It’s long been an article of faith in the pro-Israel community that the increasing attacks on Israel’s legitimacy that are part of the BDS movement have morphed from anti-Zionism to anti-Semitism.
Now, it appears, the U.S. government agrees.
The Trump administration, in announcing its adoption of a universally accepted definition of anti-Semitism for use on college campuses, could significantly impact how the Israel wars play out on college campuses nationwide. If implemented, it would undermine the BDS (boycott, divestment, and sanctions) movement that seeks to isolate Israel politically and economically just as it has been gaining traction on U.S. campuses.
The decision was applauded by most Jewish groups this week after it was announced that the administration would reopen a case of alleged discrimination against Jews who were charged admission to a free program sponsored by pro-Palestinian groups at Rutgers University in New Brunswick in 2011.
Rabbi Andrew Baker, director of international affairs at the American Jewish Committee, said he did not “know where the review will lead, but it allows the department to say it is employing the working definition of anti-Semitism” that is now widely accepted.
“There was always a question of where the criticism of Israel crossed over to be a form of anti-Semitism,” he said. “Definitions are meant to be guidelines, not etched in stone. Certain expressions can be recognized as being anti-Semitic. That was always the importance of the definition. Now it has gained more acceptance internationally — [the United Kingdom’s] Labor Party has just accepted it.”
Dan Mariaschin, executive vice president of B’nai B’rith International, also welcomed the decision, applauding the “course correction” to the definition of anti-Semitism in the 21st century.
“This is discrimination based on ethnicity — and now we are going to see more of it… The most recent definition of anti-Semitism includes denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination by claiming their state is a racist endeavor and applying a double standard by requiring of Israel a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation.”
And Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, said in a tweet: “Without prejudging outcome of the process, academic freedom & strongly held political views are not a shield to harass or intimidate students and/or treat them differently because of their race or religion. No matter who is targeted, that’s bias plain & simple.”
But criticism came from J Street, which said in a statement that reopening the case demonstrates that the Trump administration “is inclined to suppress criticism of Israel on college campuses — even if that means trampling on constitutionally-protected free speech.”
“Its reopening is not about upholding civil rights or a serious effort to combat anti-Semitism, but about advancing a right-wing agenda that seeks to silence open discussion and debate of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” it read.
The J Street statement continued by quoting Ken Stern, an expert on anti-Semitism and former CEO of National Public Radio, who authored this definition of anti-Semitism, but which, he has argued, should not be applied to college life. He has come out against proposed congressional legislation that would codify such a definition into U.S. law.
“Stern has written that ‘If this bill becomes law it is easy to imagine calls for university administrators to stop pro-Palestinian speech… students and faculty members will be scared into silence, and administrators will err on the side of suppressing or censuring speech.’”
Echoing that refrain is Rabbi Jill Jacobs, executive director of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights, who told NJJN in an email: “Instead of aiming to address real instances of anti-Semitism, the Trump administration is trying to violate students’ First Amendment rights by shutting down all criticism of Israel.”
She added, “At a time when the Trump administration is allying itself with white supremacists, attacking immigrants and refugees, and decreasing enforcement of most civil rights offenses, we do not need bogus policies that shut down campus free speech, while likely stirring up anger against the very Jewish students they purport to protect.”
Stewart Ain is a staff writer for The New York Jewish Week, NJJN’s sister publication.