The independent news organization of Duke University

Letter: Demonizing Israel isn’t legitimate criticism

In the name of upholding freedom of expression against pro-Israel lobbies, the opinion piece by the Duke Chronicle editorial board, "AIPAC and the Blockade on Critiquing Israel," engages in a series of offensive and inaccurate accusations.

To start with, there is no "blockade on critiquing Israel" in this country. There is a diversity of viewpoints expressed regularly regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel's role in it. We see those views articulated in many places, including the media and college campuses, in legislatures, civil rights organizations and faith groups and within the larger Jewish community itself.

Claiming falsely that the fundamental problem is conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism, the Chronicle attacks Zionism (support of the Jewish State) in a way that shows exactly how such assaults can enter the area of anti-Semitism. Criticism of Israeli policies are welcome and necessary to debate within democratic societies, both within Israel and without, as are discussions based on deep concern over the security and human rights issues the Israeli/Palestinian conflict raises. What enters the area of anti-Semitism—and must be called out as such—is when Israel's fundamental legitimacy as a Jewish state on the historic home of the Jewish people is denied. Or when, as in this editorial, Israel is demonized not as the fulfillment of Jewish liberation for Jews of all races and ethnicities, but as a “settler colonialist” state with no right to have come into being or to continue to exist. Or when there is not even mention of the role of Hamas, which controls Gaza and remains committed to terrorism against civilians and the destruction of Israel. 

What must be called out is when a piece like this editorial assumes for itself the right to say that Zionism has nothing to do with Judaism. That ignores or wills into oblivion two thousand years of daily Jewish prayers for the return to Zion and the actual history of the Jewish movement for self-determination. Throughout millennia of Jew hatred, expressed consistently in discrimination, murderous attacks, and sometimes genocide across the globe, Jews of every race, orientation and ethnicity longed to return to their homeland, joining the small number of Jews who had lived there consistently since biblical times.

Instead, what truly seems to trouble the editorial board, reflecting their bias, is not the alleged absence of criticism, but the fact that America and Americans support the legitimate right of Israel to exist in the historic home of the Jewish people.

It is not because of any alleged excessive influence of AIPAC, which engages in completely legitimate lobbying and education about Israel, that America and Americans support Israel. It's because Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East, because the U.S. and Israel have shared democratic values, because Israel has been a reliable ally of the U.S. for decades, and because Israel has sought peace with the Palestinians for years, in the face of Palestinian rejectionism and support for the destruction of the Jewish state. 

Is either Israel or the United States always true to their best articulation of those values? No. It’s a work in progress and the current environment around the globe is deeply challenging to those of us who support pluralistic democracies. But that doesn’t mean that Israel, any more than the U.S., has no right to exist.

The Chronicle editorial also tries to create a false dichotomy between support of civil rights in America and support for Israel. In fact, Israel has been supported by many of the great civil rights activists in America. The attempt to portray those who support Israel as part of a pattern of anti-minority attitudes in America is a false construct and demonstrably so. Yet on many campuses support for Israel has become a litmus test for denying Jewish students and groups entry into civil rights coalitions and events. That is a false and damaging conflation indeed. 

None of this is to deny the suffering of the Palestinians in Gaza or the fact that two peoples have legitimate claims to a small piece of land. But if the editorial had truly been interested in the well-being of Israelis and Palestinians, it could have offered approaches to enhance the chances for a two-state solution. It could have talked not only about what's wrong with Israel but how the Palestinians have repeatedly rejected Israeli offers that could have led to a Palestinian state. It could have urged Palestinians to control terrorism and rejection of Israel, as exhibited by Hamas in Gaza on a regular basis. And it could have urged Israel to renounce certain actions and policies and take steps to enhance two-state possibilities. 

As an organization that combats anti-Semitism, the Anti-Defamation League has been outspoken in attacking the surge of extreme right-wing hatred of Jews, most clearly manifest at Charlottesville and Pittsburgh. Such anti-Semitism is blatant and violent, easy to identify.

Anti-Semitism from the left is much harder to identify, partly because it often appears in the guise of mere criticism of Israel and defense of human rights. But charges that ominously powerful Jewish and pro-Israel groups label any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism are not true and play into virulent anti-Semitic tropes. We welcome the debates, but not the false and dangerous accusation that Jewish financial control over the U.S. Congress is the cause of pro-Israel American policy and sentiment, or the stifling of free expression. And when the legitimacy of the Jewish state is denied, by referencing it as a "settler colonialist state," or Israel and those who support her are demonized, as in this editorial, then the anti-Semitic label is appropriate. 

We have full confidence that the American people and the Duke University campus, its students, faculty, alumni and administration, while granting the right of free expression, will reject this outlandish and hateful editorial as not representing American values or that of the university.

Doron F. Ezickson is the Washington D.C. regional director of the Anti-Defamation League.

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