The pro-Israel lobby's ongoing efforts to weaponise anti-Semitism has been dealt a major blow after a prestigious American university refused to sack one of its professors for showing solidarity with Palestine. Lobbyists inflicted a lot of pressure on the university after Marc Lamont Hill outraged Israel's supporters and was accused of anti-Semitism when he talked of a free Palestine "from the river to the sea" in a robust speech at the United Nations during a session on the organisation's International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. As a result of lobbyists' complaints he was fired as a commentator on CNN before his detractors moved to exert pressure on Temple University in Philadelphia where Lamont Hill is professor of media studies.
The academic turned to social media to thank everyone who had given him their support. "So many lessons," he wrote on Facebook. "So many thoughts. Too much to process right now. In the meantime, I want to thank everyone around the world who has offered support, love, advice, prayer, resources and more. This has been an impossibly difficult time for more reasons than I could possibly explain. Only your generosity has made this load bearable. In return, I offer my sincere gratitude and a commitment to fighting for those who have paid FAR GREATER prices than me."
Led by the Anti-Defamation League, a variety of Zionist groups accused Professor Lamont Hill of calling for the destruction of Israel when he used the popular phrase "free Palestine from the river to the sea." This is a reference to historic Palestine mapped between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean prior to the creation of Israel in 1948. Although the UN Partition Plan — never accepted by the Palestinians themselves — allocated 54 per cent of the land to the Zionist state, Israel now occupies and controls, practically and legally, 100 per cent of historic Palestine.
Lamont Hill defended his use of the phrase, describing it as "an invocation of a long history of political actors — liberal and radical, Palestinian and Israeli — who have called for their particular vision of justice in the area from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea." He explained further that, "Justice will come through a single bi-national democratic state that encompasses Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza." This was seized upon by his critics as "proof" of what they believe was a call for the destruction of Israel.
Patrick O'Connor, the President of Temple University's Board of Trustees, said at the time: "I'm not happy. The board's not happy. The administration's not happy. People wanted to fire him right away … We're going to look at what remedies we have."
Another trustee of the university is also the president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia. Leonard Barrack accused Lamont Hill of calling for "the destruction of the State of Israel in code words."
The president of the Zionist Organisation of America added his weight to the campaign calling for the professor's dismissal. "As a Temple University alumnus from where I received two degrees," fumed Morton A Klein, "I am especially shocked, embarrassed and ashamed that Mr Lamont Hill teaches at my alma mater and has a named Chair no less. His working at Temple can only hurt fundraising and support for the University. And it is immoral as well. There isn't a safe space large enough to get away from Lamont Hill. Fire Marc Lamont Hill!!"
According to the former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, the academic's choice of words was "disgusting", while Israel's Consul General in New York, Dani Dayan, told journalists that, "Lamont Hill called for the elimination of the State of Israel from the map." The diplomat also took to Twitter and accused the professor of being a "racist, a bigot, an anti-Semite. The fact that he is all this while in the payroll of @CNN and [Temple University] is appalling."
The American Association of University Professors rallied to the support of Lamont Hill on the grounds that a professor cannot be punished by the university, for what is said outside the institution.
Of course, Marc Lamont Hill is not the first academic to be targeted by pro-Israel pressure groups. They regard university campuses as a battleground to target and attack all individuals and groups who show solidarity with Palestine and its people, and criticise Israel, its apartheid policies and its contempt for international laws and conventions.
The communications director of Jewish Voice for Peace welcomed the announcement of the "surprising turnabout" that Temple University will not fire or discipline Professor Lamont Hill. The organisation was putting the finishing touches to an advertising campaign in defence of the academic when the news came through on Tuesday night. "We have literally just sent art for the ad but now are cancelling it," explained Granate Kim. "I cannot be happier for Professor Lamont Hill. He is an incredible educator and defender of justice and equality and now we know the university is not bending to false charges of anti-Semitism."
The money that JVP raised for Hill's defence will now support academic freedom and free speech rights, Kim added. "We also know the fight isn't over; professors and students will be targeted again whenever they publicly stand for Palestinian rights."
This victory for America's pro-Palestinian groups will be seen very much as a David v Goliath victory in their favour. Those who back the Zionist State of Israel usually have very deep pockets to finance and fuel campaigns to ensure that any discussions or debates about Palestine are not only closed down but those behind them are also silenced and punished. Marc Lamont Hill's attempt to raise the possibility of one state in historic Palestine instead of the imposed "two-state solution" comes at a time when it is now acknowledged widely that Israel's colonial occupation has made two states almost impossible to achieve. What's more, those running the Israeli government, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, are known to be opposed to the existence of an independent State of Palestine.
Lamont Hill's critics are well-aware of this and tried to make the issue about anti-Semitism — unacceptable in any circumstances — rather than a political critique of Israel and its apartheid policies. That they have failed on this occasion is to be welcomed, and will perhaps be a precursor to a more open debate about the future of Palestine-Israel free from such accusations of racism.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.