“An anti-Semite used to be a person who disliked Jews. Now it is a person who Jews dislike.”
– Hajo Meyer, Jewish German-born Dutch physicist and Auschwitz survivor.
“Antisemitism is a trick we always use.”
– Shulamit Aloni, Jewish Israeli, former Israeli Minister of Education, longtime member of the Israeli parliament.
On Sunday, February 23 before a match at Yeshiva University, two brave young Muslim Brooklyn College volleyball players “took a knee” during the playing of Hatikvah, the Israeli national anthem. Omar Rezika (Soph.) and Hunnan Butt (Fr.) following the example of NFL football player, Colin Kaepernick, who protested the police brutality in the US African-American community, were protesting the brutality of the Israeli occupation and its apartheid policies toward its non-Jewish residents. The Nation sports journalist Dave Zirin wrote me that he learned this was the reason for the protest from sources close to the team.
The Jewish press, Jewish organizations and social media were quick to cry antisemitism. The Simon Wiesenthal Center, The Algemeiner, and StopAntiSemitism.org (has short video of the protest) were just a few who rallied their readers against the protesting students. The antisemitism charges were easily refuted by the fact that the protest was a legitimate political protest against Israel and had not been directed at Jews, as Jews, nor specifically at the members of the Yeshiva community because of their ethnicity or religion. Of course just about every Yeshiva student, faculty member and administrator is a supporter of Israel and is also an active apologist for Israeli transgressions.
The Yeshiva University President, Ari Berman, boasted of the wide (some would add “mindless”) support Zionism has in the United States, and called the actions of Rizika and Butt “unfortunate.” In saying this he ignored the acceptance free speech and peaceful protest have in American culture and especially in academia. The Yeshiva University newspaper, The Observer, quotes Berman as saying:
It is unfortunate that some members of the opposing team disrespected Israel’s national anthem. We are proud to be the only university who sings both the American and Israeli national anthems before every athletic competition and major event. Nothing makes me prouder to be an American than living in a country where our religious freedom, our Zionism and our commitment to our people will never be impeded and always be prized.
One salient element that differentiates this protest from Kaepernick’s NFL anthem protests, and indeed most protests, is that it can be credibly argued that it was Yeshiva University, not the protesters themselves, that initiated the confrontation. What university makes the visiting team stand for a foreign national anthem? And this is not just any foreign national anthem. It is a national anthem whose words specifically exclude more than 20% of Israeli citizens and more than 50% of persons subject to Israeli rule because they are not Jewish. The anthem also celebrates what most Muslims and many progressives, backed by international law, consider to be a brutal, illegal occupation of Palestinian land.
Even the Zionist political lobby group, J Street, which supports a kinder, gentler and better-concealed Israeli occupation, featured an alternative, more democratic version of a possible Israeli anthem in the entertainment program of one of its recent conferences.
The American Jewish blogger, Richard Silverstein, who has tweeted about the anthem protest, sent me his reaction:
Unfortunately, the courageous act of dissent performed by these two young volleyball players has been transformed into a act of anti-Semitism, when it was nothing of the sort. They simply sought to engage in a cherished American tradition of free speech and standing up for the oppressed. No university that I know plays both the Star Spangled Banner and the national anthem of a foreign country before sporting events…except Yeshiva University.
A Brooklyn College spokesperson issued a brief statement which was quoted in the Yeshiva Observer that began by assuring those who took offense from the anthem protest that ““Brooklyn College strongly condemns all forms of anti-Semitism and hatred…. Their kneeling is protected by the First Amendment.” The spokesmen did not defend the students against the charges of antisemitism from the Jewish press, nor against the criticism of President Berman.
Interestingly, the Yeshiva University Observer did not bother to even mention the reason Rezika and Butt were protesting. However, its article copiously catalogs the consternation of the Yeshiva community at the temerity of two visiting students to disrespect the Israeli national anthem and the anguish that their kneeling caused in the Yeshiva community.
