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Can the Left Stand Up Against Anti-Semites?

We don’t normally pay much attention to what is published in Tikkun magazine, let alone what its editor Michael Lerner disseminates through his email list. But occasionally Lerner’s tirades shine a light on the positions of the far left that illustrate exactly where some of Israel’s critics stand in a way that makes clear how they have made common cause with those who seek the Jewish state’s destruction.

In his latest email to readers, Lerner highlights what he claims is the latest instance of pro-Israel activists seeking to suppress free speech in both academia and the Jewish community. The Tikkun guru cites the protest against the decision of San Jose State University to have an Iranian professor who is a bitter opponent of Israel’s existence to teach a seminar on “Israel/Palestine.” According to Lerner, the attempt to stop Professor Persis Karim from being the sole person in charge of teaching on this subject was unfair since he claims her only goal was to help students see both sides of the issue. But even a cursory examination of the record, which Lerner helpfully provided by including the protest letter organized by the Amcha Initiative, shows that Karim is an advocate for Israel’s destruction and supports the exclusion of Israelis from academic forums as well as the boycott of Israel. Lerner’s backing of Karim gives the lie to his effort to pose as merely a liberal supporter of the Jewish state.

It should be conceded that within the ranks of the far left universe in which he travels, Lerner has always been treated as somewhat suspect because of his refusal to join with those who explicitly call for Israel’s destruction and engage in anti-Semitic agitation. This is a point on which he takes great pride and he has often engaged in disputes with comrades who have sought to merge opposition to American foreign policy initiatives or hyper-liberal domestic causes with explicit anti-Zionism, if not open anti-Semitism. But even if we give him a bit of credit for that, the Karim protest exposes just how ridiculous his attempt to differentiate his brand of criticism of Israel from that of its open enemies has become.

As the Amcha Initiative’s letter to the president of San Jose State University protesting Karim states:

She signed a letter to President Obama falsely accusing Israel of “one of the most massive, ethnocidal atrocities of modern times” and supporting the elimination of the Jewish state.

She signed a statement by international writers and scholars endorsing an academic boycott of Israel, which U.S. State Department’s former Special Envoy to Monitor and Combat Anti-Semitism Hannah Rosenthal has declared to be “anti-Semitic.”

She endorsed a petition to have an Israeli scholar ejected from an academic conference in Los Angeles, in solidarity with the academic boycott of Israel.  

In other words, the university is putting someone in charge of discussion of the Middle East completely committed to Israel’s destruction and a supporter of anti-Semitic measures that discriminate against Jews. The notion that such a person is capable of creating a space for open discussion is absurd. Far from promoting free and fair debate or scholarly inquiry, Karim’s appointment is a threat to academic freedom as well as a development that can be fairly construed as creating a hostile environment for Jewish students.

The pages of Tikkun have hosted debates about whether it is appropriate for liberal critics of Israeli policies to support boycotts of the Jewish state. Such a discussion treats the idea of waging economic warfare as a reasonable measure even though its purpose is to suppress Israeli democracy and to force it to bow to the demands of Islamist and terrorist foes that are seeking its destruction.

That Lerner considers Karim a reasonable authority on the Middle East speaks volumes about how divorced his worldview is from reality. But more than that, it demonstrates that the left-wing narrative about the right’s alleged “persecution” of liberal voices that Lerner and others claim has “silenced” Jewish critics of Israel is absurd.

There is nothing wrong with a diversity of views on Israeli policies. It is true the debate about Israel is often divisive and angry, though I would contend that stems more from the decision of some on the left to try to impose their views on Israelis as well as their unconscionable support of foreign pressure on its democratically elected government. Anyone who is aware of the left-leaning dynamic of American Jewish life knows the notion that Israel’s critics cower in fear against the tyranny of the right is comical. They are the darlings of the mainstream press and are more likely to be lionized by the media for their faux courage in joining the pack hounding Israel than ostracized.

But what is at stake here is not a dispute about where Israel’s borders should be, the wisdom of settlements or whether you like the people Israeli voters have put in office. It is whether the Jewish community is willing to stand up against those who wish to ostracize Jews, demonize Israel and wage war on it. Karim’s anti-Zionism is not a benign idea about which we can agree to disagree; it is a blatant form of discrimination against Jews with real life consequences. That Lerner, who has a long record of radical stands, has chosen to back this position ought to place him and those who agree with him beyond the pale. To do so is not an attack on free speech—since he is free to spout his bile in his magazine to his heart’s content—but a defense of the rights of Jews and Israel.

Contrary to Lerner’s claim, there is no way to support boycotts of Israelis or the campaign to wage economic war on it or to support its destruction without being co-opted into the ranks of such anti-Semites. This struggle is not a conservative cause but one that should unite the entire Jewish community across the board from right to left. No decent person, be they Jewish or non-Jewish, should be willing to defend, let alone make common cause with, the likes of Karim–who are, sadly, all too common in academia. 


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