by Vida Samiian and Lisa Rofel
It was shocking to read on August 31, 2018 the following headline in the British tabloid, The Sun “Jeremy Corbyn paid tribute to a disgraced ex-UN official who ‘blamed Boston bombings on Israel.’” The “disgraced ex-UN official” referenced by The Sun is Professor Richard Falk1, a widely respected scholar of international law and a consistent advocate of human rights for all. The tabloid’s intent was to demonstrate that allegations of antisemitism directed at Corbyn were justified because he was praising a notorious ‘antisemite’.
Revealingly, the article raised, out of context, views Professor Falk had expressed about the blowback dimensions of the Boston Marathon and concerns about how the U.S. Government handled skeptical reactions to the official version of 9/11. It made much of the fact that Falk had commented that Israel’s outsized influence on the conduct of American foreign policy contributed to blowback effects, generating rage and frustration vented in violent extremism. However, a careful reading of Professor Falk’s body of work demonstrates that nowhere in his writings is any animus whatsoever against Jews as a people. His criticisms were directed at the U.S. government for refusing to pursue policies that genuinely promoted mutual respect and understanding. As a public intellectual, it is within Professor Falk’s expertise and right both to academic freedom and Frist Amendment protections to analyze and criticize US policy without fear of intimidation or slander.
This kind of attack tricks the mind by extending the discrediting label of antisemitism to any line of thought or action that is seen as critical of Israel. The old antisemitism was about the hatred of Jews; the new charge of antisemitism is about criticism of Israel, although it seeks to conflate criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews. Ironically, it also identifies all Jews with the state of Israel, an unheard-of and potentially racist denial to Jews of the right to criticize the state that pretends to represent them.
The California Scholars for Academic Freedom2, a group of over 200 California scholars who defend academic freedom of faculty and students in the academy and beyond, join Professor Richard Falk in voicing concern regarding the smear tactic used by ultra-Zionist defenders of Israel in defaming an internationally known academic and human rights leader. Beyond that, we are gravely concerned with the attempt to shut down debate by smearing opposition voices to prevent their message from being heard or heeded. Such tactics are intrinsically shameful as they try to evade substantive argument by recourse to character assassination.
In this instance, it shifts the conversation away from Corbyn’s programs, which are more difficult to discredit because they speak to the many ordinary people in Britain who have suffered for many years from neoliberal regimes of austerity. Blairites in the Labour Party who are allergic to Corbyn because of his supposedly socialist message seem quite content to hide behind this dirty campaign to paint Corbyn as an anti-Semite. It is a perfect catch-22: he dare not ignore the charge or it will be taken as true, but by responding he is weakening his own message and political credibility as a future national leader. Labour’s main constituencies in Britain want to determine whether his economic program is workable and likely to make their lives better than they are under a Tory government. They are deprived of this understanding by these demeaning taunts.
The attacks on Corbyn and Falk are all too familiar to any of us who have expressed our criticisms of Israel or on US policy in the Middle East. For those of us in academic life, ideas are as vital as oxygen, and when we are made to pay a price for telling the truth as we see it the outcome is not only chilling, but a direct attack on the freedom of thought and expression. It signals to many members of academic communities to shut up about Israel/Palestine or their careers will be in jeopardy. Where successful, such censorship also raises the specter of wider efforts to curtail freedom of expression.
The issue is not entirely new. During the Cold War it could prove toxic for faculty members to be perceived as Marxists or even as intellectuals who thought that Marxist traditions of thought were important for their historical relevance to the ideological battles going on around the world. Professors at some leading universities were required to sign loyalty oaths, and if they refused, were expected to resign or were fired. This narrowed the experience of students and closed minds to alternatives to the ideology prevailing in the United States. If a democratic society is afraid of ideas, especially controversial ideas, then it forfeits much of the claim of being democratic and ends up cheering demagogues.
