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Spare us the crocodile tears, Zionists; legitimate criticism of Israel is not anti-Semitism

April 3, 2023 at 8:57 am

Demonstrators take part in protests outside a meeting of the National Executive of Britains Labour Party on 4 September 2018 in London, England. [Dan Kitwood/Getty Images]

The deliberate targeting and persecution of academics who are put through the “Zionist wringer” shows no sign of abating, even though the latest victim, Lara Sheehi has been cleared of spurious claims of inciting hatred of Jews. Sheehi is an assistant professor of clinical psychology at George Washington University. Her case has alarming parallels with the charges in Britain laid against Professor David Miller, who was forced out of his job at Bristol University in 2021. Both academics were targeted and accused of inciting hatred; and both cases hinge on what the definition of anti-Semitism actually is and, importantly, who defines it, and why.

It is obvious that until a coherent definition is drawn up and agreed upon by all parties — which is unlikely — the Zionist definition of anti-Semitism, which includes criticism of the Zionist state of Israel, is accepted widely without much, if any, debate on campuses around the world. This scandalous situation creates a minefield for anyone who dares to stand up and call for justice for the Palestinians.

When educational institutions impose a limit on the critical thinking of their students, they are doing them a huge disservice. They rightly expect their students to question and evaluate anything and everything else, but Israel and its founding ideology Zionism are out of bounds. This means that if academics are banned from calling out the Zionist version of anti-Semitism — which essentially means that they aren’t allowed to criticise the apartheid state of Israel and its brutal occupation of Palestine — then this McCarthyite witch hunt will continue to stalk scholars like Sheehi and Miller.

According to Sheehi, George Washington University “colluded” with a right-wing, pro-Israel group over a federal complaint accusing her of anti-Semitism. StandWithUs (SWU) complained to the US Department of Education’s civil rights office claiming that Sheehi discriminated against Jewish students by refusing to accept their definitions of anti-Semitism. The complaint filed last month also accused Sheehi of hate speech about Israel and Zionism, and claimed that the university failed to investigate properly a history of complaints against the professor.

Like many academics around the world, Lebanese-born Sheehi is active on behalf of Palestinians. As she has discovered, though, when anyone is a pro-Palestinian activist they are immediately faced with attempts to silence and intimidate them including, evidently, hounding them out of their jobs.

I have been called anti-Semitic for raising the issue of Israeli snipers targeting innocent civilians like Tom Hurndall, a gifted British photography student and volunteer for the International Solidarity Movement. He was shot in the head in the occupied Palestinian territories on 11 April 2003 by an Israeli sniper, Taysir Hayb. Tom died months later having never regained consciousness.

And Rachel Corrie, a 23-year-old heroic US peace activist who was callously crushed and killed by the driver of an armoured Israeli bulldozer as she tried to prevent the demolition of a Palestinian home in Gaza twenty years ago this month. And I can’t forget the equally heroic volunteer Gaza medic Razan Al-Najjar, whose assassination in 2018 was as cold and calculating as the killing of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh almost a year ago.

I will be talking about them at length in Glasgow and Edinburgh soon for the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign. And yes, I will be criticising the ruthless killing machine known without a hint of irony as the Israel Defence Forces. Does that make me anti-Semitic? No reasonable person would think so, but Zionists are not reasonable people.

READ: In rushing to consensus, UK media failed in its duty during Labour anti-Semitism row

I rarely get invited to speak at universities these days to inform students about the atrocities that I’ve witnesses in the occupied Gaza Strip and West Bank. Giving a truthful eyewitness account is simply not acceptable; do so, and you are labelled as an anti-Semite who has to be silenced.

Sheehi says that she was targeted by those who set out to conflate her legitimate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. She has described StandWithUs as a “shameless fringe political activist group prosecuting a right-wing pro-Israel agenda,” in an article for Counterpunch.

