On Wednesday, November 29, in the Integrative Learning Center at the University of Massachusetts, three professors spoke on the exploitation of the term “anti-Semitism.” The panel was sponsored by the Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, Media Education Foundation and the departments of communication, philosophy, history, African-American studies and women, gender and sexuality studies.
Two are professors at UMass, Sut Jhally in the communications department and Joseph Levine in the philosophy department. The third, Vijay Prashad, is a professor of South Asian history and international studies at Trinity College.
Jhally spoke initially about how this event manifested, and how, in conjunction with this event, there was another panel discussion planned to take place at the exact same time called “Antisemitism and Islamophobia: Historical Perspectives and Civic Engagement Against Hate in 2017.” He said, “I’ve never had this happen before, where someone is so threatened by an event that they organize an alternative event at the same time.”
Regarding the origins of this event, Jhally said, “The reason for this event was the extraordinary reaction to a talk earlier in the semester given by Thomas Suárez.” The talk with Suárez surrounded his book “State of Terror: How Terrorism Created Modern Israel,” which talked about the Jewish state of Israel and its relations with Palestine.
He then drew the focus back onto his interest in how the Israeli and Palestinian conflict has been depicted in American media, its representation and its narrative. He believes that the issue in these depictions is that discussion is often halted through accusations of anti-Semitism and racism toward those who are critical of Israeli policy, specifically right-wing Israeli policy.
Jhally described this issue as “a very, very effective silencing mechanism,” as it silences those accused for the fear of being deemed a racist or anti-Semite, he said.
The general issue presented by Jhally is that this mechanism manipulates the oppressive, violent and fearful history of Jewish people and “distracts from what the state of Israel, not Jews, what the state of Israel is doing to the Palestinians.”
Jhally says that the term “anti-Semitic” can be used harmfully, as it presents a danger to deflect attention from Palestinian suffering and victimization through the refocusing of the situation to Israeli victimization.
Jhally predicted the event would be deemed “anti-Semitic” but proclaimed, “Do not let them become invisible. Do not let the Palestinians become invisible and do not let the fascist expression of anti-Semitism go unchallenged.”
Prashad took over, reading from a four-part passage. The first included an email from Rabbi Alissa Wise regarding anti-Semitism in America. It mentioned President Donald Trump’s response to the events in Charlottesville.
He concluded from the email that “the real anti-Semites, namely the fascists, who go by the name alt-right, get a free pass while those who are against anti-Semitism and who are critics of Israeli state policy are labeled anti-Semites.”
The second part of the passage he read was about the asymmetrical violence of the Israeli occupation against the Palestinians. He spoke on conflicts in which one side was at a disadvantage, including what he described to be a lack of justice in the wake of the 1984 daily riots in Delhi.
Prashad told his own story of being deemed an “anti-Semite” in the third passage. As a result of his reporting on issues like asymmetrical violence, Prashad has also been labeled with the term. Consequences included emails to the university where he was employed, urging his removal from positions of authority.
He also delved into the dilemma of how once someone is labeled an “anti-Semite” there will constantly be “that smell on them” hindering one’s reputation.
The last part was called “Human Beings” and it pertained to “Operation Pillar of Defense” in which Israeli forces bombed Gaza for eight days. He ended his speech by saying, “how tragic… that in this progressive age people do not follow the rule assigned to humans.”
Levine spoke last on “the real fear that is pervading the Jewish community” also referencing the events of Charlottesville and the chants shouted on the streets, “Jews will not replace us.”
Levine’s speech was anecdotal, touching on his experiences as a Jewish person who was surprised by how little anti-Semitism he has experienced throughout his years of work and travels. He said while he has had little experience with the term, he fears that one day it can all change, highlighting the misuse of the term “anti-Semitic,” which he believes could legitimize and give rise to real values pertaining to the label.
Levine then touched on the “principled conscientious Jews who have loudly denounced the oppression of Palestinians,” and solidarity activists who are Jewish. He pointed out that “this was not a Jewish issue. This was an Israel Zionist issue.”
There were three premises he wanted to denounce that related to the state department’s definition of anti-Semitism. They included how Jewish people constitute a nationality and not a religious group, that Palestine is the historical homeland of the people who now call themselves Jews, and that state ought to be organized by anything other than civic conceptions of nationality.
Following Levine’s talk, the panel was opened to a questions and answers.
Ben Avrahami, who is a junior biology major at UMass, expressed his concern for the Israeli and Palestinian conflict, saying “I want to find a solution.” Avrahami also hopes for a more open discussion on the issue from both sides.
Bonnie Chen can be reached at [email protected]