Home » Deborah Stone, Politics and Media, Recent Posts

Crossing over: Anti-Zionism & Antisemitism on Campus

November 21, 2010 – 5:44 pm124 Comments

Very little subtlety here.

As the ADC releases its report on Antisemitism on Campus in Victoria, Deborah Stone reflects on the increasing grey area between antisemitism and anti-Zionism.

I’m a Jew. I’m not an Israeli. I could have been an Israeli. Like many Jews of my generation I had the gap-year Israel experience and chose, for all sorts of reasons, to live in the Diaspora.

Though I love the place, my feelings about Israel are inconsistent, rather like my Hebrew-language skills that include the odd sophisticated metaphor while balking at simple verb-preposition constructs.

But I’m quite clear on my Jewish identity and my rights as a Jew to be free from hate speech. I’m also clear on my responsibility, as a Jew and as a human being, to advocate for respectful pluralism in Australia. So when an opportunity to use my media and research background came up at the Anti-Defamation Commission, it seemed a good fit.

Opposing antisemitism and racism is a task I can approach with moral clarity, particularly so as I am by nature a bridge-builder with a genuine belief that interfaith engagement and shared experience is the way to handle differences. For the same reasons, I can stand firm against vilification of any sort.

I don’t have the same moral clarity about Israel. I care about Israel. I care about Palestinians too. I care more about Israel for the same reason I care more about my son than yours, but that doesn’t give me the right to advocate for my son at the expense of yours.

I believe in the right to a Jewish state and I get a buzz out of the place that’s unparalleled by any other place on earth. But my positions on given issues may be wildly at variance with the decisions of the Israeli government of the day – not to mention some of the decisions of the past.

My ambiguity is caused by the fact that advocates for Palestinian causes and opponents of Israel’s policies outside the Jewish community rarely make such distinctions. Attacks on Israel are habitually vilifying and their targets are anyone with Israel attachment of any sort. Read Jews. So although I’m in my role to defend Jewish people from vilification, I often find myself criticising Israel’s critics – even when I think they have a point.

It would be easier if our interlocutors were clearer in their discourse. When they yell “Israel is a terrorist state” do they mean “Israel made some wrong decisions in Gaza” “or do they mean “Israel is an illegitimate entity – Jews have no rights to self-determination”? Are they critics of Israel or antisemites?

I’m happy to be a voice of moderation and to argue that we need to be very clear about what constitutes legitimate criticism and the ways in which attacks on Israel are now frequently used to stereotype, demonise and delegitimize  – tropes which any student of antisemitism will recognize.

But I’m struggling to put the boundaries on the grey area of antisemitism and anti-Zionism because so much of the criticism of Israel is intemperate, delegitimizing and comes so close to the essential experience of being Jewish in the 21st century.

There was a time when political Zionism was a controversial ideology within Jewish thought. History has moved on and Israel is now a key part of Jewish identity and experience for most Diaspora Jews.

Certainly it is possible to be a cultural or religious Jew with no attachment to Israel. But Bundists and Neturei Karta are marginal sects. Their existence says little about the experience of most Jews.

It is also possible to be a biological Jew and dedicate a successful media career to a narrative that paints Israel as pure aggressor. But if being Jewish means anything it’s about being part of a historical and continuing community and such a position puts one outside the community.

The real experience of most Diaspora Jews is that Israel is a significant, though not necessarily a defining part of our Jewish consciousness. While there’s clearly a continuum here, the language, religious, and historical connections are deeply ingrained. For many of us, these links are reinforced by gap year or summer programs, attachment to family or friends living there, engagement with Israel-based charities, business or cultural interactions. We begin to feel that that “when they say Israel they mean us”.

My recent work on antisemitism on campus has made it clear to me that most Jewish university students experience attacks on Israel as if they were traditional antisemitism. In response to increased reports of antisemitism on campus and intimidation of Jewish students, the ADC recently invited Jewish students in Victoria to fill in a questionnaire about their on-campus experiences. Fifty respondents completed the questionnaire. This group is clearly self-selecting and it is probable that students who have experienced antisemitism or who more strongly identify with the Jewish community were more likely to respond.

But the results, available in the ADC’s Antisemitism on Campus report, give a clear indication that Jewish students do feel intimidated and attacked and that Israel is at the core of that experience. Their reports range from informal harassment – for example, verbal abuse of a student wearing a souvenir Israel t-shirt – to more considered political attacks – for example, academics using their positions to deliver polemics attacking Israel, sometimes in courses unrelated to political issues.  Students in settings as diverse as architecture and psychology have reported being subject to anti-Israel harangues during classes.

More than two thirds (68 per cent) of respondents reported experiencing or witnessing some form of antisemitism. The students defined as antisemitism many broad anti-Israel messages such as “Israel is a terrorist state”. The situation was particularly bad at La Trobe University, where all the respondents said they had experienced or witnessed antisemitism.

In an effort to judge whether students saw these attacks as purely about their attachment to Israel or also about their Jewishness we asked students whether they or their friends ever hid their Jewishness or Israel views. Few students admitted to hiding themselves (possibly this smacks of disloyalty) but many said their friends did. Significantly students were just as likely to hide their Jewishness as their Israel views.

There are, of course, a number of other reasons that students might hide their views about Israel: they may disagree with Israel’s actions but feel disloyal expressing this disagreement; they may be ambivalent; they may agree with Israel but feel insufficiently competent to defend their position; or they may wish to avoid conflict.

But the consistency of their willingness to identify as Jews and their willingness to identify as having opinions on Israel suggests none of these factors is overriding the perception that being Jewish and supporting Israel will attract pretty much the same degree of opprobrium on campus.

The tone of protests that characterise Israel as a violent and oppressive regime create an increasingly uncomfortable environment for Jews because most of us feel attached to Israel, whether or not we agree with a given policy. We feel uncomfortable or worse because Israel is on the outer and that puts us on the outer. That sense of being unwelcome in the wider world is the experience of antisemitism.

Deborah Stone is executive director of the Anti-Defamation Commission

Print Friendly