Last semester, McGill history professor Gil Troy visited Harvard’s campus to give a talk entitled “Why I Am a Zionist.” In an article composed the day after the event, Troy wrote favorably about how he was received at Harvard. He contrasted it with about the “common discourse on campus today” about Israel, speaking of “Jewish students harassed and Israel defamed.”
I am not surprised that Troy found a respectful audience for his talk at Harvard. However, I am embarrassed and disturbed that he anticipated otherwise. Of course, there are many students at Harvard who are pro-Palestinian. Of these, many oppose Israel’s continued occupation of the Gaza Strip, desire a two-state solution that allows Palestinian refugees the right of return, and advocate for a boycott of goods produced in the occupied territories or of all Israeli goods. However, Troy’s expectation relies on the assumption (which he has put forth in other articles) that “pro-Palestinian” means “anti-Semitic.” During my time in both Jewish and pro-Palestinian communities at Harvard, I have found this to be both untrue and counterproductive to meaningful discussion.
On a Friday evening in December, before heading to dinner at Harvard Hillel, I strove to protect a flickering candle from the wind rushing through Harvard Square. Along with dozens of other students, I was standing in vigil for Mustafa Tamimi, a peaceful Palestinian protestor who died after being shot in the head by a tear-gas canister fired by an Israeli soldier. As I covered my candle, I looked around at the faces of 50 people—Muslims, Jews, and others. Some were mourning, others were frightened, others were angry. Not a single one was hateful.
Indeed, in both Jewish spaces and pro-Palestinian spaces at Harvard, I have never witnessed anti-Semitism or defamation of Israel. Unfortunately, I am afraid that many tend to use the term “anti-Semitic” to describe anyone who criticizes the policies of the state of Israel.
Like many, I draw my own opinions about Israel and Palestine from my views on oppression and militarism and my desire for universal economic and social equality. As someone involved in peaceful protest on my own campus, I believe there is great power in nonviolent resistance. Of course, not all on campus, or even all at my Shabbat dinner table, agree with me. However, Harvard students, whether sympathetic with Benjamin Netanyahu’s government or with the global movement calling for a boycott of Israeli goods, all want to end unnecessary bloodshed and suffering. And we all know that hatred is antithetical to constructive discussions and peace.
In 2006, Yale University began the Yale Initiative for the Interdisciplinary Study of Anti-Semitism. The initiative sponsored and directed research on historic and contemporary anti-Semitism until it was ended last June. Many noted that it had become too political and disproportionately focused on Muslim anti-Semitism. An op-ed in the Yale Daily News noted that a conference held by the group, featuring a keynote speech entitled “The Central Role of Palestinian Antisemitism in Creating the Palestinian Identity,” had countered hatred of one kind (anti-Semitism) with hatred of another kind (Islamophobia).
The Initiative has since been replaced by the Yale Program for the Study of Antisemitism, which strives to produce more scholarly research. But the damage was done—Yale’s Muslim community expressed alienation and hurt after the controversial conference. Indeed, when all Palestinians, or all who criticize Israel, are labeled “anti-Semitic,” productive discussions about peace can devolve into hateful accusations.
Of course, anti-Semitism is real and present. In fact, two swastikas appeared on the side of a building near Eliot House last semester. But twelve hours later, they were painted over and all but forgotten by Harvard’s Jewish community: The graffiti seemed to me and other students a bizarre and surprising anomaly, not an indication of widespread, hidden hatred. Additionally, some advocates for Palestinian rights are undoubtedly anti-Semitic, just as some advocates for Jewish rights in Israel are anti-Arab or Islamophobic. But these people are far from a norm among pro-Palestinian advocates.
Accusing those who disagree with you of bigotry precludes constructive academic discussions. In fact, charging Palestinian students or pro-Palestinian advocates with anti-Semitism changes the tone of discussion from political to religious. This often provokes the type of resentment that prolongs conflict instead of resolving it. Unfortunately, comments such as Troy’s and initiatives like Yale’s are more likely to spark anger than remorse among students accused of anti-Semitism.
I would like to assure Professor Troy, and anyone else who might be concerned, that arguments for economic sanctions on Israel do not stem from deep-seated anti-Semitism. I know from personal experience that this is true on Harvard’s campus, and I am assured by others that this is generally true across the globe.
Many current Harvard students will grow up to be the politicians, activists, and donors who shape American policy on Israel. If American academics hope to contribute to productive discussion about Israel and Palestine on campuses, they must first cooperate and not issue unfounded accusations of prejudice.