On Sept. 21, the Case Western Reserve University’s Radical Student Union (RSU) hosted a public screening of the documentary “The Occupation of the American Mind: Israel’s Public Relations War in the United States,” a film that is available from Kelvin Smith Library for free to all CWRU students and faculty at goo.gl/kPo8zr. Since then, the response on campus has been limited to a few debates in the opinion section of The Observer, which so far have been cordial and well-argued on both sides. However, the off-campus response to our screening has taken a much more malicious tone, misrepresenting our group’s purpose and intentions and accusing us of being antisemitic, supporting terrorism or being witless pawns in a conflict between university faculty.
Before getting into what various groups have accused us of being, let us explain what we actually are: We are a diverse group of students united by a common interest in activism against all forms of oppression. We loathe all forms of racial, religious and ethnic hatred and work to combat them wherever we find them. We screened this documentary in exactly that interest. Our aim was to show the perspective of a group that is often made invisible by ethnic and religious hatred: the Palestinian side of the long-standing Palestine-Israel conflict. It should go without saying that our criticism of the Israeli government and its military is not a criticism of the Israeli people, and it is most certainly not a criticism of the Jewish people.
After the screening, our first surprise came in an article written in the Cleveland Jewish News which gives a well-rounded summary of the situation. In this article, Dr. Brian Amkraut, executive director of the Siegal Lifelong Learning Program at Case Western, is quoted at length. While we respect his differing opinion on the state of Israel, we cannot respect his conspiratorial thinking and insults to our members. Dr. Amkraut is quoted as saying: “There are a couple professors on campus who think that every campus should have not just an activist movement but specifically, a pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel … movement…. To them, that’s the sign of an engaged activist campus. I think there are people who want it, but they also know it has to be viewed as student-driven.”
Not only does this ring of conspiratorial paranoia, it is a highly unprofessional insult to our intelligence. While we have a supportive faculty advisor and other faculty members are free to support us or not, our decisions have been and always will be our own. Amkraut’s implication that we are too simple-minded to make decisions of our own or to stand up for our own convictions is not only an insult to RSU, but an insult to the entire CWRU student body. In addition, it is an insult to CWRU’s faculty, who Amkraut seems to believe are too underhanded to voice their opinions to his face.
Next, we discovered that we now have an entry for our organization on the website of the AMCHA initiative, which tracks antisemitic activity on university campuses. At goo.gl/Yoy6gJ, they list our two counts of antisemitic activity. Our first offense appears to be calling Hamas a “nationalistic organization,” a fairly uncontroversial statement. Because of this, AMCHA seems to believe that we “CONDONED TERRORISM” (emphasis theirs) committed by Hamas. Our second offense is our endorsement of the Boycott-Divest-Sanction, or BDS movement, which is intended to put political and economic pressure on the Israeli government to end the human rights abuses committed by its military. If it seems confusing that analyzing the historical role of Hamas and criticizing a national government is enough to put us in a catalog of anti semitism beside neo-Nazis and Holocaust deniers, we were confused as well. However, AMCHA’s criteria for judging antisemitism can be found at goo.gl/8GxJBR. We seem to have fallen afoul of the third bullet point, which states that claiming that “Israel is a racist … state” constitutes antisemitism. This belief that any criticism of a national government equates to racial or ethnic prejudice is not only wholly dishonest, it is extremely dangerous. It treats that government as though it were infallible, which is especially dangerous when it specifically insulates them from criticism for racist policies. Does AMCHA believe that the same is true of any other government that privileges one ethnic group over another? Do they believe that protesters against Apartheid were anti-Afrikaans, or that the Civil Rights Movement was anti-white?
In their overview of campus anti semitism, AMCHA states that “political ‘criticism’ of Israel often morphs into the recognizable tropes of classical anti-semitism,” and this is unfortunately very true. However, it is just as true that the epithet of anti-semitism is often used to suppress political criticism of Israel and this seems to be exactly what they aim to do to our organization.
RSU abhors all forms of hatred and prejudice and among them anti-semitism has historically been one of the most tragic and anti-human. We stand against anti-semitism and are also against the perversion of Jewish issues to support a particular state and its military. This is especially offensive to our Jewish members, who resent the fact that their identity is held hostage to coerce them into supporting the state of Israel. While AMCHA seems to do good work in cataloging genuine incidents of anti-semitism, their conflation of political dissent with prejudice serves only to cheapen that work and to tarnish their organization in the eyes of those they claim to defend.
Finally, in order to better pursue our anti-racist, anti-fascist platform and in the hope of uniting the CWRU student body against all forms of hatred, we would like to invite Israel’s CWRU, Cleveland Hillel, Brian Amkraut and any other interested students or faculty members to meet with the RSU and discuss antisemitism on campus and how best to combat it.
Secretary for the CWRU Radical Student Union