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'Anti-Semitizing' pro-Palestinian activism comes at a price

It is tempting to label pro-Palestinian activists as anti-Semitic, because it delegitimizes even their most legitimate claims. But this increasingly common reflex has adverse effects that greatly outweigh its short-term benefit.

By Tom Pessah

A counter demonstration led by right-wing activists next to a pro-Palestinian rally at Tel Aviv University in May of 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A counter demonstration led by right-wing activists next to a pro-Palestinian rally at Tel Aviv University in May of 2016. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Things you can see from here, can’t be seen from there, says a famous Israeli song. This is what I feel about pro-Palestinian activism: having been closely involved in pro-Palestine activism as an Israeli student in an American university, I now understand why it is often portrayed in the media as anti-Jewish.

In 2012, the San Francisco-based Arab Cultural and Community Center approached the government of Alameda County, CA, proposing to proclaim June 5 as “Palestinian Cultural Day” in recognition of “the contributions of the local Palestinian population to Alameda County residents and communities.” Focusing on culture, the proposal deliberately avoided any political demands, and focused instead on Palestinians’ “books, poetry, music, dance, oral history, folktales, proverbs, and handicrafts made with cross-stitch embroidery patterns.” In the spirit of inclusion, the Palestinian executive director of the ACCC, Loubna Qutami, made sure it included references to the Palestinians’ “Christian, Jewish or Muslim faith.”

The ACCC’s initiative met with a furious reaction from right-wing Zionist groups. Pamela Geller compared it to an “Auschwitz Proclamation day,” because “the mission of the mystical ‘Palestinian’ narrative is the destruction of the tiny state of Israel so as to satiate the racism and Jewish genocide as commanded by Quran.” A member of StandWithUs insisted that Jews are a separate and distinct national group from Palestinians and should not be confused with them.

Angry protestors showed up at the meeting of the Alameda County Board of Supervisors, to voice their opposition to the inclusion of Jewish faith as a part of Palestinian heritage. In response, the issue was taken off the Board’s agenda.

A few days later, J Weekly, the Bay Area’s only Jewish magazine reported on the incident. The first paragraph briefly conveyed that there was a proposal for a cultural day, and that it had been taken off the board’s agenda. The following paragraph described how “the move produced a flurry of questions and accusations, including the suggestion from pro-Palestinian forces that ‘Jewish pressure’ was behind the decision.” Although the expression “Jewish pressure” was described as an accusation, placed in quotation marks, and attributed to “pro-Palestine forces,” the so-called “quote” was not sourced to any particular individual or organization. In the remainder of the article representatives of the local JCRC and StandWithUs were asked for their reaction to this supposed accusation of “Jewish pressure.” They denied involvement. I later wrote to the editor, and she still could not provide a source for what she had presented as a quote.

And so, a story about a Palestinian who wanted to celebrate her people’s Jewish heritage became a tale of Jewish organizations defending themselves from an inflammatory accusation by faceless “pro-Palestine forces.” The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) spread the news far and wide. Several weeks later, after the objectionable notion of honoring Palestine’s Jews was eliminated, the Alameda County Board of Supervisors did approve the proposal for recognizing a Palestinian cultural day.

Two years on, in 2014, pro-Palestine students distributed mock eviction orders to all students of two NYU dorms, in order to raise awareness of Israel’s house demolition policy in the West Bank. Although the university has no separate dorms for Jewish students, Laura Adkins, the vice president of the NYU pro-Israel student group TorchPAC, claimed only Jewish students had been targeted. The NYU Vice President for Public Affairs, the University’s Housing Office, and its Jewish chaplain all denied the existence of a Jewish dorm, but the claim was nevertheless picked up by several media outlets, including the New York Post, CBS New York, and The Times of Israel, which reported that Jewish students were served fake eviction notices in order to intimidate them.

The Jewish dorm hoax was repeated again last week in a Knesset discussion of pro-Palestine activism in the U.S. Laura Adkins, who has since become a journalist for the Forward, reported on this discussion, further embellishing her original story. This time the headline screamed “Pro-Palestine Student Group Accused of Compiling List of Jewish Student Dorm Addresses.” The story itself contained no proof of this accusation; instead, Adkins interviewed representatives from the Anti-Defamation League, StandWithUs, and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA), none of whom provided any information to support these claims.

A protest condemning the Israeli assault on the Gaza strip, held outside the Israeli consulate in downtown Chicago, IL in 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

A protest condemning the Israeli assault on Gaza held outside the Israeli consulate in downtown Chicago, 2014. (Tess Scheflan/Activestills.org)

The Forward tweeted this as breaking news, and the item made the rounds among pro-Israel venues, before being taken down by the newspaper, without any explanation, after it was thoroughly debunked in Mondoweiss. Adkins is still serving as reporter for the newspaper, despite her record of fabricating false accusations.

These are far from isolated incidents. Palestine Legal, an advocacy group, has documented hundreds of cases of false accusations of anti-Semitism made on campuses all over the U.S. These include six high-profile investigations of entire universities by the Department of Education, which found nothing.

