Its enactment would mark a giant step towards degrading the U.S. Constitution, in particular its protection of freedom of speech, assembly, and a free press. It also threatens the status of academia as a realm in which the free exchange of ideas can flourish.

Fascism threatens American democracy embodied in a Republican Party that has long ceased to be a political party and is rather, according to Thomas Mann and Norman Ornstein of The American Enterprise Institute, “an insurrection.” The reelection of Donald Trump would import an Israeli-style fascism embodied by Netanyahu and Smotrich, while the reelection of Joe Biden will allow these smoldering tendencies to ignite the flames of that ideology within the U.S. If the Antisemitism Awareness Act is passed by the Senate, the erosion of civil liberties long anchored in the Constitution seems all but certain.

Like all forms of prejudice and ethnocentrism, antisemitism has no place in an enlightened society. But what about genocide? Is that an acceptable manifestation of a modern society? Are those denouncing protests against Israel’s genocidal and ethnic cleansing actions OK knowing that over 100,000 people, most of them women and children, have been killed, wounded, and maimed in indiscriminate bombing raids across the Strip since Oct. 7th?

Meanwhile, all the focus on alleged antisemitism has diverted national attention from the genocide in Gaza and the barbaric settler actions in the West Bank. The official number of Gaza’s dead is close to 35,000 with another 8-10,000 people unaccounted for under the rubble. If 6,000 of these people were Hamas fighters, that still leaves a total of nearly 40,000 civilians dead.

News of atrocities within this holocaust continues. Recently, UN Special Rapporteur of the Palestinian Territories Francesca Albanese stated, “I am extremely alarmed by information that Dr. Adnan Albursh, a well-known surgeon at #alshifa_hospital, has died while detained by Israeli forces in the Ofer military prison. While I acquire more information, I urge the diplomatic community to intervene with CONCRETE MEASURES to protect Palestinians. No Palestinian is safe under Israel’s occupation today.”

Israel is neither a democratic nor a peace-loving society. It is an arm of US regional hegemony and a US client state that receives $3.8 billion annually in military aid and that has received over $30 billion additional military aid since October 7th. Since its founding in 1948, Israel has received $158 billion in military support, making it the greatest recipient of US military aid in history. Israel has nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons the only such power in the Middle East to have this kind of arsenal. [We] suggest the next time someone complains that “little Israel” is “surrounded by enemies” (a false statement to begin with), people consider these facts. We need look no further than Tel Aviv to determine which nation is the real destabilizing force in the region.

If the Antisemitism Awareness Act passes the Senate, what will befall student protests? Will they all become acts of civil disobedience? What about the alternative press, whose independent organs have become invaluable given the corporate media’s pussyfooting or downright ignoring of the Gaza holocaust and West Bank atrocities? Will it be shuttered by the federal government on the grounds of banned “hate speech”? Will what we write be rejected by publications that fear for their survival?

“As a Jewish person who stands hand-in-hand with my Palestinian brothers and sisters and works daily against anti-Arab hate, I find this weaponization of my identity particularly disgusting,” states Arab-American Antidiscrimination Committee staff attorney Chris Godshall-Bennet. “Criticism of Zionism and of the Israeli government is not antisemitic, and conflating the two only serves to provide cover for Israel’s numerous, ongoing human rights abuses and violations of international law, as well as its genocide of Palestinians in Gaza.”

Declares Palestinian poet Mohammad Al Kurd, “I am asked to have patience for these kinds of debates that tell me that words are genocidal. The Israeli regime is engaging in a war of attrition against the Palestinian people and yet we are asked to talk about chants and slogans… But this is about our moral obligation as human beings to reject genocide, the real genocide that is happening in real time.”

All people of conscience must keep this in mind. And we must maintain our focus on the agonies of Gaza and the West Bank, denouncing them and calling for an end to Israel’s assaults, to settler violence, and ultimately to the occupation of both the West Bank and Gaza.

We must honor the student demonstrators and all who champion them as the heroes they are, cease the opportunistic abuse of the term ‘antisemitism,’ and urge them to continue their protests.

Ellen Cantarow, a Boston-based journalist, first wrote from Israel and the West Bank in 1979. Cantarow has written on women in the labor force, social activism, and the Middle East. Her work has been published in the Village Voice, Grand Street, and Mother Jones, among other publications, and was anthologized by the South End Press. More recently, her writing has appeared at Counterpunch, ZNet, TomDispatch and Common Dreams.

Jennifer Loewenstein is an American activist. She is politically active in Madison, Wisconsin, and writes as a freelance journalist.

Originally published in CommonDreams.org

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