The American and Israeli governments alike should stand up for, rather than stand in the way of, open and vibrant academic debate on Israel–Palestine, just as they should for debate about any contentious subject essential to democracy.
By Katherine Franke | The New York Review of Books | Dec 12, 2018
New policies adopted by the US and Israeli governments are intended to eliminate any rigorous discussion of Israeli–Palestinian politics in university settings. Not since the McCarthyite anti-Communist purges have we seen such an aggressive effort to censor teaching and learning on topics the government disfavors.
There are signs that we’ve reached a tipping point in US public recognition of Israel’s suppression of the rights of Palestinians as a legitimate human rights concern. Increasingly, students on campuses across the country are calling on their universities to divest from companies that do business in Israel. Newly elected members of Congress are saying what was once unsayable: that perhaps the US should question its unqualified diplomatic and financial support for Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East, and hold it to the same human rights scrutiny we apply to other nations around the globe. Global companies such as Airbnb have recognized that their business practices must reflect international condemnation of the illegality of Israeli settlements in the West Bank. Natalie Portman, Lorde, and other celebrities have declined appearances in Israel, acknowledging the call to boycott the Israeli government on account of its human rights violations. And The New York Times published a column arguing, with unprecedented forthrightness, that criticism of ethno-nationalism in Israel (for example, defining Israel exclusively as a “Jewish state”) isn’t necessarily anti-Semitic.
At the same time, discussions on college campuses about the complexities of freedom, history, and belonging in Israel and Palestine are under increasing pressure and potential censorship from right-wing entities. In fact, new policies adopted by the US and Israeli governments are intended to eliminate any rigorous discussion of Israeli–Palestinian politics in university settings. Not since the McCarthyite anti-Communist purges have we seen such an aggressive effort to censor teaching and learning on topics the government disfavors.
Especially chilling, the US Department of Education recently adopted a new definition of anti-Semitism, one that equates any criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews. This new stance was evident when the Department’s Office for Civil Rights recently reopened an investigation of anti-Semitism at Rutgers University regarding a complaint that had been examined and closed by the Obama administration. The case, which was brought by the Zionist Organization of America, alleged that Rutgers should not permit students to hold events at which the human rights record of the state of Israel is criticized. The ZOA applauded the reopening of the case by Kenneth Marcus, the new head of the Office for Civil Rights and a long-time proponent of the view of that all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic.