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Charging Anti-Semitism to Squelch Dissent

By Marjorie Heins*

Responding to complaints of anti-Semitism last October, the U.S. Department of Education began an investigation into anti-Israel protests at the University of California-Berkeley. The accusation was that the protests created a hostile environment for Jewish students. Around the same time, the California legislature passed a resolution defining anti-Semitism to include political rhetoric that characterizes Israel as a racist or apartheid state, or compares it to Nazi Germany.

These charges of anti-Semitism carry unsettling echoes of American politics in the 1950s. In those Cold War days, calling someone a communist was so emotionally charged as to be unanswerable with logic, and the effect—if not the purpose—was to demonize and silence political dissent.

Most Marxists, left wingers, and even members of the Communist Party USA in the 1950s were not unquestioning champions of Joseph Stalin or admirers of his tyrannical regime. People had moved left in the 1930s and '40s—and many had joined the Communist Party—because of their anger at injustice, racism, and poverty, their fear of fascism, and their frustration at the failures of American capitalism. Likewise, not all critics of Israel today are anti-Semites, even including those who use heated rhetoric and offensive metaphors to condemn Israel’s current policies.

It is easy enough to claim that political protest, which is often passionate and highly charged, creates a hostile environment for somebody, but the breathing space that free speech needs to survive can be readily suffocated by such broad charges, which fail to distinguish between the perceived offensiveness of the protesters’ rhetoric and pervasive bigotry or discrimination.  

It’s true that comparing Israeli policy toward Palestinians in the occupied territories to the Nazi Holocaust is a gross exaggeration and a particularly offensive form of political hyperbole, but it is not necessarily anti-Semitism—nor, as the California legislature would have it, is it necessarily anti-Semitic to “delegitimize Israel” or “apply double standards by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”

Those examples—delegitimizing Israel or applying a double standard—come from a “Working Definition of Anti-Semitism” published in 2005 by the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights.1 The European group’s definition has more caveats than the California legislature’s, but is still too broad, because it confuses anti-Semitism—that is, bigotry against and irrational hatred of Jews as an ethnic group—with attitudes toward and characterizations of the State of Israel. It is true that some of these attitudes and characterizations are reminiscent of the demonization of Jews as an ethnic group during the past 2,000 years of history. But student protesters who repeat them are not necessarily aware of the historical baggage. The fact remains that it is a mistake to conflate anti-Semitism with even extreme attacks on the policies of Israel.

The evil of anti-Semitism remains a grave problem in Europe, where neo-Nazi groups continue to attract members despite laws banning their doctrines. Last March, a fanatic anti-Semite raided a Jewish school in Toulouse, France and killed three children and a teacher. The viciously anti-Semitic Protocols of the Elders of Zion circulates widely in Islamic societies.

But criticism of Israel—even advocacy of the unworkability of a Jewish state—is not the same as hatred of Jews as an ethnic group, just as criticism of capitalism, or indeed, belief in communism, was not the same as treason or conspiracy against the U.S. in the 1950s.

During those panicky Cold War years, an argument commonly made against allowing communists to teach in public schools or colleges was that they were mental slaves of Stalin and had thereby abandoned all claim to intellectual independence. Even ex-communists were condemned unless they made lavish shows of repentance before legislative investigating committees or boards of education, which usually included “naming names” of others they had known in the movement for whatever time—whether years or just months—that they had been members of the Communist Party. Brilliant, dedicated teachers lost their jobs as a result of the purge; in many cases, their families suffered poverty, ostracism, and decades of police surveillance.

To be sure, a small minority of American communists in 1930s and '40s passed classified information to the Soviet Union or subordinated their intellectual freedom to Moscow. But the great majority did not, as evidenced by the steady rate at which people left the Communist Party when they found their disagreement with its frequently-shifting doctrines sufficiently troubling to outweigh whatever combination of idealism and frustration had drawn them into the communist movement in the first place.

