Guest columnist Joseph Levine: Why challenge to Israel is felt as fear

UMass students gather outside the chancellor’s office in Whitmore during a walkout and sit-in on Oct. 25 to demand that the university cut ties with weapons manufacturers and condemn Israeli actions in Gaza.

UMass students gather outside the chancellor’s office in Whitmore during a walkout and sit-in on Oct. 25 to demand that the university cut ties with weapons manufacturers and condemn Israeli actions in Gaza. STAFF FILE PHOTO/CAROL LOLLIS

By JOSEPH LEVINE

Published: 06-21-2024 3:06 PM

A common theme in the justification for the violent police raids on the pro-Palestine encampments on campuses across the country, including my own at UMass Amherst, has been their alleged antisemitic character and the consequent feelings of being unsafe on the part of many Jewish students.

The idea that the pro-Palestine movement is the mirror image of the Proud Boys who chanted “Jews will not replace us” in Charlottesville has taken hold in much of the news media and political establishment, while most fail to note that among the loudest voices in these protests are Jewish students who are understandably upset at the horrific violence being perpetrated in their name. From personal experience, both as a Jew who has participated in the pro-Palestine movement over 40 years, and as a participant in the recent movement at UMass, I can state categorically that there is little, if any, antisemitic feeling in the movement.

If I’m right, though, what explains this general feeling, and Jewish students’ fears?

A large part of the explanation is straightforward cynical manipulation of the charge of antisemitism to silence criticism of Israel. Israel’s defenders, instead of presenting plausible arguments to justify the massacre that Israel, with U.S. backing, is executing in Gaza, resort to demonization of the protesters to silence them. With the hyperbolic rhetoric emanating from their elders and mentors about the prevalence of antisemitic hate at the protests, it’s not surprising that some Jewish students believe it and then feel afraid.

A key role here is played by the conflation of anti-Zionism with antisemitism. It is often claimed that opposition to Zionism unfairly denies to Jews the right of self-determination granted to other peoples, which makes it antisemitic. However, according to general principles of liberal democracy, no ethnic or religious group has a right to a state that “belongs to them” — that privileges that group within state institutions.

This is particularly the case when another group is already living legitimately in the territory in question, as Palestinians have for centuries. So, when pro-Palestine protesters chant “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” they do not mean “free of Jews,” but “free of Jewish supremacy,” a phrase used by the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem to describe the Israeli state .

Another argument for treating anti-Zionism as antisemitic, one that helps explain the fears expressed by many Jews, is that Zionism is an integral part of Jewish identity, so that attacks on Zionism constitute attacks on Jews. Now many Jews, myself included, would argue that Zionism is in fact a foreign implant into Judaism, not an integral part of it.

But I’ll set that aside. In fact, I don’t doubt that many Jewish students do feel that their identity as Jews is inextricably bound up with their Zionism, their love of Israel as the state of the Jewish people, and so an attack on the very idea of a “Jewish state” is experienced as an attack on their Jewishness. If your entire experience growing up within a Jewish community has been infused with Zionism, with the Israeli flag prominently displayed at your synagogue and community center, hearing the Jewish state attacked can understandably feel like an attack on your very identity. I get this.

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The problem is that Zionism is a political position and therefore a legitimate question for debate. Palestinians, whose own identity, indeed survival, is at issue, cannot be expected to surrender their claims to equality in both human and political rights on the grounds that some Jews find these claims offend their sense of identity.

Note that many white people in the South argue that Confederate symbols (statues, the flag, etc.) are expressions of their white Southern heritage, not symbols of anti-Black racism. I believe many Southern whites do feel this way, and so it hurts them to see these symbols denigrated. Nevertheless, we oppose their display in the public sphere because of their very real historical association with centuries of oppression of Blacks.

Similarly, Zionism has been associated with severe trauma to the Palestinian people for almost a century, and they have a right to raise their voices against it.

Joseph Levine of Leverett is professor emeritus of philosophy at UMass Amherst and a member of the UMass Faculty for Justice in Palestine.