A leading expert on anti-Semitism has said that university campus groups “have the right to exclude Zionists.” Writing in the Times of Israel, Kenneth Stern argued that, although it may be “hurtful” and counterproductive, the right of progressive groups to exclude advocates of the occupation state must be respected. Stern is the US attorney who took the lead in drafting the highly controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism.
His intervention follows the growing debate around the exclusion of Zionist students from progressive spaces. Founded on the ethno-nationalist ideals of Zionism, Israel has long been viewed in progressive circles as a racist country that advocates settler colonialism and ethnic cleansing. This view has become more widespread in recent times after major human rights groups accused Israel of committing the crime of apartheid.
With Zionism increasingly being viewed as a racist, imperialist ideology, groups advocating for equality, human rights, the rights of minorities and progressive values, in general, are more frequently excluding supporters of Israel from their spaces. This has happened despite protests that Zionism and affinity with the apartheid state are intrinsic parts of Jewish identity. Critics, however, have long questioned this argument and rejected the claim that a political ideology should be treated as a “protective category” in the same way as gender, religion and race are.
The recent row over the IHRA definition is largely a demand by pro-Israel groups for wider society to support their claim that Zionism and support for the state of Israel be accepted as such a category. It is a form of exceptionalist pleading which is rejected wholesale when other groups in society make similar demands. For instance, the political ideology of “Islamism” or the desire to create an “Islamic State” are not only violently opposed and condemned, but any Muslim who insists that their political views and religion be granted special protection is also dismissed out of hand, and rightly so.
A similar example would be if India’s far-right BJP government under Prime Minister Narendra Modi and advocates of Hindutva, said that it is racist and anti-Hindu to question their demand to create an exclusively Hindu state. As is becoming increasingly clear, in their quest to refashion India as a Hindu state, Hindutva extremists have placed themselves on a collision course with the country’s secular constitution. No amount of special pleading that India is the only Hindu state in the world should make any difference, but the goal is still no less than the reformation of India as an ethno-religious state affording special rights and privileges to Hindus within a multi-tier system of citizenship. The model state that such Hindus aspire to replicate is Israel. The parallel between the two ideologies is a powerful illustration of the special status granted to Zionism.
Israel and its supporters are granted a privilege that is not extended to any other political community. Public bodies and private institutions across the Western world have not only agreed to their demand, but have also adopted the supposedly “working definition” of anti-Semitism produced by the IHRA that conflates legitimate criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Jew racism.
Although Stern does not compare Zionism and its equivalent ideologies around the world, he insists on treating Israel and its founding ideology in the same way as any other political ideology and its followers. The right to criticise freely without being labelled a racist should be preserved, he maintains. He admits that Zionism itself is a contested term but, nevertheless, the feelings about what Zionism means personally for some Jews should not be an excuse to crack down on freedom of speech by labelling people “anti-Semites” for criticising Israel’s founding ideology.
Commenting on the different perceptions of Zionism and the reasons why progressives exclude supporters of Israel, Stern said: “Some progressive students may understand Zionism as a term for Israel’s treatment of Palestinians; others may understand Zionism as most Jewish students do – the right of Jews to self-determination in their historic homeland.”
He explained that a significant and growing number of Jews are “agnostic” about Zionism or are anti-Zionist, which appears to suggest that Zionism and affinity with Israel is not as important to Jewish identity as pro-Israel groups claim.
“Anti-Zionist students may feel that letting a Zionist work among them is the equivalent of overlooking whether someone is a Nazi,” said Stern, “just as some Jewish organisations might feel that letting Jews in who support the Boycott/Divestment/Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel is overlooking anti-Semitism.” He disagrees with both assertions, but people on campus must be allowed to define their politics.
Wrestling with the central question of the piece in the Times of Israel — whether it is anti-Semitic to exclude Zionists from progressive spaces — Stern defends the right of progressive groups to be selective. “If a group decides that in order to be a member, one has to have a particular view of Israel and Zionism, the right to make that decision must be respected. Those not invited in, even though exclusion hurts, can find other ways to express themselves, including by creating new groups and coalitions.”
Stern has been critical of the way that the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism has been employed by pro-Israel groups against critics of the apartheid state. His latest intervention is another defence of freedom of association and speech against what many say is a crackdown on pro-Palestine voices and the dangers of conflating anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism.
“Jewish groups have used the definition as a weapon to say anti-Zionist expressions are inherently anti-Semitic and must be suppressed,” wrote Stern in the Times of Israel two years ago. Concerns raised by him then highlight the claim that the fight against anti-Semitism, as American Jewish commentator Peter Beinart believes, has “lost its way”.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.