As the row over what constitutes anti-Semitism rages in Britain, the very real fear that freedom of speech is being threatened has already been realised in America, according to one Jewish campaign group. At the heart of the argument is a decision by the Trump administration to change how the Education Department investigates allegations that Jewish students face discrimination; not surprisingly, the Trump team has backed an approach that is endorsed by pro-Israel groups.
The policy change has already prompted the reinvestigation of an event held seven years ago, involving Holocaust and Nakba survivors, which was deemed to be anti-Semitic because it included criticism of the Israeli government. The reopening of the 2011 case, dismissed under the Obama administration, means that anyone who supports Palestinian human rights is potentially going to be regarded as an anti-Semite, says Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP).
The original investigation, instigated by a leading pro-Israel Lobby group in the US, has been reopened on the order of Kenneth Marcus, Trump’s new head of civil rights at the Education Department. It centres on an event held at the State University of New Jersey, commonly known as Rutgers, which says that it has not yet received official notification from the Department.
Just a few weeks ago, the university hosted Omar Barghouti, a founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel. During his lecture, he called for Rutgers to distance itself from Israel.
The move by Marcus, a long-time opponent of Palestinian rights, has caused alarm among pro-Palestine groups and threatens to divide university campuses across America. He has also put the weight of the Federal Government behind a definition of anti-Semitism which not only targets opponents of Zionism, but also defines Judaism explicitly as a religion and an ethnic identifier.
All of this comes hard on the heels of a number of anti-Palestinian moves by Donald Trump: the controversial move of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; the axing of aid to millions of Palestinian refugees through the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA); and the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organisation’s office in Washington. The latter was admitted to be a punitive measure in response to the announcement that the Palestinian Authority is making moves for the International Criminal Court to launch an investigation of Israel.
While Marcus’s move has been welcomed by the conservative Zionist Organisation of America, JVP points out that what he has done is tantamount to declaring the entire struggle for Palestinian rights to be anti-Semitic. “Kenneth Marcus has been a busy man,” said Jewish Voice for Peace in a weekend press release. “On the second day of Rosh Hashanah (of all days), the New York Times reported that he’s effectively changed the Education Department’s definition of anti-Semitism to include criticising the State of Israel.”
This, the member-driven campaign group explained, isn’t just semantics. “For starters, Marcus is leveraging this redefinition to re-open a closed investigation brought by the Zionist Organisation of America against Rutgers University alleging anti-Semitism.” As JVP notes on its website, this is an “anti-Muslim extremist organisation” as well as being pro-Israel. “Marcus wants to make it impossible for Palestinian students to give voice to their personal, familial and communal experiences of oppression. And he wants to prevent anyone else — including and especially Jewish students — from standing with them.”
Accusing the Education Department official of “intentionally misusing claims of discrimination to shut down students advocating for human rights and equality,” JVP says that he has been doing this “for decades.” Indeed, before taking up his new appointment, Marcus boasted openly about how he had helped to file numerous discrimination claims against Palestinian solidarity groups in order to smear the reputations of the students involved, the campaign group added.
JVP has now launched a campaign to challenge Marcus, pointing out that he isn’t “unbeatable” as he only just secured Senate confirmation because of his retrograde stances on campus sexual assault, affirmative action, and free speech generally. “So if we can make clear he’s acting as an anti-free speech crusader enforcing a reactionary definition of anti-Semitism, he could be stopped.” Campaigners say that their plans involve use of the media, student mobilisation and legal channels to challenge the official.
Back in Britain, the anti-Semitism row showed no signs of abating when trade union leader Mark Serwotka blamed Israel for fuelling the controversy engulfing the Labour Party, saying it was designed to mask “atrocities” against the Palestinians. Serwotka, the General Secretary of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), told delegates at the Trades Union Congress (TUC) conference that Israel may have created a “story that does not exist.”
During a fringe event organised by the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, he said that Tel Aviv is responsible for the raging controversy over anti-Semitism within Labour ranks and accusations against its leader, Jeremy Corbyn. “Now, I’m not a conspiracy theorist,” he said, “but I’ll tell you what, one of the best forms of actually trying to hide from the atrocities that you are committing is to go on the offensive and actually create a story that does not exist for people on this platform, the trade union movement or I have to say, for the leader of the Labour Party.” Predictably, there have been calls for his resignation from the pro-Israel Lobby.
Palestinians, meanwhile, look on in bewilderment at the whole anti-Semitism row on both sides of the Atlantic. They are still reeling from news that the Trump administration is cutting its donations to UNRWA, which provides essential education, health care and basic support to around 6 million refugees. What’s more, Washington announced last week that it is also cutting $25 million of funding to six hospitals in occupied Jerusalem where the majority of patients are Palestinians.
Even casual observers say that it is obvious that Trump’s goal is to force Palestinians to drop their demands for the legitimate right of return to the homes and land from which they and their families fled during the ethnic cleansing which surrounded the establishment of Israel in 1948. Thus, while politicians in the US and Britain argue over words and what constitutes anti-Semitism, a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict which gives rise to equality and justice looks less likely than ever before.
What’s more, as usual, the real victims caught up in the crossfire of discrimination are the people of Palestine themselves. The allegations of anti-Semitism continue to sideline their increasingly desperate plight. This is outrageous; the struggle against anti-Semitic racism cannot and should not be built upon the denial of the legitimacy of Palestinian rights as they seek an end to Israel’s brutal military occupation and racist policies which have denied them those rights for more than seventy years.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.