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Task force on anti-Semitism criticised as similar to endorsing white racists' fear of black peers

June 21, 2024 at 2:54 pm

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]

Prioritising the discomfort of pro-Israel students over the rights of the Palestinians, a task force at Columbia University in the US is poised to adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that will conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Jewish racism. The move, initially reported by Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, and further scrutinised by The Intercept, has raised major concerns about potential infringements on free speech and the suppression of Palestinian voices, while prioritising the feelings of discomfort of Jewish students.

The task force, established in November 2023 amid growing political pressure against criticism of Israel on campuses, plans to implement mandatory orientations on anti-Semitism for all new students and faculty. According to the Haaretz report, the task force’s definition “is expected to determine that statements calling for the destruction and death of Israel and Zionism can be considered anti-Semitic, while criticism of the Israeli government cannot.”

Read: Zionist lobby group labelled ‘propaganda’ and ‘misinformation’ source by Wikipedia

Critics argue that the proposed definition, which closely resembles the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition, could severely limit legitimate criticism of Israel and silence pro-Palestinian voices. Seven of the eleven examples included in the IHRA conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism.

Task force members themselves acknowledged that the definition is designed to address the fear and discomfort of Jewish students for whom Zionism is part of their identity. Ester Fuchs, a task force co-chair and political science professor, stated, “We heard from students who feel their identity, values and very existence on campus have been under attack.”

This approach has been likened to validating the unfounded fears of white nationalists who feel threatened by the presence of Black people. As noted in The Intercept’s analysis, we would not validate the fears of a white student brought up to see black people as a threat.

The approach has been met with scepticism from various quarters, including Jewish critics who reject the conflation of Judaism with Zionism. Four Jewish graduate students, critical of Zionism, expressed their concerns in an op-ed for the Columbia Spectator: “Ever since the task force was announced, we feared it would equate Zionism and Jewishness.” They emphasised, “Zionism is a political ideology — not an ethnic or religious identity. We can attest to that fact: Some of us believed in Zionism when we were younger, and even wanted to enlist in the Israeli military. Some of us grew up feeling like Zionism and Jewishness were inseparable, but our study of the history of Zionism led us to reject it.”

Read: Not in our name: UK Jewish Academic Network forms to counter misuses of anti-Semitism

The composition of the task force has also come under scrutiny. Professor Katherine Franke, writing in The Nation, noted that the task force is “chaired by among the most ardent Zionist faculty members on our campus” and that “none of its members has any academic expertise in the study of anti-Semitism, or in how anti-discrimination laws apply in an academic setting.” This lack of expertise and potential bias has raised questions about the task force’s ability to address the complex issue of anti-Semitism objectively.

Critics argue that the adoption of such a definition could further suppress the rights of Palestinians to describe their oppressors and their oppression. They point out that, while the task force focuses on Jewish students’ comfort, other minority groups, particularly Muslims and Palestinians, continue to face discrimination and lack of support on campus.

Noreen Mayat, a recent Barnard graduate and former president of the school’s Muslim Students Association, wrote in the Columbia Spectator, “To be Muslim at Columbia is to be racially profiled and doxxed, beg for administrative resources and support, and still receive none. To be Muslim at Columbia is to face Islamophobia on campus — to be spat on and called ‘terrorists’ — and receive no University acknowledgment or recognition.”

The Intercept’s analysis noted: “There can be no doubt that students for whom Israel is central to their Jewish identity have felt immense discomfort in the months of protests against Israel’s violence. This discomfort is not, however, proof of real threat. Nor is it grounds to continue to uphold the dangerous claim that criticism of Israel, even criticism of Israel as an ethno-state, is an attack against Jewish people.”