Critical Thinking on Israel, not Coddling, Needed for Jewish University Students: Expert

Nov. 26, 2020

By STEVE ARNOLD

A veteran of the wars against antisemitism warns Jewish students are being harmed more than protected when their universities stifle criticism of Israel.

Kenneth Stern has been fighting against antisemitism for more than 25 years, first with the American Jewish Committee and now as head of a major hate studies institute.

He argues in his new book on the Israel-Palestine debate that “safe zones” on campuses and speaking bans on Israel critics aren’t preparing modern students for the world they will have to face.

He told the recent annual meeting of JSpace Canada that rather than being sheltered from uncomfortable ideas, today’s students should be taught the critical thinking skills that will let them counter anti-Israel ideas with better ones of their own.

“Today’s students are being quarantined from difficult ideas, but we are all going to have to face disturbing ideas in our lives,” Stern told the online meeting. “There is too much of a push now saying students are fragile and need to be protected.”

In his new book, The Conflict Over the Conflict: The Israel/Palestine Campus Debate, Stern argues that honest and free debate over Israel and the policies of its government are being stifled in the name of protecting students from uncomfortable ideas.

“There is a kind of group-think today that says some things shouldn’t be explored,” he said. “Our students need to learn how to fight over ideas.”

Stern’s book, which appeared earlier this year in the United States, was officially launched in Canada as part of the meeting. JSpace bills itself as a progressive Jewish voice.

Stern is director of the Bard Centre for the Study of Hate, a lawyer and an author. For 25 years, he was the American Jewish Committee’s expert on antisemitism.

Reviews, like the one in The Jewish Independent, have described Stern’s book as “the most comprehensive assessment” of the Israel/Palestine debate. The reviewer also found it free of bias, noting the author “offers proof that the pro-Israel side is far from innocent of engaging in disgraceful tactics…” 

The real core of the book, however, is an argument for free expression and the exercise of academic freedom, the review stated.

Stern told his JSpace audience that rather than suppressing anti-Israel ideals, universities should sweep away their anti-hate speech codes and instead empower students to speak out when they are faced with bigotry and hatred.

“In an ideal environment you want students to be able to say what they think, but if bigotry becomes normalized, some are going to feel uncomfortable,” he said. “It’s important that students learn to speak out against things that make them uncomfortable.”

Before a civilized debate can be held, however, Stern has argued that terms must be defined: What actually is antisemitic as opposed to a legitimate criticism of Israel’s policies.

On that point, critics have found irony in the fact Stern was instrumental in helping to draft the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism currently being adopted by governments and universities around the world.

Canada adopted it last year, while Ontario recently imposed it through an Order in Council. Several Canadian cities and towns have endorsed it.

Critics of the definition have attacked its 11 attached examples of antisemitism, noting seven of them specifically equate criticism of Israel with Jew-hatred.

Carleton University political science professor Mira Sucharov, who reviewed Stern’s book in June for the CJR wrote: “It may also read as ironic, given that Stern was instrumental in drafting the definition that is now much debated, and which has been adopted by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (and last year by Canada). But this is where the strength of the book lies: It is a principled discussion of free speech, whether or not one agrees with his threshold.”

Stern told the JSpace audience the IHRA definition was created as a way of gathering data on antisemitism in Europe and was never intended as a club to stifle free debate on the topic.

“The idea that some people are using it as a hate crime measure on campuses is despicable,” he said. “It was never intended to be used this way on campus. That is an absolute abuse of it.”

One result of efforts to censor anti-Israel speech on campus, he said, is to drive some students away from on-campus Jewish life when they find organizations fully committed to an “us-versus-them” vision. That is especially true, he said, of graduates of Jewish day schools who feel betrayed when they arrive on campus when suddenly faced with attacks on Israel for the “occupation” of Palestine.

One example of that, noted by the Jewish Independent reviewer, is Stern’s critique of the “Standards of Partnership” adopted by Hillel International. It “proscribes engaging with groups or individuals that deny Israel’s right to exist, or who delegitimize, demonize or apply a double standard to Israel, who support BDS or who exhibit “a pattern of disruptive behaviour towards campus events or guest speakers or foster an atmosphere of incivility.”

In the end, Stern argues that rather than turning anti-Israel speakers into martyrs by denying them a chance to air their ideas on campus, Israel supporters should be armed with the skills to refute those claims.

“Both sides are harming the academy by trying to chill the other,” he said. “Campuses should not be places where we censor free speech. They should be places where we mine it for what it is worth.”

The alternative to that environment of free speech, he said, is for government to define truth, “and I see danger there.”

It’s Not About Antisemitism. it’s About Free Speech

Nov. 18, 2020

By AMOS GOLDBERG

On Oct. 26th, Ontario adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of antisemitism through an Order in Council. 

On the face of it, what could be more appropriate than adopting a clear definition of antisemitism that helps fight this scourge? It would seem obvious that all decent people should unite in this just and essential fight.

Unfortunately, this definition – and especially the 11 examples appended to its original text – help very little, if at all, to fight antisemitism. Rather than helping to stamp out antisemitism, several of these examples actually serve to curb free speech on Israel and its policies against the Palestinians, shaping the debate over Israel-Palestine in a way that practically silences the Palestinian voice.

Let’s take a look at one example: “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is considered antisemitic. The first question that comes to mind is: if denying Jews the right of self-determination is antisemitic because it’s a universal right, how should we define denying the Palestinian right for self-determination? Why is denying Palestinian self-determination a legitimated political opinion and, in fact, Israel’s practical policy, while denying Jewish self-determination is considered antisemitic? The second question that comes to mind is that almost all countries on the globe are accused of being racist. Why should Israel be shielded from such legitimate allegations?

