Protests against Israel’s war on Gaza continue to mount around the world. Discussion and debate is raging on campuses and elsewhere, much of it bringing to light the long-buried truth about Israel’s roots in ethnic cleansing and servitude to imperialism, the apartheid nature of its rule over Palestinians, and the genocidal character of its current siege of and war on Gaza. All of this is very good, long overdue, and much needed.
This is freaking out Israel’s rulers, its patrons (especially U.S. imperialism) and its supporters—including millions who are honest but deeply misled about all this. So powerful forces are moving to sharply constrain public discussion to exclude any fundamental challenge to the basically oppressive nature of Israel, and the need for an entirely different society and state to be forged where people of all nationalities and religions are treated equally. No, not only is that declared “out of order,” it is falsely labeled as anti-Semitism—equating any fundamental critique of the Zionist (Jewish supremacist) state of Israel with a poisonous and dangerous hatred of Jews as a people (anti-Semitism), which is—and should be—rejected outright by all decent people.
This attempt to conflate anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism has been going on for many decades, and especially since Israel’s war on Gaza began on October 8 (go here, here, and here for more on this) but is now reaching new levels.
A week into Israel’s war on Gaza, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece by Steven Solomon, a professor at UC Berkeley School of Law, explicitly urging major law firms (and implicitly, thousands of other Journal readers with power over corporate hiring practices) “Don’t Hire My Anti-Semitic Law Students,” adding that “it is your duty” not to hire students who oppose the state of Israel.
Shocked by this openly repressive attempt to make speaking out against Israel career suicide, 200 Berkeley Law alumni wrote an open letter to the school’s dean, Erwin Chemerinsky, calling on him to “publicly address the harm” done by Solomon’s article. In response, Chemerinsky—a prominent advocate for free speech—mumbled some platitudes about protecting views that are “deeply offensive”—in other words, agreeing with Solomon that student condemnation of Israel is wrong, but noting the legal right to say it.
Then on October 29, Dean Chemerinsky threw in more fully—with his own attack on student supporters of Palestine. Chemerinsky, who is Jewish and a liberal Democrat, published an op-ed, in the Los Angeles Times titled “Nothing has prepared me for the antisemitism I see on college campuses now”—a somewhat more “polite” version of Solomon’s thuggish attempt to intimidate students.
Chemerinsky’s op-ed painted a picture of campuses where “blatant antisemitism” is “rampant” and “has become prevalent.” He declared that it is time for “campus administrators” (i.e., people with substantial power over students’ lives and futures) to “stop being silent” and to “condemn” this so-called antisemitism as “not acceptable on our campuses.”
Anti-Semitism Is a Scourge—but Chemerinsky Is Conflating “Anti-Semitism” with Opposition to the State of Israel
Before digging into Chemerinsky’s distorted characterization of what is happening on campuses, let’s state up front that actual anti-Semitism—hatred of Jews as Jews, whether for religious, “racial,” or cultural reasons—has been and continues to be a great scourge for humanity. From the Christian fascists and neo-Nazis in this country1 to the Islamic fundamentalists of Hamas2, there are powerful reactionary forces that have in the past and plan in the future to carry out murderous atrocities against Jewish people.
And it is also true that such anti-Semitic sentiments and ideas have been expressed by some people in the movement to support Palestine—who act as if Israel is the creation of “greedy capitalist” Jewish people instead of the reality that this is driven by the system of imperialism. Though this is not a major current at this point, it is something that really must be taken seriously, challenged whenever it presents itself, and defeated.3 In a country as deep in crisis, and as steeped in all kinds of ignorant religious and racial hatred, as the U.S., we should not underestimate the potential for this to rapidly mushroom into a violent plague.
But we also should be very clear that what Chemerinsky, Solomon, and many other powerful forces (including the U.S. government4) are trying to do is define anti-Zionism—opposition to the existence of a state in which Jewish people and the Jewish religion are privileged over others—as “anti-Semitism.” After characterizing the campuses as awash in anti-Semitism, Chemerinsky elaborates on how he is trying to define this:
The loudest voices [in the Palestine protests] are not advocating for a change in Israeli policies, but are calling for an end to Israel. Students regularly chant, “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free”… An oft-repeated mantra among some is that Israel is a settler colonialist country and should be forced to give the land back to the Palestinians. I have no idea how it would be determined who is rightly entitled to what land, but I do know that calling for the total elimination of Israel is antisemitic.
Four Questions for Dean Chemerinsky
The first question people have to answer whenever there are controversial views on the table is this: What are the facts, what is true? (Certainly, a law school dean should know to start there.) So here are some questions for Dean Chemerinsky:
- Is Israel in fact a “settler-colonial state”? Were most of the Palestinian inhabitants of the area “from the [Jordan] river to the [Mediterranean] sea” in fact expelled from the land with terror, violence and massacre, and denied to this day the right to return, while Jewish (and only Jewish) immigrants from Europe and elsewhere took over the land?