Why does this keep happening? First, it is important to acknowledge genuine incidents of anti-Jewish sentiment in the pro-Palestine movement, which should be addressed and unequivocally denounced. Interestingly, when such genuine bigotry is called out, this receives almost no attention in the mainstream press.

But in addition to these genuine examples of bigotry, there is clearly an incentive to “anti-Semitize” pro-Palestine activists. Readers click on sensational stories about Jewish students being hunted down in their dorms, which increases the traffic on news sites; organizations competing for contributions from wealthy, conservative donors need to present themselves as valiantly battling heinous anti-Semitism; and while the free speech of pro-Palestine activists, as annoying as it may be, cannot be quashed directly, it is easier to do so after labeling it as hate speech. In addition, many newspaper editors have little acquaintance with such activists, and it isn’t hard to convince them that “Muslim” students behaved or spoke like terrorists.

Anti-Semitizing comes at a serious price: it derails any serious conversation on Israel/Palestine, since opponents of the status quo can easily be dismissed as potential terrorists. It can escalate to death threats, like the ones Muslim activists in Florida received after similar accusations of targeting students in non-existent Jewish dorms. Finally, it de-sensitizes people to genuine anti-Semitism, and it keeps much of the Jewish American community in a permanent sense of panic, as if a new Holocaust is imminent and the new Nazis are collecting names of Jewish students before they round them up.

This isn’t true. Jewish Press, you can do better.

Tom Pessah is a sociologist and activist, currently studying at Tel Aviv University.

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    1. R5

      Tom , An activist for BDS, is now trying to give the victims of his “movement” advice? That’s hilarious. And since pointing out that the force behind his “movement” turns out to be Jew-hatred (surprise!), he’s deciding to victim-blame, recommending that Jewish students stop complaining about intimidation because (1) it “derails any serious conversation on Israel/Palestine” (i.e., isn’t what you want to talk about), (2) causes blowback against Muslims and (3) scares Jews. This is how surreal the BDS cult has become. BDS activists tell their victims that complaining about campus purges generates more fear than the purges themselves. And how oh so clever it is to distribute eviction notices on the most Jewish private university campus in the United States and pretends it was totally “random” and not aimed at Jews. Nice try Tom, nobody at NYU believed them the first time.

      Reply to Comment
    2. Ben

      This is a lot of unconvincing bluster, R5. Tom Pessah convinces. He’s got the details to back up what he says. NYU is not, by the way, “the most Jewish private university campus in the United States.” Just look at data provided by Hillel. NYU’s student body is 28% Jewish. There are at least 14 other campuses with a higher percentage of Jewish students. NYU has the highest absolute number of Jewish students, not the highest percentage. With regard to the dorm hoax, percentage, not absolute number, is the relevant statistic.

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    3. R5

      Ben: you think 28% doesn’t HELP make my point? Umm, ok…anyway, I went to NYU and pretty much everyone understood, especially based on who specifically who did this, that the incident targeted Jews and was meant to intimidate Jews specifically. Tom knows this but is treating everyone reading +972 like a fool. How does that make you feel?

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    4. Tom P.

      R5, you can repeat Adkins’ slander as much as you like, but that doesn’t make it true. SJP NYU operates in NYU because that’s the way every student group works (on their own campus), not because they are targeting Jews. There are hundreds of SJP chapters on other campuses. In NYU there were no Jewish student dorms and no lists of where Jewish students lived, and thus no way of distributing the mock eviction orders to Jews only. They contained no language referring to Judaism, but only to Israel’s policies. So in other words, this is still a hoax.

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    5. i_like_ike52

      The basic problem is that the Arab world has defined the Arab/Israeli conflict as a zero-sum game. Anything good for Israel is viewed as bad for the Arabs and vice-versa. That is why the claim by people like Ehud Olmert and Tzippi Livni that “it will be very bad for Israel if there is no Palesinian state” merely encourages the Arabs NOT to make peace, because they want “what is bad for Israel” according to their zero-sum outlook.
      This is why we never see Arab groups parallel to J-Street who claims to be supposedly “pro-Israel, pro-Palestine and pro=peace”. This is also why we see virulent opposition to what the Palestinians call “normalization”, i.e. normal human contacts between Palestinian and Israeli groups, even among Israeli Leftists.
      Therefore, as a result of this Arab zero-sum outlook, in practice, those who are pro-Palestinians are going to be perceived as being anti-Israel and possibly even antisemitic.

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    6. R5

      Tom P: You should leave US Jewish students alone now. You’re an American Jew, living in Israel, helping SJP purge American Jews from students politics on US campuses. And now telling them to shut up about it. Pretty weird, and sad. You obviously know already that Palladium is a heavily Jewish dorm where SJP knew they would hit a lot of Jewish students. But you’re going to play dumb about that or set an impossibly high bar for anti-Semitism. Ok, I guess BDS is your life now, so pending other career options you’ve got to stick to the script. Sorry about that…I guess? Not worth debating since you’ve got your talking points, but a parting thought: if your goons cross the line and end up in civil court I recommend you talk to a lawyer before weighing in. Because for now you don’t know what defamation is (at least in New York). So I’ll hazard a guess and say you don’t know the elements of assault either.

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    7. Ben

      @R5: My, we have a little engine room of fake outrage here. Amazing the self righteous arrogance. A bully claiming to be a victim. He who would shut up Tom Pessah with threats dons the victim mantel. The fake outrage is a sight to see. The anti-semitizing R5 makes Tom Pessah’s case for him.

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    8. Ben

      @Ike52: You give expression here to what is at bottom a twisted viewpoint, wrapped in layers of striking self righteousness. If millions of Jews were brutally occupied by Palestinians for fifty years you would not be castigating Jews for not being “pro-Palestinian, pro-Israel, pro-peace.” That you can’t see how mired in occupiers’ logic is your viewpoint is the real problem. Wake up. “The Arab world has defined the Arab/Israeli conflict as a zero-sum game”? In what fixed delusional time warp is that true? In ’52? Certainly not in ’16. The Arab world has several times and in good faith and sobriety offered the API, on the face of it the opposite of a “zero sum” game. These posts of yours are an eye-opening window into the intractable self serving delusions that beset the Israeli right wing.

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    9. R5

      Ben: Tom’s making legal accusations so I told him to talk to a lawyer, because he’s ignorant. I did him a favor. I’m assuming you’re about 16 years old at this point since you don’t know how things work in the adult world. Which is also generous of me since your anti-Semitic Hasbara nonsense would be a lot worse coming from a grown up. Have some gratitude.

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    10. Ben

      R5: You’re just doubling down on the anti-Semitizing bullshit, kid, because you’ve got no other arrow in your pathetic quiver. Pessah has you pegged: “Anti-Semitizing comes at a serious price: it derails any serious conversation.”

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    11. R5

      Ben: No arrows? This article ABOUT anti-Semitism, kid. I didn’t raise the subject. I discussed the events Tom’s writing about. And on Israeli withdrawal, Iran, ICC, I offer my thoughts and just get “Hasbara mentalty” (Jew boy) slurs from you and Bruce Gould. Have you asked yourself the point of lying to me about what I know I’m saying? Nobody else is reading this. This is what a cult mentality looks like. Repeating slogans verbatim about Israel not being a democracy that you’re cutting and pasting from somewhere, lying to people who know you’re lying to them. Take a step back from the BDS echo chamber, kid. BDS is turning people like you and Tom into zombies who can’t see the absurdity, irrationality and dishonesty of what they’re saying. I’ve shown that I’ll debate you on substance, but like an indoctrinated cult member who knows that rational thought is dangerous, you evade. Cults pretend to be about spreading a message, but end up being a dysfunctional family for their members. That’s what BDS is. And sadly you and too many ppl are victims.

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    12. Tom P.

      Ben, maybe this isn’t worth investing any more of your energy in.

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    13. Ben

      ‘“Hasbara mentalty” (Jew boy) slurs’ is blatant, and simple-minded, anti-Semitizing devoid of any serious content. Pessah makes a distinction between genuine bigotry and the genuine Palestinian activism that got anti-Semitized (“Pro-Palestine Student Group Accused of Compiling List of Jewish Student Dorm Addresses.”) You make no intelligent distinctions whatsoever.

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    14. Ben

      Tom P., you are right.

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    15. R5

      Ben: you’re really smart to be listening to Tom P. He studies sociology, which aside from being the softest subject in the Social “Sciences” also prepares you advise people on what “slander” and other legal-type words mean (Tom seem to think so). Best of all, sociology teaches you how to purge Jews from universities. Look at BDS petitions, and you’ll see a LOT of sociologists. Don’t bother talking to law professors or students, only a few of them sign these petitions. But they don’t really know what “international law” means…PFFFF come on. Sociologists may not be good at math or the scientific method, but boy are they good heckling Israelis and telling people its 100% cool to chant “Intifada” at Jewish students. Just remember – whether you’re talking about murdering babies, controlling the world economy or the American government – its not anti-Semitic if “Zionists” are doing it, or if you write the words “Israel policies” somewhere. Tom’s a sociologist (and also Jewish), so your hands are clean as long as you get the a-ok from him.

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    16. R5

      Ben: the thing is, Tom P is actually the guy you should worry about, now me. I’m only here because I’m interested in the subject. Tom’s a PROFESSIONAL activist. He needs people like you to drink his cool aid – that’s his bread and butter. He’s trying to build an academic career on BDS ideology, and selling out his Israeli/Jewish birthright for a CAREER. So when he calmly reassures you that I’m outside the circle of right-thinking people and that you’re inside the circle, he’s like a Scientologist telling you to “disconnect” from a “suppressive person.” He working his way up the ladder of BDS cult leadership, and part of doing that is giving warmth and reassurance to the cult members. You can imitate the speech he’s designed for his weird little world (“Antisemitize”) or you can think for yourself. Remember – he needs you, but you don’t need him.

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    17. Average American

      Everyone is so tired of accusations of “anti-semitism”. It’s old, it’s worn out. It sounds like little kids on a long car trip saying “he touched me”, “he’s looking at me”. It’s come to be recognized as a tactic, a distraction, an attempt at intimidation. Why not stand on your own merits and own actions instead of playing a race card?

      Reply to Comment