During the long campaign against South African apartheid within universities, churches, unions, and in a variety of other settings, there were criticisms made of demands that investments be divested or that athletes and cultural figures boycott South Africa. There were discussions about the limits of nonviolent activism, and again criticism was made of professors who were seen as encouraging militancy. Yet what was not done was to smear scholars and activists with epithets designed to portray opponents of apartheid as despicable human beings.
Why has this red flag of antisemitism has been waved so vigorously and irresponsibly in the last few years and not earlier? For decades, supporters of Israel would come to discussions where pro-Palestinian positions were being expressed armed with questions prepared in advance, and often delivered in an angry tone of voice. The purpose was to gain the upper hand substantively, or at least to join the issues in ways that would convince most of the audience that the issue was too complicated or controversial. But rarely if ever was the anger directed at the character of the speaker unless, as in the rarest of cases, the background of Israeli critics included membership in organizations or authorship of screeds expressing hatred of Jews, that is, genuine antisemitism.
With the appointment of Kenneth Marcus, a former Israel lobbyist, as the top civil rights enforcer of the US Department of Education, we are already witnessing a new level of aggression against any criticism of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories and denial of human rights to Palestinians in the occupied territories. The request to reopen the Rutgers University case after four years is a case in point. Equally alarming is the British Labour Party’s adoption of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism which conflates not only criticism of Israel but also anti-Zionism with antisemitism, in defiance of both logic and history, given the long tradition of Jewish anti-Zionism. These efforts are alarming attacks that shake the foundation of our first amendment rights protected under the Constitution.
The shift in tactics also reflects Israel’s awareness that its positions cannot be convincingly defended because they are so clearly at odds with elemental notions of law and morality. Unable to win debates where the facts are so damaging to their political messaging, they seek to silence the messenger by defamation. In consequence, reputable scholars lose academic appointments or are silently blacklisted and university institutions are increasingly reluctant to antagonize trustees or donors by hosting serious inquiries into the Palestinian national movement or events that view critically the evolution of the Zionist project. The resulting media feeding frenzy justifies its complicity by claiming that with so much smoke there must be fire somewhere.
In short, our political and academic freedoms are being hijacked by these defamatory tactics. Worst of all, the charges made under this ‘new antisemitism’ that confuses political criticism with racial hatred is harming the quality of political life in democratic societies and dangerously merging political controversy with ethnic prejudice.
Co-coordinator, California Scholars for Academic Freedom
Professor of Linguistics and Dean Emerita
College of Arts and Humanities
California State University, Fresno
Fresno, CA 93740
Professor Emeritus of Anthropology
Co-Director, Center for Emerging Worlds
University of California, Santa Cruz
Co-coordinator, California Scholars for Academic Freedom
1. RICHARD FALK is Albert G. Milbank Professor Emeritus of International Law at Princeton University and has been a Visiting Distinguished Professor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara, where he currently co-leads UCSB’s Orfalea Center Project on Global Climate Change, Human Security, and Democracy. He taught international law and politics at Princeton University for 40 years. In 2001, he served on a three-person Human Rights Inquiry Commission for the Palestine Territories that was appointed by the United Nations, and previously on the Independent International Commission on Kosovo. He acted as counsel to Ethiopia and Liberia in the Southwest Africa Case before the International Court of Justice. In 2008 Falk was appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to a six-year term as UN Special Rapporteur on “the situation of human rights in the Palestinian territories occupied since 1967.” He serves asChair of the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation’s Board of Directors and as honorary vice president of the American Society of Internal Law. He is the author of over twenty books and editor of another twenty and numerous journal articles. He received his BS from the Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania; LLB from Yale Law School; and JSD from Harvard University.
2. CALIFORNIA SCHOLARS FOR ACADEMIC FREEDOM (cs4af) is a group of over 200 scholars who defend academic freedom, the right of shared governance, and the First Amendment rights of faculty and students in the academy and beyond. We recognize that violations of academic freedom anywhere are threats to academic freedom everywhere. California Scholars for Academic Freedom investigates legislative and administrative infringements on freedom of speech and assembly, and it raises the consciousness of politicians, university regents and administrators, faculty, students and the public at large through open letters, press releases, petitions, statements, and articles.