Don’t conflate criticism of Israel with antisemitism

A response to President Kaler’s email

John Mays, Contributing Writer

On the evening of Nov. 8, Case Western Reserve University’s Undergraduate Student Government (USG) voted on Resolution 31-15—a resolution calling for our university to “fully divest its assets from Israeli apartheid, the international military-industrial complex, and the international prison-industrial complex.” The following morning, President Kaler sent out an email critical of the resolution, calling it “profoundly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic” and claiming that voting for the resolution constituted an “aggression towards the Jewish members of our community.” He concluded by saying we must reject hate and, in doing so, he “categorically [rejected] the calls to action outlined in this resolution.”

President Kaler’s email was not only a limp and inadequate rebuttal to the resolution but also insulting to us as students. Furthermore, Kaler asserts that USG founded the resolution on antisemitism and anti-Israelism. At best, this is just a poor choice of language; at worst, it is a disingenuous tactic to reframe Israel as the primary victim in its asymmetric conflict with Palestine.

In calling the resolution antisemitic, Kaler has made the obnoxious mistake of conflating Jewish people with the State of Israel. The resolution claims that the State of Israel is engaging in apartheid, not Jewish people worldwide. This seems clear throughout since the “whereas” clauses mention “Israel” or “Israelis” 15 times, yet the words “Judaism” or “Jews” are nowhere to be found. The ethnicity/religion of the aggressor state seems irrelevant. 

Perhaps then Kaler is suggesting that criticism of the State of Israel somehow implicitly targets Jewish people as an ethnic or religious group. However, what does an unproblematic criticism of Israel look like? By his logic, it seems like a criticism of state action by Norway would be anti-white or a criticism of Saudi Arabia would be Islamophobic. I’m not so naive as to suggest that critiques of states cannot go hand in hand with feelings of hatred toward their citizens. However, under these blanket assumptions, it would be completely impossible to criticize a government without targeting its people for their ethnicity or religion. Therefore, I reject this notion because it precludes legitimate criticism of state actions—furthermore, the conflation of Jewish people and Israel is ignorant and offensive. To pretend the actions of Israel represent Jewish people would simply be false as they are entirely different categories. Additionally, there are many Jewish people around the world, such as Noam Chomsky, who criticize Israel in much the same fashion that the resolution does.

Kaler also called the resolution “anti-Israel” and suggested that this is a hateful position, but what exactly does he mean by anti-Israel? If he means to be against the citizens of Israel as an entire population, this would go hand in hand with the kind of repugnant and indiscriminate hatred that antisemitism is. However, it is unlikely that this is what he meant, as following this logic would imply that Kaler’s condemnation of the Russian invasion would be hatefully “anti-Russian.” I would never condone this kind of thinking, and for the aforementioned reasons, I would again reject the notion that the resolution and its authors promote this belief. 

Still, maybe Kaler is using another definition; perhaps he believes that the resolution’s writers are against the government of Israel. I cannot claim to speak for Students for Justice in Palestine or any of the other co-sponsors, and I do not belong to any of those organizations, but if that is what he believes then yes, I am “anti-Israel.” I support a resolution critical of the oppressive, militaristic and settler-colonial government of Israel. I will not be an advocate for or be neutral toward a government I believe is evil. In this sense, if you are to be “pro-Palestine,” you must be “anti-Israel.” In this sense, you cannot be for the well-being of Palestinian people without being “anti-Israel”—the state is not the people. The state is an institution and the ruling hand of the elite. I am “against Israel” in the sense that I must be for the well-being of Palestinians; however, these are rather fickle categories. What I truly am is anti-violence and anti-militarism. 

Kaler has needlessly complicated the outcome of the resolution; still, it is clear that holding hateful feelings toward a people is not a necessary precondition of wishing their government acted differently. I do not have any ill will toward the average Israeli citizen or Jewish person, and I deeply resent the fact that President Kaler suggested that I and many others do simply by supporting this resolution.

For Kaler to suggest the resolution is antisemitic and hateful toward Israeli people is as foolish as it is for me to suggest that Kaler is Islamophobic or hateful toward Palestinians. I do not know how he personally feels about those groups of people. Similarly, he does not know how the co-sponsors of the resolution feel about Jewish people, and I have explained that the resolution does not promote any hateful values on its own. However, I might understand why he, as the university president, felt the need to send that email.  

There has been a noticeable rise in antisemitic sentiment in the United States, as is exemplified by the recent comments by Kanye West and Kyrie Irving. This is terrifying because Jewish citizens in the U.S. continue to experience symbolic and physical violence as a consequence of antisemitic ideology, and there are certainly antisemites on and around this campus. Jewish students have voiced their concerns that the outcome of this resolution makes them feel threatened, and I think it is at least understandable for them to have a portion of their cultural identity intertwined with the idea of Israel. Therefore, I understand Kaler’s desire to make it clear that antisemitism is abhorrent and not in line with CWRU’s values, and to let Jewish students know that they are safe and welcome here.

However, I cannot go without mentioning that this resolution most likely poses a severe risk to this university’s fiscal interests. CWRU probably decided to invest in these complicit companies at some point, which implies that it would not be in their fiscal interest to disinvest. Furthermore, this resolution was so contentious among CWRU’s students that it was most likely also contentious among CWRU’s donors. This email reads like pure posturing to me, and if Kaler chose to send it to support those financial interests, he is spineless and immoral.

Overall, I found Kaler’s email to be reminiscent of the segregationists who pathetically insisted that the civil rights movement was inherently anti-white. His claims are logically incoherent, disingenuous and downright offensive. I hope that we can do better as a community and that we can work toward a world with less suffering, less killing and less hatred. USG’s resolution is in line with those goals, and as it stands, President Kaler is not.