Conflating Judaism and Zionism is a staple in the bag of tricks of American Zionists. They claim that a vast majority of Jews are Zionists (something with which I concur and most pro-Palestinian activists strongly deny, especially Jewish pro-Palestinian activists). Thus they claim an attack against Zionism is an attack against the core beliefs of most Jews. It is hateful to them, and thus antisemitic. Yet the same people who justify their claim of antisemitism by the belief that most Jews are Zionists (in an almost religious sense) will also tell you, when it is in their interest to do so, that it is antisemitic to protest in front of a synagogue (or at a Jewish university) because Jews have very diverse opinions on Israel, and to generally assume the synagogue members support Israel is wrongly generalizing about Jews and is in itself antisemitic. This flawed but convenient logic makes any real criticism of Zionism equal to antisemitism.
In the United States there is a taboo in criticizing Israel in or around any place that is Jewish. Such protests get little or no mention even in the progressive press and on websites run by both activist Palestinians or Jews. What is surprising is that a number of sites and well-known activists did not run from this story. The story was carried by The Nation, Middle East Eye, and the PalestineChronicle. Yousef “Strange Parenthesis” Munayyer, the Executive Director of the US Campaign for Palestinian Rights, gave a statement of support for the anthem protest to Middle East Eye. All of this is both unusual and encouraging. Many others, as expected, avoided the story despite the fact that flashy protests against Israel are the bread and butter of their outlets.
In Amy Kaplan’s brilliant analysis of the “unbreakable bond” between the United States and Israel she asks the following question:
How did Zionism, a European movement to establish a homeland for a particular ethno-religious group, come to resonate with citizens of a nation based on the foundation, or at least the aspiration, of civic equality and ethnic diversity?
She states that her book, Our American Israel: The Story of an Entangled Alliance, “aims to recover the strangeness [emphasis mine, IG] in an affinity that has come to be seen as self-evident. … How in other words, did so many come to feel that the bond between the United States and Israel was historically inevitable, morally right, and a matter of common sense?”
Four Questions That May Be Difficult To Easily Passover
How strange is the received wisdom about Israel? Here are four examples that come to mind.
1) Why is it unthinkable to protest in front of a synagogue even when that synagogue openly supports Israeli occupation and apartheid, when it is acceptable to protest in front of a church? There have been numerous protests at Catholic churches over charges of priests sexually abusing young church members. My friends Ed Kinane and Ann Tiffany were accused of antisemitism when they protest against the siege of Gaza in a Jewish neighborhood, partly because the protest is at a busy intersection near a synagogue. However, when they protested in front of a Catholic Church, demanding the new bishop be more sensitive than his predecessor to the problems of American capitalism and empire, nobody complained that it was inappropriate to protest in front of a church.
2) Why have so many states passed anti Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) legislation, when that legislation clearly violates the right of free speech?
3) Why is talking about the use of money in order to influence the US Congress by Jews or Jewish groups verboten when it is generally accepted as a simpe statement of fact? Remember, “It’s all about the Benjamins baby?” from the twitter feed of Representative Ilhan Omar? That tweet has been deleted, by the way.
4) “To raise a memorial to a European genocide on the secular but sacred space of the National Mall required enormous cultural work – nothing less than the transformation of the Holocaust into an element of American heritage” (from Our American Israel). How was this accomplished, especially considering there is no museum or even a memorial dedicated to American slavery or the genocide of Native Americans on the National Mall?
The answers to these questions, as the Jewish-American rock idol Bob Dylan sang, “is blowing in the wind.” Ironically, after living briefly on a kibbutz in northern Israel, he also sang Neighborhood Bully, which is an apologia for Israeli war crimes.
Just asking these questions is enough to get you accused of being an antisemite, even if you are Jewish, like I am. So I am going to stop here. One good thing about being old, though, is that no one can call my employer to “expose” me as an antisemite.
One last thing, if you want some answers about all of this, I strongly recommend you read Amy Kaplan’s book. It is brilliant.