Antisemitism and Collegiality

Two days before the Israeli elections (Tuesday, November 1st) and a week before the approaching elections in the US (Today, Tuesday, November 8th), I received an email from a Jewish colleague about an ongoing, anti-Israeli petition that was circulating in the school where both of us teach (City University of New York (CUNY)). The petition PDF that was originally attached to her email was dated 2021. I first thought that this was an old issue, but she corrected me by saying that the petition is ongoing, and names are being added even now. Below is the link and two key paragraphs from the petition:

“We, members of the City University of New York community, stand in solidarity with the people of Palestine resisting the violence and oppression of Israeli settler colonial and apartheid rule. We condemn the brutal bombing of Gaza, one of the world’s most densely populated areas, by Israeli forces. This represents the latest chapter of a nearly-fifteen-year illegal blockade that has transformed the territory into a prison for its two million inhabitants, most of whom descend from refugees expelled and driven from their homes during the Nakba that resulted from the establishment of the settler colonial state of Israel. We condemn the forced removal of Palestinians from their homes in Sheikh Jarrah—part of the broader colonial project of dispossession and expulsion, including unequal residency rights and discriminatory planning policies designed to advance the ethnic cleansing of Jerusalem. We oppose the raiding of the al-Aqsa mosque, and the de facto annexation of East Jerusalem, which is illegally occupied territory.

We mourn all loss of life. But we do not subscribe to a “both sides” rhetoric that erases the military, economic, media, and global power that Israel has over Palestine. This narrative ignores and conceals the meaningful differences between Israel—one of the most heavily militarized states in the world that receives $3.8 billion of military aid annually from the U.S.—and a Palestinian population resisting colonial occupation and oppression. We pledge to do all in our power to change the conversation.

My initial reaction was to suggest that my friend should organize a counter petition (that I promised to sign). Her response was that she knows too little about the issues in the petition.

I don’t feel so restrained, and this blog is my response.

I wrote an earlier blog on Antisemitism (February 11, 2020) as a result of a direct challenge through comments during my talk on International Holocaust Day in 2020. I usually confine myself to issues connected directly to climate change, but my Holocaust background, explained in the earlier blog, makes me occasionally refocus.

A few days ago, an Israeli friend emailed me to inform me that in a few months he is coming to the US for a conference, and he would like to meet. We hadn’t seen each other for a few years and started with a short electronic chat about what we are doing. I told him about the petition and about my proposed response. Below, I quote what he had to say:

Antisemitism is not a new phenomenon, but it wears different clothes in each generation. The difference is that 80 years ago, there was almost no way for Jews to respond proactively to these false accusations. Perhaps now the situation is opposite, and we have to be very careful in our reactions in order to convince the majority of the people, who are neutral (and in most cases very pro) that we are not overreacting to these false accusations. Best wishes.

Well, my Israeli friend is a famous scientist, but he is not a politician and is not part of the Israeli government. A bit more qualified Israeli is Yair Lapid: he is now the temporary Prime Minister of Israel and in 2021 he was the Israeli Foreign Minister. When similar issues arose, he expressed his opinion about what Antisemitism entails. On July 14, 2021, he tried to expand the context to extreme hatred:

On July 14th, Yair Lapid spoke at the conference against antisemitism in Jerusalem. The text from his speech was posted on his Facebook page…

“It’s time that we tell the right story about antisemites. It’s time that we tell the world what we face. Antisemites weren’t only in the ghetto in Budapest. The antisemites were the slave traders who threw chained slaves into the ocean. The antisemites were the Hutu tribe members in Rwanda that slaughtered the Tutsis.  The antisemites are those Muslims who have killed more than 20 million fellow Muslims in the past decade. The antisemites are ISIS and Boko Haram. Antisemites are those who beat young LGBT people to death. The antisemites are all those who persecute people not for what they did, but for who they are, for what they were born as.”

The CUNY petition certainly was qualified on these terms because it showed extreme hatred to Israel. Lapid got a lot of negative feedback for his expansion of the concept. The objections basically said that once you expand something too much it loses its meaning. A few days after that speech, on July 26, 2021, Lapid wrote an op-ed in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz. Below are three short paragraphs from the article:

The first question we must ask ourselves is what antisemitism is. Astonishingly, that question has never had a simple answer. Antisemitism is too ancient and too broad in scope to allow a uniform definition. How exactly would we link the hatred of Jews that led to pogroms in Alexandria in 38 C.E. and the hatred of Jews that led to a demonstration by young supporters of the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement on the streets of Madrid?

In the absence of another definition, I accept the slightly cumbersome definition of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance that 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.

I also support the IHRA’ s explanation that disproportionate attention to Israel or efforts to apply a standard to Israel that is not applied to other countries constitutes antisemitism.

IHRA stands for International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance.

The petition is not an isolated event.

On June 10, 2021, our faculty union came out with an almost identical anti-Israeli pronouncement in the form of a resolution by the Union Delegate Assembly under the heading of racial justice that resolved that the State of Israel is responsible for the massacre of Palestinians and supported the BDS (Boycott Divestment and Sanctions) with direct comparison to the South African apartheid policies.

The effective anti-apartheid campaign against South Africa is a popular reference point for anti-Israeli campaigns in reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, there is a big difference between the two situations in terms of directing the anti-apartheid campaign against a minority, undemocratic, government directly responsible for the apartheid policy. I will return later to this issue.