But there is more to it. The reasons almost all Palestinians, including the most devoted supporters of the two-states solution, reject Zionism is not because they are antisemites, but because they experience Zionism as oppressive and colonial. None other than the great Zionist leader Ze’ev Jabotinsky, the forefather of the ruling Likud party, acknowledged this already in his 1923 article “The Iron Wall.” There, he asserted that like all colonized peoples, the Palestinians reject Zionism because they oppose what they perceive – and from their perspective rightly so – as foreign invaders. Following Jabotinsky, we can say that denying Jews’ right to self-determination in Palestine as such is not antisemitic even for ardent Zionists like Jabotinsky. One can certainly reject this view but there is nothing antisemitic in it.

Insisting on the opposite practically delegitimizes, silences and criminalizes all Palestinians (and very many non-Zionist Jews) who, as Jabotinsky observed, reject Zionism for understandable (even if rejectable) reasons. Opposing Zionism is hence a legitimate view secured by the right of free speech and, in fact, a legitimate Jewish opinion.

This is only one of many examples of how the definition actually prevents free speech and an honest discussion on Israel-Palestine while disguising itself as a fight against antisemitism. In fact, the definition actually distorts the very essence of this fight. Most scholarly accounts of modern antisemitism connect it to the rise of nationalism and the emergence of the nation-state. Fighting antisemitism is about protecting a vulnerable minority against the violent homogenizing tendency of the majority society. The IHRA definition does precisely the opposite. It protects a powerful state, Israel, from criticism of its well-documented violations of the human rights of its vulnerable minority and occupants. In short, the IHRA definition has become a powerful silencing mechanism that serves only to increase the massive power imbalance between Israel and the Palestinians.

Kenneth Stern, who, 15 years ago, was the lead author of the IHRA definition (for research, not legislative purposes) and is now one of its chief critics, has written: “I’m a Zionist,” but “anti-Zionists have a right to free expression.” The IHRA definition has been deployed to undermine that right, he asserts. We should be very attentive to his words and call on the Ontario legislature to take great care in how it interprets this harmful definition. 


Amos Goldberg
Amos Goldberg

Amos Goldberg is a Holocaust historian at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Among his recent publications are Trauma in First Person: Diary Writing During the Holocaust; and his co-edited volume with Bashir Bashir: The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History.

Why We Support the IHRA Definition of Antisemitism… Cautiously

Nov. 5, 2020 

By JORDAN DEVON AND KAREN MOCK

On Oct. 27, Ontario became the first province in Canada to adopt the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) working definition of antisemitism. JSpaceCanada, the organization we represent, joined the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), B’nai Brith Canada and Friends of Simon Wiesenthal Center in applauding this decision

As most in our community are aware, we do not always see eye to eye with these organizations. As a progressive Zionist Jewish voice, we are unapologetic in our opposition to the Israeli occupation and emphatic in our support for a two-state solution – positions that aren’t always shared by more dominant community institutions.

But on this occasion, we felt the need to rise above these differences. While our community has diverse voices and opinions, there is clear consensus about the need to combat the alarming rise of antisemitism. We cannot protect our society from the scourge of antisemitism if we are unable to name it, to identify it properly, and to address it consistently. 

The IHRA definition states: “Antisemitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of antisemitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions and religious facilities.”

The definition has been given broad acceptance by Jewish communities around the world. By adopting it, Ontario is following the anti-racist/anti-oppression norm that victimized groups can best define the terms that describe discrimination against them.

However, it must be noted that the IHRA definition does not come without its critics.

Shortly after we released our statement in support of the provincial government’s decision to bypass public committee hearings and proceed to endorsement, we received concerned, disappointed, and even angry messages from allies and colleagues in the Arab community, who noted that the IHRA definition has been used to suppress criticism of Israel in jurisdictions around the world. 

Indeed, the IHRA definition comes with a list of illustrative examples of antisemitism, some of which have been interpreted as appearing to conflate criticism of Zionism and Israel with antisemitism.

The definition, as drafted by Kenneth Stern and an international team of scholars, was meant to be used as a tool or resource to assist in identification and documentation, and not to be legally binding. However, there is great concern that the IHRA definition has been weaponized by right-wing groups to suppress even tepid criticism of Israel – a reality that has been acknowledged by Stern himself.

But we can understand why reference to the IHRA language is alarming for communities who experience Israel and Zionism differently than Jews do. And we acknowledge the distinctions and relationships between antisemitism and criticism of Israel.

Criticizing Israeli policy is not inherently antisemitic. Indeed, the IHRA definition itself specifies that “criticism of Israel similar to that against any other state cannot be considered to be antisemitic.”

As a progressive Zionist organization, JSpaceCanada has actively criticized discriminatory Israeli government policies, and we will continue to do so, challenging Israel to fulfill the promise of its Declaration of Independence. Nevertheless, it is important to distinguish between well-meaning critics of Israel and those who are influenced by antisemitism, or may cross the line into antisemitic rhetoric.

We will continue to call for the cautious application of the IHRA definition in keeping with the drafters’ intent, to ensure it does not supress freedom of speech or academic freedom. In the same vein, we would expect that definitions of racism or any form of discrimination should not be used to silence speech that does not meet one of the criteria of hate speech.

We are committed to monitoring and speaking out against any attempt to misuse the IHRA definition to attack Palestinian activism or to promote Islamophobia. And we will defend those whom we feel have been wrongfully accused of antisemitism.


Dr. Karen Mock is the President of JSpaceCanada
Jordan Devon is the Vice-President of JSpaceCanada. 
JSpaceCanada is an all-volunteer, non-partisan, progressive Jewish organization.