Read “The Case of Israel: Bastion of Enlightenment or Enforcer for Imperialism” for the true, well sourced and footnoted history of the establishment of Israel.
- Are reactionary Jewish settlers, with the complicity of the Israeli armed forces, in fact in the process of seizing even more land in the occupied West Bank, killing dozens of Palestinians in the process?
Read “How a Campaign of Extremist Violence Is Pushing the West Bank to the Brink,” New York Times, November 2, 2023, for a small and bitter taste of the truth.
- Is Israel in fact an apartheid state in which even the small minority of Palestinians who are citizens have limited rights, and the great majority of Palestinians (five million) have almost no rights at all?
Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the Israeli Human Rights group B’Tselem have all stated that Israel is an “apartheid” state. B’Tselem bluntly says it is “a regime of Jewish supremacy.” In this society, the five million Palestinians who live in occupied territory don’t have the freedom to travel from one part of the country to another, or within their occupied section, much less overseas—they cannot even use Israel’s Ben Gurion airport; they have to cross the border to Jordan for an international flight. They do not have the right to vote in national elections, to protest, or speak freely. Tens of thousands, especially young people, are imprisoned for years for violating these outrageous conditions.
Even Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu openly stated that “Israel is not a state of all its citizens… [but rather] the nation-state of the Jewish people and only them.”
- Is Israel in fact conducting a genocidal war against the 2.3 million Palestinians in Gaza, attempting to deprive them of all food, water, fuel and electricity, just as the Nazis did to rebellious Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War 2?
On October 10, Israel’s Defense Minister declared, “I have ordered a complete siege of the Gaza Strip. There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed. We are fighting human animals and we are acting accordingly.” Israel controls one of two entrances to Gaza (which is surrounded by a huge Israeli fence). The other entrance is from Egypt; Israel has applied pressure, including bombing raids, to make sure the siege is enforced there too. See Just Security re starvation as a war crime.
The reality is that you cannot show any of this to be factually wrong. And that is why the only logical, rational and humane conclusion is that the Israeli Zionist state is by its nature and entire history incapable of creating a society in which people of all religions and nationalities that have historically dwelled in the land of Palestine can live and work together as equals, and why Zionist Israel really does need to be thrown off, and replaced by a secular (non-religious) society.
And this is why the backers of Israel increasingly resort to slander and intimidation to silence real criticism, because they know that they don’t have a credible answer that doesn’t rest on outright racism against Palestinians.
“Elimination of Israel” Does NOT Mean “Elimination of the Jews”
The “total elimination of Israel” does not mean “the total elimination of Israelis” or “the total elimination of the Jews.” It means the overthrow of an inherently oppressive and racist state and its replacement by a secular (non-religious) state in which people of all nationalities work, live and are treated equally. It is not just the only way that the oppression of the Palestinian people can be overcome, but it would also be a vast improvement in the lives of Jewish Israelis, bringing an end to the continual sense of crisis, mistrust, danger and alienation from their Palestinian brothers and sisters. Apartheid Israel is an oppressive system which is not in the vast majority of people's interests.
Further, treating opposition to the state of Israel as “anti-Semitism” amounts to equating Jewish people generally with the crimes and oppressive nature of Israel—that is, it is implying that “if you hate what Israel has done to the Palestinian people, you should hate Jews.” This will feed, rather than combat, anti-Semitism.
An Approach That Dean Chemerinsky Should Learn From
In response to the full-court press in society to label the pro-Palestine struggle as anti-Jewish, a group of Jewish writers penned a powerful statement, coming from the standpoint of what they see as the best of Jewish tradition. (Notably, they had some difficulty finding an outlet that would publish it.) “A Dangerous Conflation” has been signed by 1,475 Jewish writers, artists and activists (as of November 6), and we recommend reading it in its entirety.
Here we want to quote a few crucial parts:
We condemn the recent attacks on Israeli and Palestinian civilians and mourn such harrowing loss of life. In our grief, we are horrified to see the fight against antisemitism weaponized as a pretext for war crimes with stated genocidal intent.
We find this rhetorical tactic antithetical to Jewish values, which teach us to repair the world, question authority, and champion the oppressed over the oppressor. It is precisely because of the painful history of antisemitism and lessons of Jewish texts that we advocate for the dignity and sovereignty of the Palestinian people. We refuse the false choice between Jewish safety and Palestinian freedom; between Jewish identity and ending the oppression of Palestinians. In fact, we believe the rights of Jews and Palestinians go hand-in-hand.
And they conclude with these words:
When we say never again, we mean it.
Along with the powerful takeover of Grand Central Station by 1,000 people organized by Jewish Voice for Peace, and other bold actions by Jewish activists in support of Palestine, this statement provides a model for people of all faiths (or none) and nationalities of standing up for what is true and right for humanity, not approaching things from the standpoint of “my group” or “my people.” Everyone should learn from and be inspired by this. And everyone should reject the distortions, evasions, and intimidation of Dean Chemerinsky, Professor Solomon and others who want to bury the truth and thus “create space” for further terrible crimes.