Committee A on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the AAUP just published a problematic “Statement” in which it denounced the threat to academic freedom from two – it claims – closely related efforts by “conservative” legislation to suppress freedom of speech on campus. These initiatives allegedly use the IHRA (International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance) definition of antisemitism and a definition of CRT (Critical Race Theory) as anti-white racism, “to ban, limit, or distort the teaching of history and related academic subjects.”
SPME does not concern itself with CRT so the remainder of this critique will deal only with the matter of antisemitism and anti-Zionism, with the caveat that, given what appears to be a clear partisan agenda, the level of misinformation that concerns our topic may well also apply to comments about race. Certain key aspects of the AAUP statement have already been dealt with in an article by Cary Nelson and Steve Lubet, in particular the claim that recent laws addressing antisemitism as “a special form of discrimination” are superfluous, with its implications that antisemitism, the oldest and most unusually virulent form of hatred of the ‘other,’ should be treated as nothing more than a manifestation of racial or religious prejudice.
Repeatedly the statement claims the IHRA definition “includes political criticism of the state of Israel,” and that it “equates criticism of the policies of the state of Israel with antisemitism.” As the result it asserts, “[p]olitical critiques of Israeli state actions—including discrimination and violence against Palestinians—become subject to the charge of antisemitism, skewing the social and legal meaning of equality and obscuring other prohibited forms of discrimination.”
Of course, the IHRA definition does nothing of the sort. On the contrary, it explicitly acknowledges that “[c]riticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic,” just not double standards. Thus, if you want to accuse Israel of the crime against humanity of Apartheid, you need to acknowledge that given the same (very loose) definition and the same intensive level of scrutiny, all of Israel’s neighbors would rank much higher on the scale of “prohibited forms of discrimination.”
Despite the impression one gets from the AAUP Statement, IHRA’s open acceptance of the legitimacy of criticism is widely known and has been expounded upon in detail. The key issue concerns what’s “legitimate” criticism, and when does it spill over into classic and revamped antisemitic tropes – blood libels about stealing organs and murdering children as policy, comparisons with Nazis, accusations of genocide and Apartheid based on definitions so vague that almost every nation on earth could be (but is not) accused of these “crimes against humanity.” It is this hyperbolic rhetoric of evil that the IHRA defines as antisemitism. (Sharansky’s 3 Ds, 2002: delegitimation, demonization, double standards), and playing the malevolent trope of Jews (in this case Israel) as cosmic evil.
The AAUP statement passes over precisely this virulent hate-speech in silence, an enactment of what David Hirsh calls the “Livingstone Formulation,” by which Jewish objections to the demonization of Israel by “pro-Palestinians,” were dismissed as merely efforts to silence any criticism of Israel. But demonization is not criticism; and although Israel has a high tolerance for criticism, it has less for demonization. Thus, the AAUP, perhaps unwittingly, has taken a position in support of the notion that Palestinian “rights” include the right to engage openly and prolifically in genocidal hate-speech, calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and the extermination and/or subjection of the Jews living there.
The problem here is the politically incorrect but widely documented observation that both before and especially since 1945, nowhere has Nazi antisemitic rhetoric flourished more openly and pervasively than in the Arab world, in particular among Palestinian “leaders,” be they secular or religious. Initially, straight Nazi propaganda: we love Hitler and want to finish his job; then classic holocaust denial (Abbas’ Moscow-produced PhD); finally, the (Soviet inspired) revision: the Israelis are the new genocidal Nazis, and the Palestinians the new Jewish victims. So central a role does this memeplex play in Palestinian discourse, that they repeat all three at once, despite their mutually contradictory content.
Indeed, the most active front for mainstreaming antisemitic discourse in the West for the last twenty years has been Palestinian propaganda, a phenomenon that first “takes” in the West at the turn of the century (Durban 2001) and marks a turning point in “the new antisemitism” that currently plagues not only the Arab and Muslim world, but democracies all over the globe. It made its first formal appearance at the UN Durban Conference of 2001, where (among many examples) a T-Shirt with a picture of Hitler read: “What if I had won? There would be no Israel and no Palestinian blood shed.”
And, alas, not only is this hate speech not opposed by Palestinian or Arab public figures of any stature, but the Western mainstream news media, which at most alludes to it under the never-detailed rubric “incitement,” ignores it as well, sometimes studiously. Some even consider hate-speech about Israel a Palestinian “right” (and therefore also the “right” of their supporters). The IHRA definition challenges such a distorted notion of “rights,” which itself expresses a “humanitarian racism” that condescendingly treats the Palestinians as having no moral agency, no need to abjure antisemitic hate speech.
Indeed, in its avowed concern for free speech, the AAUP’s Committee A Statement replicates this larger silence about problematic Palestinian discourse: it ignores the hate-speech that accompanies so many discussions of Palestinian “rights”; it describes one of the most violent and disruptive campus movements extant (BDS), maybe the single greatest threat to freedom of speech in academia today, as “peaceful”; and it condemns an effective tool for criticizing their demonization of Israel and mainstreaming Jew-hatred, as itself an attempt to “suppress… censor… ban” legitimate discussion.
Given how badly informed, if not actually deliberately misinforming, this Statement is about IHRA’s definition of antisemitism (with its Orwellian twist of turning the opponents of academic freedom into peaceful victims), one might legitimately suspect that it is the work of an activist subcommittee that convinced the larger committee to trust their report sight unseen. (A clinical case of how propaganda works.)
At a time when attacks on Jews both on campus and off proliferate at an alarming rate, often in direct tandem with these “discussions” of Palestinian suffering, we urge, therefore, that a larger and more serious group of scholars in the AAUP look into the credibility of their Committee A Statement, especially its characterizations of both the Zionist groups it criticizes and the Palestinian ones it defends. In so doing, it might consider retracting the segments of this statement concerning Israel and antisemitism as unworthy of professors with principles.
The IHRA definition, like any definition trying to identify one of the longest, most mutable hatreds in the long unhappy history of human hatred, has both strengths and weaknesses. But as opposed to the AAUP’s characterization, one of its great strengths is to recognize in certain forms of anti-Zionism, one of the many avatars of that hatred. As such, the IHRA definition has much to offer` in preserving both the right of responsible free speech, and intellectual integrity.