At the Intersection of Zionism and Social Justice

In her oily, cringe-inducing and totally predictable speech to AIPAC on March 21, Hillary Clinton argued that, since (according to her) “anti-Semitism is on the rise across the world… we must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate and undermine Israel and the Jewish people.” In other words, we must do what we can to shut down any legitimate criticism of Israeli policy. A reliable means of doing so is to conflate said criticism with anti-Semitism and thus vilify the critic in question. This particular strategy has been perfected and institutionalized for decades, and was perhaps best deconstructed by Norman Finkelstein in “The Holocaust Industry.”

By dismissing BDS advocates as irrational, Jew-hating troublemakers, Hillary Clinton, the great bastion of liberalism and progress, makes common cause with the jingoist far right (where she actually belongs). But she also makes common cause with a good chunk of US academia, where criticism of Israel and its atrocities is often met with censorship and intimidation. In a comprehensive report on the subject, Palestine Legal details the extent of the suppression: “From January 2014 through June 2015, Palestine Legal interviewed hundreds of students, academics and community activists who reported being censored, punished, subjected to disciplinary proceedings, questioned, threatened, or falsely accused of anti-Semitism or supporting terrorism for their speech in support of Palestinian rights or criticism of Israeli policies.”

Needless to say, this is a gross violation of First Amendment rights, and it needs to be challenged at every opportunity. The university system is based on the principles of free inquiry and unfettered discourse; absent the open exchange of conflicting ideas and opinions, academia is essentially worthless. When certain viewpoints are institutionally favored, colleges cease to be places of learning and instead become places of indoctrination. Who could desire such a circumstance? Well, apart from authoritarians, fascists, religious fanatics (including Zionists) and Hillary Clinton, it’s becoming more and more apparent that “liberal” student activists do.

On college campuses across the country, students are mobilizing and protesting against institutionalized discrimination. Few on the left would argue that this is a negative development. After all, if nothing else these students are contesting authority—a noble and worthy exercise in itself. However, what do we say when fundamental democratic values like free speech are subordinated to an ideology? This is the precarious situation in which many student activists currently find themselves. It’s bizarre: presumably, the students protesting at places like Yale and the University of Missouri (to take two high-profile examples from last year) would stand with the BDS activists who are targeted and censored by pro-Israel forces. And yet these same students—exhibiting a degree of schizophrenia—would have their own ideological opponents treated in the same fashion.

Take a recent incident. At Emory College in Atlanta, some students used chalk to write “Trump 2016”—and other similarly anodyne messages—throughout the campus. Curiously (or perhaps not at this point), controversy erupted when a number of students declared that they felt physically threatened by the chalk drawings, which were considered by some to be acts of violence. “I thought we were having a KKK rally on campus,” one student reportedly told the Daily Beast. She “legitimately feared for [her] life.” Another student said that “some of us were expecting shootings” and thus “feared walking alone.” They demanded that the Emory administration identify the perpetrators, presumably so some sort of disciplinary action could take place—perhaps a public flogging. When the administration responded with a tepid defense of the anonymous chalkers’ right to free speech, the offended shifted their ire onto the college itself, for failing to provide an adequate safe space. All of which is par for the course by now.

So here we have a conflation of Donald Trump supporters with homicidal white supremacists; of political campaigning with physical violence. This is not dissimilar to the conflation of BDS with anti-Semitism, which plagues Palestinian rights activists everywhere. In fact, it’s closer to the profoundly stupid idea that all Muslims endorse terrorism—a notion that the offended students at Emory surely find abhorrent. There is one obvious distinction that must be made: the censorship of BDS on college campuses comes from the top, while the attempted censorship of Donald Trump supporters comes from the comparatively impotent student body. The former case is a much graver threat to free speech, but that is not an excuse to ignore the latter. Soon enough the student body will hold positions of authority.

ESP seems to be a trait common to advocates of censorship. For example, in a recent pro-Israel memo from the Regents of the University of California, it is contended that “opposition to Zionism often is expressed in ways that are not simply statements of disagreement over politics and policy, but also assertions of prejudice and intolerance toward Jewish people and culture.” Translation: the mind readers at the Regents of the University of California can tell when critics of Israel are actually rabid Jew-haters, and they will adjudicate such cases accordingly. Similarly, the would-be student censors use their clairvoyance to judge when an opinion they don’t like is motivated by race hatred or some other form of bigotry. Support for Donald Trump, as we have already seen, implies a desire to kill minorities. It is therefore no different from real physical violence.