I, and most Jewish faculty members in my school, are members of the union. 50 Jewish faculty members were so upset with the anti-Israeli resolution that they left the union. I was considering doing the same but then decided that I, with my background, might be more effective at trying to moderate the attitude from within. I wanted to internalize the debate and I wrote a counter-piece in the union’s monthly publication The Clarion. However, the piece was not printed; nor did I receive a rejection letter.

There are no words written either in the ongoing petition or in the 2021 union resolution about all the other injustices taking place, as listed in Yair Lapid’s expanded definition of antisemitism (seen above). To his list, I will add the Rohingya in Myanmar, governmental actions against minorities in Syria, Yemen, Ethiopia, Iran, and Turkey (the Kurds), and the Russian slaughter in Ukraine.

According to Lapid, this singling-out is antisemitism (his referral to the IHRA definition). However, we do not need Lapid’s expanded definition of antisemitism to label the ongoing petition as antisemitic. It is sufficient to use the one-sentence definition from the Meriam-Webster dictionary:

 “Hostility toward or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, or racial group.”

To make the case, I have two questions for the organizers of the ongoing petition:

  1. Against whom is the petition written?
  2. For whom is the petition intended?

These two questions are closely related. As I mentioned earlier, the petition and the repetitive anti-Israeli campaign, got their inspiration from the global campaign targeted against South Africa’s apartheid policy. In that case, the campaign was targeted at a minority: the South African government. This particular petition, however, cannot be targeted against the Israeli government because over the last four years there were five fully democratic elections in Israel, meaning that the government has changed multiple times during the lifetime of the petition.

Obviously, there is nothing wrong with criticizing Israeli policies toward the Palestinians. Half of Israel agrees with most of the criticism. So, maybe the petition is directed at that part of the Israeli population. The results of the recent election just came in, though, and the other half—the right wing parties who completely disagree—will take power now.

Here are the latest results of Israel’s last election:

Likud – 32

Yesh Atid (Yair Lapid’s party) – 24

Religious Zionism – 14

Arab-dominated parties United Arab List and Hadash-Taal – 5 members each.

Parties that didn’t pass the threshold of parliamentary entry (3.25% of the total vote):

Meretz – a few thousand votes short of the threshold

Balad (the third Arab party) – short by 0.5% of the vote

The Netanyahu right-wing coalition has 64 mandates; the Anti-Netanyahu coalition has 51 members. Overall, 280,000 votes of the anti-Netanyahu coalition ended up wasted for not passing the threshold. There have been 5 elections in 4 years with the most recent one with the widest participation.

The petition would be rightly directed at the leadership of the Religious Zionism party, which consists of Bezalel Smotrich and Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir. Their motto is and openly was, that the anti-Palestinian policies were not extreme enough. They are now going to be part of the Israeli government. The other half of Israel is as desperate about the results it as the writers of the petition.

So, for whom the petition is intended? Going through the list of injustices, both Lapid’s list, and my additions, and trying to find CUNY personnel that cares deeply about Israel, provides some explanation. As far as I know, we don’t have many Kurds as students or as faculty. We do, however, have many Muslim students and a few Muslim faculty and we have many Jewish faculty and many—but a declining number—of Jewish students. The global Muslim population is around 1.6 billion and they have many countries under their control. Some of them are on the list of abusers of minority rights; most of them are not.

Israel is the only country in the world with a mostly Jewish government. So, it’s not surprising that many Jewish people feel a special relationship with it (as I’ve mentioned in earlier blogs).

I grew up in Israel and I have dual American-Israeli citizenship, even though I wasn’t born in either of the two countries. The Jewish population of the City of New York is more than a million, about 2.5 times the total population of Tel Aviv. Jews are not currently a recognized minority in the US, so I have no idea how many Jews are working and studying in CUNY. I have some numbers for Brooklyn College, which claims they make up 4,000 or 29% of the school. I cannot vouch for these numbers because, even on a personal level, I have no idea who is a Jew. I know for a fact that the issue of antisemitism constantly occupies CUNY on all levels.

I know well a few of the people that signed the petition. They are my colleagues. They know that I am Jewish. Some of them know that I am a Holocaust survivor and some of them know that I grew up in Israel. I have been working for CUNY for 43 years. At no time have I felt any hatred or discrimination from anybody. I have no idea about the degree of knowledge that anybody signing this petition has about Israel or about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, my analysis leads me to think that the consistent anti-Israeli efforts are targeted at the Jewish population of CUNY. As such, based on the narrowest definition of antisemitism by the Merriam-Webster dictionary, this counts.

Instead of propagating hateful documents among significant sections of the school, it would have been much more productive to call for help for the Palestinians, the Kurds, the Rohingya, the Syrians, the Ethiopians, and every other minority that currently suffers from mistreatment. I will happily sign such a document and try to help in any way I can. I am sure that others will join.

About climatechangefork

Micha Tomkiewicz, Ph.D., is a professor of physics in the Department of Physics, Brooklyn College, the City University of New York. He is also a professor of physics and chemistry in the School for Graduate Studies of the City University of New York. In addition, he is the founding-director of the Environmental Studies Program at Brooklyn College as well as director of the Electrochemistry Institute at that same institution.
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