Today, it is widely acknowledged that the McCarthy era witch hunt against American communists, former communists, fellow travelers, and other leftists was a grave mistake—an abandonment not only of the academic freedom that’s necessary for meaningful education, but of basic due process, free speech, and freedom of association. Reckless attacks against left wingers in the 1950s suppressed needed dissent over U.S. policies in ways that led our country into Vietnam and other post-Cold War quagmires, and that forged a Manichean pattern of thinking about foreign affairs that is still with us.

Charges of anti-Semitism leveled against critics of Israel are similarly repressive of political dissent. Regardless of one’s view as to the two-state solution or any other aspect of the Middle East dilemma, more speech, not less, is needed if that tragic situation is to be resolved. As the president of the American Association of University Professors pointed out in a 2011 statement (responding to complaints from the Zionist Organization of America about anti-Israel protests at Rutgers University and elsewhere), the purpose of a university is to foster free speech—“to have students wrestle with ideas with which they may disagree, or even better, may make them uncomfortable. To censor ideas is to diminish education. … By trying to censor anti-Israel remarks, it becomes more, not less, difficult to tackle both anti-Semitism and anti-Israel dogma.”2

The effect of confusing vigorous, harsh criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism is, ironically, to nurture anti-Semitism. The more that unquestioning advocates for Israel fail to make the distinction, the more they encourage others to equate ethnic Jews the world over, whether or not religious and whether or not supporters of Israel, with the current policies of the Israeli state. And just as in the 1950s, at height of the anti-communist purge in academia and elsewhere in U.S. society, the effect of branding civil rights and other left-liberal causes as communistic was to undermine and discredit needed reforms, so today’s accusations of anti-Semitism block clear-headed debate over the mess in the Middle East.

Especially at universities, where the Supreme Court has recognized academic freedom as a “special concern of the First Amendment,”3 we should be skeptical when charges of discrimination or bigotry are aimed at political protest. The intense passions that anti-Semitism evokes and the gruesome history of the Holocaust make this a highly charged and difficult issue – but perhaps no more so than the demonization of American communists during McCarthy era. It would be a mistake to return to the path of smothering protest through irresponsible accusations.

December 23, 2012

Update, December 3, 2014: A coalition of scholars and public interest organizations has written an open letter to more than 140 universities warning against limits on political debate on campus. The letter includes extensive citations to legal precedents rejecting the notion that attacking Israeli policies amounts to harassment of Jewish students, and defending the First Amendment right to political protest, even when it is uninhibited, passionately expressed, and objectionable to some listeners. See

In September 2015, the Center for Constitutional Rights and Palestine Legal issued a report, The Palestine Exception to Free Speech, documenting hundreds of efforts to suppress speech critical of Israeli policies.

*Marjorie Heins’s book, Priests of Our Democracy: The Supreme Court, Academic Freedom, and the Anti-Communist Purge, was published in February 2013.

1. European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights, (successor to European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia), "Working Definition of Anti-Semitism" (March 2005), (accessed 12/23/12).

2. "Anti-Semitism on Campus," Statement by AAUP President Cary Nelson and American Jewish Committee spokesman Kenneth Stern, April 2011, (accessed 11/28/12), as reported in Peter Schmidt, "Some Complaints of Campus Anti-Semitism Are Called Attempts at Censorship," Chronicle of Higher Education, 4/20/2011, (accessed 12/23/12). The American Jewish Committee later disavowed the statement, and at this writing, it is no longer available on the AAUP web site.

3. Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 603 (1967).

The Free Expression Policy Project began in 2000 as a project of the National Coalition Against Censorship, to provide empirical research and policy development on tough censorship issues and seek free speech-friendly solutions to the concerns that drive censorship campaigns. In 2004-2007, it was part of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU School of Law. Past funders have included the Robert Sterling Clark Foundation, the Nathan Cummings Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Educational Foundation of America, the Open Society Institute, and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

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