The Hidden Dangers of Antisemitism and the Free Speech Debate

Jewish history is full of cautionary examples of failed emancipation. For millennia, Jews have often been perceived as the “other” in their host societies, a status that continues to this day despite appearances to the contrary in some countries. While the past century has witnessed various efforts to achieve civil and political rights for Jews, including religious initiatives like Reform Judaism and political movements like Zionism, these have not fully addressed the underlying issues.

Following the Holocaust, Zionism succeeded in establishing the state of Israel, but it did not resolve the fundamental issue of Jewish emancipation. That’s because the state is not secure or, in many ways, viable. Israel’s lack of internationally recognized borders and its ongoing inability or unwillingness to establish a lasting peace with the indigenous Palestinian population have exacerbated the idea that the country is not secure.

Rather than mitigating these challenges, Israel has spent substantial resources to build a vast military occupation to control virtually every facet of the lives of Palestinians. The resources required for this herculean task of domination largely come from abroad in the form of military aid and diplomatic cover from the United States. 

The dependence of a secular Jewish state on a predominantly Christian nation like the US is cause for concern, given the historical hostility between Christian societies and Jews. This stands in contrast to the narrative pushed by Israel’s current public relations campaigns, which don’t dwell on that dark history but instead argues that it is Muslims that have exhibited more hostility toward Jews. Throughout history, numerous Christian societies have exercised animosity toward Jews, on a scale far greater than their Muslim counterparts. Hostility, demonization, subjugation, and violence blighted the history of Jewish populations in Europe.

While the US is not a religious state, it is a majority Christian country that has witnessed a hard rightward shift in politics, marked by extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric in recent years. It seems inevitable that a savvy populist American politician will eventually raise questions about the loyalty of American Jews and the nature of the US’s special relationship with Israel. In fact, former President Donald Trump has already made such insinuations through comments about American Jews and his remarks calling Nazi marchers in Charlottesville “very fine people.” This is deeply disturbing but unsurprising from the perspective of Jewish history, which is marked with many episodes of such shifts. 

The recent uproar surrounding how American universities address antisemitism in the wake of Hamas’s October 7 attack could mark another turning point. The focus is on how institutions like Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania handle the increasingly heated debate over Israel and Palestine. Last month, the presidents of these universities were called before Congress to address these issues, leading to a hearing reminiscent of the McCarthy era. Republican members of Congress grilled these university leaders over the use of the phrase “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” by pro-Palestine activists.

This phrase, used by Palestinians for decades, calls for their freedom and equality from the Mediterranean Sea to the Jordan River. However, the Israeli government and pro-Israel activists argue that it is a veiled call for the elimination of Israel and the Jewish presence in the Middle East. They tend to overlook the fact that Israeli settlers have also employed a similar phrase in their propaganda, and Israeli textbooks have frequently omitted any reference to Palestine on their maps. In 2013, the Guardian reported that 76 percent of maps used to educate Israeli children did not delineate boundaries between Palestinian territories and Israel, with Palestinian areas left unlabeled.

During the congressional hearing, a Republican lawmaker, who has previously advocated for the removal of “woke agenda” from American universities, questioned Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, about whether “calling for the genocide of Jews violates Harvard’s rules on bullying and harassment.” Gay responded that it depends on the context, which the New Yorker notes was the correct response since “any responsible determination of a policy violation is context-dependent.” After the hearing, the president of the University of Pennsylvania lost her job, and a new chapter in the debate about American freedom of speech began. 

The Israel-Palestine debate has now become a platform to discuss broader free speech issues in the US. While such discussions can facilitate real change, they are cause for concern in this case because the intellectual foundations of the debate seem weak. For instance, using a chant to advocate for Palestinian rights is not equivalent to advocating genocide, and attempts to link the two often rely on outdated PR talking points from Israel.

The more significant concern lies in how this debate could further fuel discontent among a growing number of Americans regarding the influence of Israeli politics on US discourse. Given the numerous pressing issues facing the average American, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and its international public relations may not be at the forefront.

American politicians are able to see this opening for their campaigns. Donald Trump is the most obvious example, but others are bound to follow. Ironically, pro-Israel activists driven by a desire to fight antisemitism might well be flaming its fires through the blind adoption of Israeli talking points. If history serves as a guide, there may be consequences for this perceived overreach, which would almost certainly be unfavorable for the Jews.

Joseph Dana is a writer based in South Africa and the Middle East. He has reported from Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo, Istanbul, and Abu Dhabi. He was formerly editor-in-chief of emerge85, a media project based in Abu Dhabi exploring change in emerging markets. Twitter: @ibnezra


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