When Accusations of Anti-Semitism Become a Tool of Repression

Despite the headlines designed to make people think far-right and fascist speakers are being prevented from speaking at college campuses while leftist speakers and professors run amok poisoning students’ minds with ideas about diversity and anti-capitalism, the truth is quite different. Faculty members are being censored for advocating for a just peace in Israel/Palestine, questioning the racist history of the United States and honestly discussing issues of gender and sexuality. Furthermore, when it comes to issues around Israel and Palestine, those opposed to Israel’s occupation and siege of Palestinian land are smeared with charges of anti-semitism. Certain groups then use these charges to convince university administrations to cancel events.

Recently, at the University of Vermont. Palestinian poet, Nation magazine reporter and Civic Media Fellow at the at the Annenberg Innovation Lab at the University of Southern California Mohammed El Kurd was scheduled to speak on the representation of Palestinians in western media. The event was organized by an organization that has brought leftist speakers to the university for over fifteen years. These events are co-sponsored by at least one academic departments. After advertising of El Kurd’s talk began an individual student objected with one of the departments co-sponsoring the event. Then, all hell broke loose. Hamas fighters launched a murderous raid in southern Israel. Of course, the raid responded to the ongoing oppression of the Israeli government, settlers and the military. Of course, the raid was met with massive Israeli firepower and destruction. The Israeli military continues its war on the people of Gaza and the West Bank as I write. Over 4000 Palestinians are known to be killed, with almost 1000 of them children. Very little aid is reaching Gaza, electricity is cut off; so is water, and a massive ground invasion looms. Israel’s intention seems to be ethnically cleansing at least the northern half of Gaza and replacing the Palestinians living there with Israelis.

Not long after the Hamas attack, the individual who wrote the original letter stepped up their opposition to El Kurd’s talk. They wrote a longer and more detailed missive with the enodrsement of the campus Jewish Student Union added.. This complaint took El Kurd’s poetry and other statements out of context, placed them in the letter surrounded by what can best be termed pro-zionist arguments that essentially deny Palestinian voices and then tried to claim that since many Jewish people were also Zionist, then all anti-Zionists were also anti-Semitic. I don’t have proof the complaint wasn’t written with help from a Zionist organization, but it certainly reads like others I have seen that were. This likelihood increases when one considers Hillel’s 2014 policy that prevents chapters from partnering with organizations that support boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel, or have a history of disrupting campus activity that supports Israel’s policies, especially around the occupation. Other critics, including John Judis at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, have challenged Hillel International’s Israel policy, calling it a “crackdown on open debate” and “bad news for American Jews.”

Let’s go back. Firstly, Zionism is a political philosophy. It is not a race, an ethnicity, a religion or a nationality. To pretend that being opposed to Zionism is equivalent to being opposed to Judaism is like saying being opposed to Christian nationalism is being opposed to Christianity. That’s just not the case, even though the Christian nationalists insist that it is. Likewise, being opposed to political Zionism is not anti-Semitic or anti- Jewish. Indeed, many Zionists are not Jewish and are Zionist only because their apocalyptic religious beliefs require the restoration of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem before their end of the world occurs.

It is a very tricky path to go down when calling someone anti-Semitic. The writer’s slippery exchange between the terms anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic is a manipulative use of two distinct terms designed to create a false equivalency between the two terms. Likewise, equating support for Palestinian liberation with support for murder is a similar manipulation of language and human emotion. If it is possible to support Israel and be opposed to its use of collective punishment and mass killing, then it is certainly possible to support a free Palestine and be opposed to murder like that which took place at the concert and elsewhere in Israel on October 7, 2023.

If the goal of the university is to be a place where important issues of today’s world are to be discussed and argued over, then accepting the demands of one side or the other to shut down the speech of the other side directly contradicts that goal. The University of Vermont has a mixed record in this regard. In 2011, not long after the events of 9-11, a Vermont organization involved in the struggle against global capitalism and the destruction of the environment by global capitalism hosted a conference. One of the keynote speakers was Ward Churchill. After 9-11 Churchill made a statement that angered thousands when he referred to many of those killed as “little Eichmanns.” Although the conference had been set up months before the 9-11 events, UVM alumni and others called for the university to cancel his speaking engagement after a local newspaper columnist made it a public issue. I was working at a university library at the time. Students, staff and a couple faculty organized a quick protest and march to the administrative offices asking that the speech and event go ahead. To our surprise, the provost at the time said the administration had never genuinely considered canceling the event and it would go ahead as planned, albeit with added security. However, a couple years later, the university did cancel a talk by Irish poet Tom Paulin in 2002 because of his outspoken support for Palestinain rights. I believe the difference in the two responses was the mobilization by the students in the first case that prevented Churchill’s cancellation. As it turns out, this time around the support from students, two academic departments and a dean was not enough to counter the pressure from anti-Palestinian forces. Given past history, it’s reasonable to assume some well-heeled donors were instrumental to that pressure.

However, Mohammed El Kurd will not be silenced. Thanks to some quick work and crucial support from Haymarket Books, his talk will stream live October 26, Thursday evening at 7:00 PM EST. The QR code and link can be found in the poster accompanying this article.

Ron Jacobs is the author of Daydream Sunset: Sixties Counterculture in the Seventies published by CounterPunch Books. He has a new book, titled Nowhere Land: Journeys Through a Broken Nation coming out in Spring 2024.   He lives in Vermont. He can be reached at: ronj1955@gmail.com