Freedom to criticise Israel is dealt another blow in the US

The appointment of Kenneth Marcus and the redefining of Judaism as a 'race' rather than a religion is a bid to clamp down on criticism of Israel

US protesters campaigning against Israel's actions in Gaza. Mark Wilson /Getty via AFP
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An unnerving exception to American norms and protections of free speech is being carved out to limit and punish criticism of Zionism, Israel and even the occupation that began in 1967. A new executive order signed last week by US President Donald Trump which redefines Judaism as a “race” or a “national origin” under the terms of the potent Civil Rights Act, rather than as a religion, is a turning point in efforts to use government authority to suppress criticism of Israel on university campuses.

Mr Trump’s appointment of Kenneth Marcus to head the Office of Civil Rights at the education department was bound to lead to this, given that he has a long track record as a pro-Israeli hardliner and is one of the most vociferous advocates of such suppression.

By redefining Judaism as a “national origin” in the eyes of the US government for the first time, Mr Trump is essentially handing Mr Marcus the means to crack down on criticism of Israel in universities – traditionally forums of academic freedom that might now be coerced into suppressing such speech on their campuses for fear of losing vital federal funding.

The new order also lends official US government endorsement to a fundamental, but highly debatable, assertion of Zionism: that Jews are not defined only by religion or ethnicity but as a national group.

Efforts to sanction Israel by enforcing existing university regulations forbidding investments in any country that practices apartheid, a holdover from the campaign against systematic racism in South Africa, have not stuck anywhere in the US

This claim is also at the heart of the “dual loyalty” smear that many US anti-Semites deploy against Jews, suggesting they are more faithful to Israel than their own country. Even Mr Trump has suggested as much on several occasions.

For the past decade, advocates of Israel and Palestinians in the US have attempted to weaponise institutional and national authorities against one another. In this most unequal of struggles, the Israeli side has proven much more successful yet again.

Numerous state legislatures have adopted laws that not only denounce but also sanction and punish anyone who actively supports or advocates the BDS movement, often by denying employment or contracts. Such measures invariably conflate Israel with its settlements in occupied territory.

Yet university campuses are the epicentre of this battle. Pro-Palestinian efforts in the US have largely centred around the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, which encourages a boycott of Israeli products. It has generated a great deal of rhetoric and passion but little success.

Efforts to divest from Israel by enforcing existing university regulations forbidding investments in any country that practices apartheid, a holdover from the campaign against systematic racism in South Africa, have not worked anywhere. Even when student governments have endorsed this idea, university officials have refused to accept that Israel fits that definition.

Most US campaigns have sought to target Israel generally rather than the occupation and so have met with insurmountable opposition. Contrast that with potent initiatives by many European governments to oppose Israel's illegal settlements by refusing to do business with them because they are a clear violation of Palestinian human rights under the Fourth Geneva Convention.

Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP

For their part, in addition to numerous lawsuits against the Palestinian Authority, pro-Israel groups have sought to stigmatise and even punish BDS advocacy and other criticism of Israel by asserting that it is inherently anti-Semitic.

The argument is in essence a dispute about Zionism, with each side accusing the other of racism by endorsing or opposing it.

BDS campaigners and many other pro-Palestinian advocates view Zionism as a political ideology or orientation, and hence just as legitimately liable to be critiqued or rejected as any other. But many supporters of Israel have increasingly adopted the view that any wholesale rejection of Zionism is not only anti-Semitic but a primary contemporary form of antisemitism.

They say a rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state that dedicates itself exclusively for the exercise of Jewish national rights and identity – as Israel’s policies since its founding in effect have done and its recently adopted nation-state law overtly declares – is racist. And they say it denies Jews the right to national self-determination that all other people supposedly enjoy. Only Israel, they claim, is subjected to a widespread attack on its fundamental legitimacy, and they argue that can only be due to antisemitism.

Many supporters of Israel have increasingly adopted the view that any wholesale rejection of Zionism is not only anti-Semitic but the primary contemporary form of antisemitism

The BDS movement and many other pro-Palestinian groups often take the opposite view. They argue that support for Zionism is racist because it advocates Jewish supremacy over Palestinians. They point to the historic dispossession and exile of millions of Palestinians and the ongoing discrimination against and disenfranchisement of most Palestinians living under Israeli rule. Indeed, they claim, their support for a one-state solution in which all citizens will be treated equally is the only formula for averting racism.

This is hardly the only emotionally charged debate on US campuses but it might be the only one in which institutional and governmental power in the US is being deployed to muzzle one side.

Mr Marcus has already sought to use the power of the administration to coerce several universities into suppressing criticism of Israel, by professors and students alike. Federal funding is a powerful tool.

He and the US administration insist these efforts have nothing to do with clamping down on free speech – but of course they do. Indeed, that is their obvious intention. If one defines harsh criticism of Israel or opposition to Zionism as inherently anti-Semitic and attempts to punish it, a crucial channel of debate, thought and discourse is being officially and deliberately shut down.

Alarmingly, the very important and otherwise honourable movement to uphold traditional free-speech values on US campuses usually ignores this organised and official effort to police thinking on Israel and the Palestinians.

But one thing is certain: for supporters of Israel and the occupation, this effort to secure government protection from criticism is anything but a sign of strength. It is a howling cry of weakness.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute in Washington