If there are persons who will contest a received opinion or who will do so if the law or opinion will let them, let us thank them for it, open our minds to listen to them, and rejoice that there is some one to do for us what we otherwise ought, if we had any regard for the certainty or the vitality of our convictions, to do with much greater labour for ourselves.
This quote is from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty. Right-wing goons are after Bill Robinson, one of my mentors at the University of Tennessee, now teaching at the University of California-Santa Barbara. His sin? He criticized Israel’s brutality against Palestinians in Gaza. Two students accused him of anti-Semitism, which they said, following the State Department, is defined as the demonization of Israel and the vilification of its leaders. The State Department claims there is a distinction between criticisms of Israeli policies and behavior, on the one hand, and “commentary that assumes an anti-Semitic character,” on the other hand. Then the State Department erases the distinction between them by writing,
The demonization of Israel, or vilification of Israeli leaders, sometimes through comparisons with Nazi leaders, and through the use of Nazi symbols to caricature them, indicates an anti-Semitic bias rather than a valid criticism of policy concerning a controversial issue.
Is the demonization of Iran anti-Muslim? Iran is an Islamic state. Is using Nazi symbols and metaphors to caricature Iran and its leaders anti-Islamic? It is commonplace to compare Iranian leaders to Nazis. Are we to avoid vilifying Ahmadinejad because this is anti-Muslim or anti-Persian? Is the demonization of Iraq and Saddam Hussein anti-Arab? Saddam Hussein was constantly compared to Hitler. Was this anti-Muslim, since Saddam was a Muslim? What sort of anti is it to compare Bush to Hitler?
Obviously, it’s patently absurd to claim that demonization of Israel or vilification of its leaders is antisemitic or anti-Jewish. The State Department’s definition is designed to intimidate defenders of human rights into making an exception when it comes to Israel. But Israel cannot escape criticism by proclaiming its Jewish character anymore than Iran can escape criticism—even demonization and vilification—because of its Islamic character.
Israel, as is the United States, Saudi Arabia, or any other country, is a nation state. As such, criticism of it cannot constitute a form of racism. Just because many of Israel’s representatives characterize the country as a Jewish state does not transform criticism of Israel into anti-Jewish speech. Racism is a policy of systematic discrimination against and/or a system of structural inequality affecting a racially defined group. Antisemitism is prejudice against Jews. It is typically defined as antipathy or hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as an ethnic or racial group. Jews in Israel are not an oppressed ethnic or racial group in Palestine, therefore criticism of them cannot be racist anymore than criticism of the white minority of South African under Apartheid can be racist.
Now, if Bill Robinson had said that Jews are racially inferior (or superior), or inherently evil, or should be exterminated or segregated, then he would be guilty of antisemitism. But Bill, who happens to be Jewish, hasn’t said anything like this. I know Bill. He doesn’t believe such things.
It’s a curious thing when Jews call other Jews antisemites for criticizing Israel. Another term often used to malign Jews critical of Israel is “self-hating Jew,” a classic psychological ad hominem. However, the authority to determine what antisemitism is does not lie with those Jews who accuse other Jews of it.
In this context, the attack against Robinson is for allegedly being anti-Israel. There is nothing ethically problematic about being anti-US, anti-Russia, anti-France, and so forth. So why is this an issue? Because the university that employs Robinson is moving to charge Robinson with misconduct. Here is Robinson’s web site: http://www.soc.ucsb.edu/faculty/robinson/. Here is an article about the controversy: http://www.insidehighered.com/news/2009/04/23/ucsb, Here is the petition to sign to support Robinson against the witchhunt: http://sb4af.wordpress.com/.