In the face of the upcoming University of Michigan (UM) Conference on Divestment from Israel, the debate about what defines “anti-Semitism” is being resurrected. Setting aside the fact that I am 100% Semitic and have been accused of “anti-Semitism” for my criticism of the Israeli Occupation of my people, I will try to raise some points that might make people think twice before throwing labels around — labels designed to conjure images of a tragic WWII period when Jews were persecuted and systematically killed because of who they were. That was then and this is now.
That people even throw this word around every time there is legitimate criticism of Israel’s brutal policies is to make a mockery of the “original definition” to begin with. Do Israelis really expect to maintain a cruel Occupation and deprive Palestinians of their liberties without criticism? Since we prefer that non-violence be used in the Middle East, why are academic conferences raising such ire? And if we are a nation that believes in the First Amendment, why is free speech stifled when it comes to the issue of Israel? Even more importantly, why are people upset that university students are exercising their right to free speech in order to make a peaceful change in a region that has seen little of it?
The divestment campaign began nearly two years ago in Berkeley. Its goal is to end universities’ financial links to Israeli Occupation or as South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu and others refer to it — Israeli Apartheid. Divestment campaigns helped to end Apartheid in South Africa, and students and professors hope to accomplish the same with the new divestment push. How were the situations similar in South Africa and Israel? Well, in a 2002 speech in the United States, carried in the UK’s Guardian newspaper, Archbishop Tutu said he saw “the humiliation of the Palestinians at checkpoints and roadblocks, suffering like us when young white police officers prevented us from moving about.” And back in 1999, former South African statesman Nelson Mandela told the Palestinian Assembly, “the histories of our two peoples correspond in such painful and poignant ways that I intensely feel myself at home amongst my compatriots.” In a nutshell, South Africa’s White Afrikaners discriminated against the Blacks as Israel is discriminating against Palestinian Christians and Muslims.
But do these statements make Archbishop Tutu and Nelson Mandela “anti-Semitic” or anti-White? It’s possible that many Americans might have thought so given our support of the Apartheid regime until “it wasn’t cool anymore.”
Are we going to wait to support divestment when supporting Israel isn’t cool anymore? Or do we continue to libel people with a word that has all but lost its panache from over-use. I think about when President George Bush Sr. took on the American Israel Public Affairs Committee on $10 billion in loan guarantees — an Israeli minister called him anti-Semitic. In former Congressmen Paul Finley’s book, “They Dare to Speak Out,” he lists a number of colleagues who were called “anti-Semitic” whenever they voiced concerns about Israel, including Congressmen Paul McCloskey and Charles Percy. At Harvard, President Larry Summers has shamefully classified respected professors as being part of an “anti-Semitic” drive to urge the University to divest its endowment of investments in Israel.
And now an important conference on divestment from Israel takes place at the UM. It seems that students understand that the pocketbook is effective arsenal, as it was in South Africa. The World has obviously forgotten.
The Israeli occupation is 35 years old é the last remaining occupation in modern history é and there were no violent uprisings for 27 of these years. So why didn’t the Israelis leave during these years of “calm” as they demand so incessantly? Or did the world really expect Palestinians to accept Ehud Barak’s “generous” plan which would have allowed for a Palestinian entity resembling Swiss cheese and no real control over their own territory or capital?
And so divestment and hitting Israel in the pocketbooks just might be the key to peace in a region where Palestinians and Israelis deserve it.
Ultimately, the conference organizers should be applauded for their courage and vision. And as I read the scathing editorials criticizing the conference for its alleged “racism,” I wonder where the journalist’s responsibility is to advocate debate? And I wonder to myself: if Israel and its supporters feel so self-righteous, what are they so scared of?
Sherri Muzher, who holds a Jurist Doctor in International and Comparative Law, is a Palestinian-American activist and free lance journalist.