February 1, 2017
By Ken Boas
When Israeli supporters complain about student interruptions of pro-Israel speakers they miss the point of these protests. The debate about academic freedom is real and important, but there is something that is even more important–stopping the unconscionable suffering of the Palestinian people.
Shouting down pro-Israeli speakers on our campuses is not an attempt to stifle academic freedom. It is a militant refusal to legitimize the insidious and decades long ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people in Israel and the illegally Occupied territories—Gaza, the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and the Golan Heights.
Ilan Pappe, the renowned Israeli historian, offers great insight to help us comprehend the true nature of Israeli society and the basis of the campus resistance to pro-Israel voices. Speaking of ethnic cleansing in Israel since 1948, Pappe says: “The international silence in the face of this crime against humanity (which is how ethnic cleansing is defined in the dictionary of international law) transformed the ethnic cleansing into the ideological infrastructure on which the Jewish state was built. Ethnic cleansing became the DNA of Israeli Jewish society—and remains a daily preoccupation for those in power…” from On Palestine, Noam Chomsky and Ilan Pappe (27).
The issue is not Academic freedom, nor is it anti-Semitism. The hidden fear behind these bogus complaints is that the Palestinian solidarity movement is no longer only about the latest racist law passed or the most recent demolition of a village; no longer only about the illegality of the settlements or the egregious checkpoint system or even the criminal wide-scale bombing of Gaza. Those policies and acts of violence are still subjects of protest, as they should be. But the real fear stems from the recognition that the pro-Palestinian movement has shifted its focus from specific targets of the illegal Occupation to the racist nature of the Zionist ideology that is the underlying cause of these policies that dehumanize the Palestinian people.
The pro-Israeli supporters are panicked about this radical “new conversation,” as Pappe calls it, and so trot out their tired party line of anti-Semitism and violations of academic freedom. These are deceptive arguments. Organized Israeli support does all it can to silence Israeli criticism wherever it is heard. And the definition of anti-Semitism recently adopted by the British government and the US Senate, heavily supported by America Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and the Jewish Federation, is itself a manifestation of a double standard, since it treats Israel differently from every other country in the world rather than as a nation among nations.
The reactionary push-back against this new campus activism is not surprising. What critics like Nelson and Greenberg (in their op-ed in the Post-Gazette of 12/11/16) are saying when they complain about student incivility is in fact an attempt to silence criticism of the Israeli state and its ideology. Their perverse logic is that if you chastise Israel you assault the Jewish state and by association you attack Judaism.
Our students have upped the ante. They will no longer be intimidated about their legitimate criticism of Israel. They are calling out Israel as a pariah state that cannot be allowed to continue acts of ethnic cleansing and incremental genocide. For the defenders of Israel, this new campus focus on the foundational ideology of Zionism is a frightening prospect and must be stopped.
It might be helpful to compare this dynamic to the anti-Apartheid struggle against South Africa. For years, it was only legitimate to criticize examples of South Africa’s Apartheid and not focus criticism on the ideology of Apartheid that constituted the basis of the oppression of 85% of the South African people. Only when the systemic nature of Apartheid was seen for what it was and boycotted as an ideology of racism was the system overturned. This is what the new movement against Israeli Apartheid and its racist nature is now undertaking, and this is what is so threatening to Israel and its American supporters.
The de-legitimization of the Zionist ideology of ethnic cleansing–the foundation of the Jewish state of Israel– is the heart of the struggle, just as it was in the boycott, divestment, sanction movement against South African Apartheid. The goal is to bring about the end of Palestinian suffering at the hands of Israel. It is to transform the state of Israel, now one Apartheid state, in complete control of every aspect of Palestinians’ lives from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, into one democratic state with equal rights for all, and for the right of return of all Palestinian refugees to their homeland. The goal is about the end of a tyrannical settler-colonial state. It is about regime change. This new conversation is hard to hear, yes; yet we don’t have difficulty hearing this when it concerns other anti-democratic regimes.
Our sons and daughters are leading the way—once again. And they are being persecuted for it—once again. They realize that to support Israel is to actively contribute to the continued dehumanization and destruction of the Palestinian people. That is what they are shouting about.
Ken Boas is a visiting scholar at the Humanities Center at the University of Pittsburgh and a member of the Pittsburgh BDS (Boycott, Divest, Sanctions) Coalition. He is also chair of the board of ICAHD-USA (Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions).