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October 23, 2011

Israel's image on campus

Ali Abunimah

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Sharp disagreements have intensified among leading US pro-Israel groups on the best methods to suppress criticism and discussion of Israel's apartheid, occupation, colonization and human rights abuses, or support for Palestinian rights, on US college campuses.

The dispute centers on the use of US civil rights statutes to lodge complaints against universities, alleging that discussion of Israel amounts to an infringement of the civil rights of Jewish students who might be made “uncomfortable” by hearing such discussions.

The Forward reports:

Simmering divisions within the Jewish community are expected to come to a head this month over efforts to use federal civil rights laws to sanction some forms of alleged anti-Israel activity on campus.

The Jewish Council for Public Affairs, American Jewry’s primary umbrella group for addressing domestic issues, will vote at its upcoming board meeting on a resolution that, in its current draft, cautions Jewish groups to guard against suppressing free speech and to invoke civil rights laws only after exhausting other measures.

“Lawsuits and threats of legal action should not be used to censor anti-Israel events, statements, and speakers in order to ‘protect’ Jewish students,” the draft resolution warns, “but rather for cases which evidence a systematic climate of fear and intimidation coupled with a failure of the university administration to respond with reasonable corrective measures.”

In September, The Electronic Intifada revealed that a leading pro-Israel group, StandWithUS, has been colluding with Israeli government officials to bring just such a civil rights complaint against Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, the university once attended by Rachel Corrie.

Earlier this month, the US Department of Education Office of Civil Rights (OCR) launched an investigation into Columbia University over a claim that a Jewish student had been “steered” away by an adviser from a class taught by Professor Joseph Massad. Massad has been the target of persistent defamation campaigns by pro-Israel groups.

The campaign to abuse US civil rights law to censor unfavorable speech and scholarship about Israel is the brainchild of Kenneth Marcus of the Institute for Jewish Community Research, who is also a member of the pro-Israel group Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. Marcus was previously head of the OCR.

Blogger Richard Silverstein has done much to shed light on what he calls Marcus’ “campus Jihad against anti-Israelism.”

Marcus, Silverstein observes, “is one of the key intellectual authors of a new campaign to exploit newly written federal civil rights statutes (Title VI) which forbid campuses from creating a hostile environment for various ethnic and religious groups, including Jews. Marcus and his friends at StandWithUs are uniting to explore campuses where they can apply their new theory. To do so, they must find campuses where they can recruit sufficient Jewish students to complain that they are afraid to be Jews on campus because of the environment of fear and intimidation created by pro-Palestinian groups.”

It might be added that Marcus’ strategy can be seen as inherently anti-Semitic because it assumes incorrectly and ahistorically that all criticism of Israel equals criticism of Jews. It also infringes on the rights of all students, including the many Jewish students and faculty, who want to talk, study and act for justice and equality in Palestine. In other words, it falsely stereotypes all Jews as mindless supporters of Israel’s atrocious policies and associates them with those policies.

It seems that at least some in the pro-Israel community fear that this aggressive campaign of censorship and intimidation may do more to cast Israel’s defenders as thugs, than to improve Israel’s image on campuses.

The Electronic Intifada, October 17, 2011

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