What would happen if an entire college was founded on this line of thinking? A recent petition drawn up by some student activists at Western Washington University spells it out for us. The group calls themselves the Student Assembly for Power and Liberation, which is more than a little ominous-sounding. In their own words: “We are a growing group of students from a multitude of communities and disciplines around campus combatting the systemic oppression embedded within our society that is inevitably upheld through this institution, as it was created to uphold white supremacy at its core.”

Note the aggressively bureaucratic language (the grammar of which unravels throughout the petition). Prolixity of this sort is often employed by postmodernist academics—in whose tradition these students are working—for reasons that aren’t entirely clear. Noam Chomsky once argued that, in general, postmodernism “allows people to take a radical stance—more radical than thou—but to be completely dissociated from anything that’s happening, for many reasons. One reason is nobody can understand a word they’re saying. So they’re already dissociated. It’s kind of like a private lingo.”

Obviously, Michel Foucault these kids are not, but the postmodernist influence is plain to see. It’s like that smug kid in your Creative Writing workshop whose stories are all cheap Bukowski imitations. They don’t really have any idea what they’re doing, but they’re busting with self-satisfaction nevertheless.

What these students want, and what their petition is meant to facilitate, is the creation of a brand new college: the College of Power and Liberation. The function of this hypothetical college would be the “development of academic programs that are committed to social justice.” The first step in realizing this goal is “a cluster hire of ten tenure-track faculty to teach at the college.” Fair enough. However, there is something of a catch: “the Student Assembly for Power and Liberation will have direct input and decision-making power over the hiring of faculty for the college.”

That’s right—the professors at the College of Power and Liberation are to be hired by the students attending that college. The “power,” then, is to reside entirely in the hands of the student body. Naturally, they also reserve the right to take “disciplinary action” against “everyone in a teaching position within the university.” And it gets weirder. Demanded in part three of the petition is “the creation and implementation of a 15 persxn [sic] paid student committee, The Office for Social Transformation.”

The misspelling of “person” here is deliberate, as is the discontinuous misspelling of “history” (hxstory) later on. The implication is that these nouns are gendered (person, history) and thus microaggressive residue of an outmoded patriarchal system of thought. Therefore they have been changed. This, I suppose, is an example of the “de-colonial work” for which the College of Power needs “an annually dedicated revenue of $45,000.”

The Office for Social Transformation doesn’t just sound Orwellian—it quite literally is. Here is its express purpose: “to monitor, document, and archive all racist, anti-black, transphobic, cissexist, misogynistic, ablest, homophobic, islamophobic, xenophobic, anti-semitism [sic], and otherwise oppressive behavior on campus.” This oppressive behavior, the petition continues, is regularly found “in faculty curriculum.” By that I assume they mean curriculum including books with controversial subject matter, for instance the novels of James Baldwin and Mark Twain. So much for the English professors who wish to teach the “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn”—a terribly oppressive book.

The petition does not explicitly propose thought crime legislation, but it doesn’t rule it out either. One inevitably wonders about the criteria by which a person’s behavior is judged oppressive (i.e., punishable). For example, what becomes of the student or faculty member who is caught reading Kipling? Surely owning a copy of The Cantos is grounds for disciplinary action—Ezra Pound was a bona fide fascist. Hemingway was anti-Semitic and homophobic: it follows that The Sun Also Rises is beyond the pale. Tolstoy abused his wife, and so reading War and Peace implies an endorsement of misogyny.

Simone de Beauvoir once appealed to the censors of her time: “Must we burn [the Marquis de] Sade?” Indeed we must—and most others, for that matter.

Never fear, though: the College of Power and Liberation has a “three-strike disciplinary system that corresponds to citations that are processed.” Thank heavens for the three-strike disciplinary system, without which people might be fired and expelled unreasonably.

You get the picture. The mini despots comprising the so-called Student Assembly for Power and Liberation are concerned very much with Power and very little with Liberation. Their ultimate goal is to establish a totalitarian microcosm of a state, very far removed from reality, in which power and wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few self-righteous 20-somethings with delusions of grandeur. Because the First Amendment is overrated anyway.

The Holocaust Industry would be proud. And that’s what makes all of this so distressing. If so-called liberal student activists believe in censorship (and many of them evidently do), who can we rely on to challenge the unconstitutional suppression of BDS activism on college campuses? It necessarily devolves into a battle of hypocrites: the right rationalizes their brand of censorship while condemning the left’s, and vice versa. The reality is that both need to be condemned, because both represent explicit attacks on basic democratic principles. The crucial difference, I suppose, is that the Zionists (who know exactly what they’re doing) must be fought, while the overzealous students (who don’t) need merely to be educated. We can and should do both at once.

Michael Howard’s essays and short fiction have appeared in a wide variety of print and digital publications, Dissident Voice among them. He lives in Vietnam. Read other articles by Michael.