The lobby group was founded in California in 2001, and works closely with the Israeli foreign ministry to oppose pro-Palestinian boycotts and activism by students. It maintains a team of dozens of lawyers “to fight anti-Semitism” — for which read criticism of Israel — principally at universities and high schools. The group also trains students to record lectures in order to document any perceived anti-Israel bias.

Its highly influential US founder, Roz Rothstein, claims that they are non-partisan, and yet she openly expresses support for the construction of illegal Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and denounces Israeli soldiers who dare to criticise the occupation. Building settlements on occupied land is actually a war crime. Her support for this is highly partisan.

The courageous Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) identified StandWithUs as one of a number of groups that “intervene on campuses in efforts to muzzle political criticisms of Israeli policies.” JVP published its findings in a hard-hitting report in 2015.

The SWU complaint to the US Department of Education describes a fractious relationship between Sheehi and some Jewish students and claims that during lectures on diversity, she rejected their definitions of anti-Semitism while accepting the definitions of racism put forward by Black and other minority students. The group also said that Sheehi took offence at a student’s use of the term “terrorist attack”, and alleged that she invited a speaker who “demonised Israel” and said that “appropriate resistance includes throwing stones”. The complaint said one Jewish student was left “crying” and feeling “deeply unsettled and unsafe” by the talk.

READ: US professor cleared of anti-Semitism allegation filed by anti-Palestine group

Tears seem to be a weapon of choice deployed by young Zionists in lecture theatres. This was illustrated in the famous clash at Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio, when Professor Norman Finkelstein expressed his outrage at the display of “crocodile tears” by one student back in 2008. Finkelstein’s late father was an Auschwitz survivor, and his mother survived the Warsaw Ghetto and Majdanek concentration camp. He lost many members of his family in the Nazi Holocaust, and was furious when challenged by a Jewish student about his pro-Palestinian speech.

Finkelstein is well known for his passionate defence of Palestinian rights. In his best-selling book The Holocaust Industry he refers to the “new anti-Semitism”, and claims that the Jewish, pro-Israel Establishment in America exploits the memory of the Holocaust for political and financial gain and to further Tel Aviv’s interests around the globe. According to Finkelstein, this “industry” has corrupted Jewish culture and the authentic memory of the Holocaust.

As long as courageous professors like Finkelstein, Sheehi, and Miller continue to defend Palestinian rights they will be targeted by right-wing extremists and Zionists — nowadays, of course, they are often one and the same thing — who intentionally and shamelessly conflate criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism.

According to Sheehi she has been targeted specifically because she is an Arab woman who advocates for Palestinians. She has called on StandWithUs to release an illicit recording of her class that she believes the group has in its possession. “The transcript,” she insists, “will reveal that I absolutely and categorically agree that anti-Semitism is undeniably real.”

She has defended a series of angry tweets as a reflection of her own anger at Israeli military actions in Lebanon when she was growing up and her treatment at the hands of the Israeli army while she was conducting research in the occupied Palestinian territories. “My anger,” she wrote, “against an occupying army and occupying state that has stolen so much from me, my people, and my Palestinian siblings is not contextless, capricious, or religiously based. It is political anger.”

Like so many other academic institutions, George Washington University has failed to defend and protect a member of its own staff from the spurious allegations and misleading evidence submitted by StandWithUs, according to the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee which represented Sheehi. It is time that such institutions stand up for truth and justice for Palestinians.

If I am “anti-Semitic” for saying so, then I really fear for academic freedom and human rights. The university remains sitting on the fence issuing spineless statements. Either it is for academic freedom of speech or it isn’t; it can’t simply try to dodge the issue for fear of upsetting the powerful pro-Israel lobby.

So, spare us the crocodile tears, Zionists. Your ideology is not Judaism; not all Zionists are Jews, and not all Jews are Zionists; ergo, legitimate criticism of Zionism is not anti-Semitism. That’s the reality, no matter how much you claim otherwise.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.