Eric Kaler’s statement about USG’s Israel resolution is disingenuous

Milo Vetter, Staff Writer

The global debate about the Isreal-Palestine conflict has always been fraught with antisemitism. Antisemitic people commonly disguise their antisemitism as criticism of the Israeli government, which both endangers Jewish people and harms the ability to have a legitimate debate on the topic. Because of this, many social justice advocates are wary of criticism of Israel. A good solution to the problem is for an interlocutor to be specific in their claims so that the audience knows their intent precisely. For example, if someone said, “Israel is the root of evil in the world,” it would be unclear if that person’s problem was with the Israeli government’s actions or the Jewish people who live there (and few would blame you for assuming the latter). On the other hand, if that person said, “Israeli military doctrine explicitly allows for the destruction of civilian infrastructure and calls for the use of ‘disproportionate power’ to achieve that end,” it would be clear exactly what that person is advocating for. 

This dichotomy between antisemitism and legitimate criticism of Israel was showcased on Nov. 9. The General Assembly of Undergraduate Student Government (USG) passed a resolution demanding that Case Western Reserve University divests from companies that are complicit in the genocide of Palestinians in Israel. The resolution begins by summarizing the offenses that Israel has committed. These offenses include the blockading of the Gaza strip, displacement of Palestinians by government-sanctioned settlement in the West Bank, targeted killings of Palestinians and more. The resolution then stated that CWRU has previously participated in a boycott of Sudan because of human rights violations in the area. Finally, it pointed out that student governments at nearby universities have advocated for divestment from companies complicit in Israeli human rights abuses—now, CWRU’s USG is now doing the same.

The next day, President Eric Kaler sent out a statement to the CWRU community that rejected the resolution’s demands. This was not a surprise, as the administration had said they would do so in advance. What was a surprise, however, was the language of the statement, which called the resolution “profoundly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic.” Kaler also wrote that “a vote for this resolution is clearly a vote against Israel and an aggression towards the Jewish members of our community.” He ended the email saying “hate toward any group will be opposed at every step, including categorically rejecting the calls to action outlined in this resolution.” Kaler is right about one thing—the USG resolution is, without a doubt, anti-Israel. Nevertheless, it is not antisemitic; the resolution contains essential specificity crucial to proper criticism of the Israeli state. The “whereas” statements in the resolution condemning actions by Israel (or citing condemnations by human rights groups) are all very specifically targeted to the state of Israel, not the majority ethnic group within the state. They also avoid overly moralistic language against the people who commit these actions, instead focusing on the actions themselves.

The concern about antisemitism is somewhat understandable. There have been increases in antisemitic sentiment and attacks following the passage of similar resolutions, and that may very well happen here. But there is an important distinction between resistance to the Israeli government and hatred of Jewish people. It is not difficult to differentiate between legitimate anti-Israel advocacy (especially when it is specific and clear) and the antisemitism that can accompany it. The CWRU administration failed to make this critical differentiation when it condemned both at the same time.

The tactic of calling antisemitism whenever Israel is criticized—no matter the extent to which the claims are actually antisemitic—is not new. It has long been used to justify an otherwise indefensible state that regularly and systematically engages in human rights violations, and it is a major point of contention among Jewish communities (who do not monolithically support the Israeli government). Sometimes it goes so far as Zionists calling anti-Zionist Jewish people “self-hating Jews.”

However, to circle back, President Kaler’s statement is either a grossly incompetent misunderstanding of the resolution (which just so happens to exactly match a tried-and-true political strategy) or deliberately dishonest. At the risk of over-speculation, one possible explanation for this potential dishonesty is that CWRU is so deeply affiliated with one or more of these companies—such as Lockheed Martin and Raytheon—that divestment would either be extremely difficult or even impossible. Because of this, his statement may have been sent to shield CWRU from calls for divestment. I cannot speak for all students at CWRU, but I would prefer to accept a cynical but honest conclusion that economics trumps ethics rather than what the statement might truly represent: a revelation that the CWRU administration is willing to disingenuously declare USG’s actions antisemitic to avoid telling us the truth.