Redefining Free Speech: Opposing Israel Is Not Anti-Semitism


Ongoing moves by Zionist lobby groups and American legislators to define anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel is an assault on free speech everywhere, writes Professor Stuart Rees.

Claims about western values usually include praise for the freedom enjoyed through governments’ respect for freedom of speech. Yet, even in democratic states, those principles are being treated as outmoded, not least in regard to criticism of Israeli policies towards Palestinians.

Other countries also ride roughshod over freedom of speech. Control of the media and suppression of dissent is spreading like wildfire in Sudan, Serbia, Hungary, China, Russia, Egypt, India and elsewhere. Reference to the disregard of free speech in these other countries needs to be made in anticipation of the response, ‘When examining human rights abuses, why single out Israel?’

I am doing so because widening interpretations of anti-Semitism, designed to protect Israeli policies from scrutiny, represent a serious challenge to western commitments to freedom of speech.

I will highlight this controversy, over the stifling of free speech, in regard to specific issues;

  1. The definition of anti-Semitism by the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA);
  2. The 2018 passing of the Israeli Nation State Law of the Jewish people; and
  3. The Anti-Semitism Awareness Bill before the US Congress.


The IHRA Definition

Based on the Stockholm Declaration of 2000, the founding document of the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) identifies the horrors of the Holocaust and makes a commitment to commemorate the victims. The same document reaffirms humanity’s common aspiration for mutual understanding and justice.

That IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, passed at an IHRA plenary meeting in Budapest in 2015, says that anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews which could be expressed as hatred of Jews or could include the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a ‘Jewish collectivity’.

At best, these claims are ambiguous. The notions, ‘certain perception’, ‘may be expressed’ ‘might include’ allows supporters of the text to say that anti-Semitism could mean anything or nothing. In a judgement which reflected the views of other prominent lawyers, Geoffrey Robertson concluded that the text was ‘imprecise, confusing and open to misinterpretation and even manipulation.’

Despite the confusion, supporters of the text used it to attack the pro Palestine leader of the UK Labour Party Jeremy Corbyn. A powerful lobby argued that Jewish people warranted special treatment because, they claimed, any criticism of Israel, let alone support for the human rights of Palestinians illustrated a hatred of Jews.

Various organizations and individuals, including the UK mainstream media and the Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue vilified the Labour Party and Corbyn as anti-Semitic. They used the same techniques – character assassination and accusation without evidence – which have characterized prejudicial attacks on Jewish people. In response to a barrage of criticism, the National Executive of the British Labour Party complied with the bullies and accepted the definition.

Leader of the Opposition, Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn. (IMAGE: Garry Knight, Flickr)

There is inherent difficulty in the binary stance so beloved of bullies and dictators. Either agree with us or suffer the consequences, obey or risk punishment. Dissent has no place because only conformity is valued. That’s the message from those who show unquestioning acceptance of the IHRA definition even though the original author of the text had warned against making it legally binding, because he feared it would restrict freedom of speech.

In defence of Corbyn, the same author commented, “I don’t believe he’s anti-Semitic, nor do most reasonable people. He’s anti-Israel and that’s not the same.”

The definition says it is anti-Semitic to deny the Jewish people their rights to self-determination, even if that right depended on the ethnic cleansing of an Indigenous population. The Nakba tragedy of 1948 saw the removal of 700,000 people from their homes and lands, the sacking of over 500 villages and the erasing of almost all of urban Palestine. It is not anti-Semitic to say this.

To avoid any repeat of the familiar charge that Israel is being singled out, the narrative about the founding of Australia merits mention. The settlement of Australia also demanded the stealing of lands, murder and the virtual genocide of Indigenous Australians. It is not anti-Australian to say so.

Aided and abetted by the USA, the treatment of Israel as exceptional persists. The IHRA definition says that people require of Israel behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation. On the contrary, the exceptional case of Israel means that it can ignore the rules of international law and disregard those humanitarian principles which the IHRA says it wants to affirm. For example, Israel does not recognize the Fourth Geneva Convention relative to the protection of civilians and the rules of war as legally binding.

UN Security Council Resolution 2334, of December 2016 said that Israel’s settlement activity constitutes a ‘flagrant violation of international law’ and has ‘no legal validity.’ The vote Was 10-0 with the US abstaining. In spite of this resolution, Israel continues to benefit from special treatment, not just from supportive US policies but through the benefits of diplomatic blind eyes. The UN imposes sanctions on other states but not on Israel even though, under the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC), its settlement policy constitutes a war crime and a crime against humanity.

One of more than 200 illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, part of Palestine. (IMAGE: Montecruz Foto, Flickr)

Writing in his featured news blog, Dr. Norman Finkelstein says of the IHRA interpretation of anti-Semitism, “It’s an impoverished, ignorant, slovenly substitute for rational dialectic.” He argues that the document is characterised by a concern with suppression, selective application and special pleading.

Neve Gordon, Professor of Politics and Government at the Ben-Gurion University of the Negev writes that the Israeli government needs the ‘new anti-Semitism’ to justify its actions and to protect it from international and domestic condemnation. He concludes that anti-Semitism has been weaponized not only to stifle free speech but also to suppress a politics of liberation.


The Jewish Nation State Law and Humpty Dumpty

To ensure that charges of anti-Semitism could be proved easily, the Israel government has consolidated a view that as an exceptional state it can determine that any criticism of its policies must be anti- Semitic.

This convoluted oxymoronic process had been underway for years. The 1950 Law of Return says that Jews, who were not born in the Jewish state, may return to it because it is their ‘land of birth’. They can return to the birth place where they were not born. Like Humpty Dumpty in Alice in Wonderland, Prime Minister Netanyahu continues his own wonderland, as in claims that Illegal Israeli settlements can be deemed legal, that the brutality of Israeli Defence Forces represents self defence by ‘the most humane army in the world.’ Who cares? As part of his false narrative strategy, Humpty Dumpty once asserted to Alice, ‘Things mean what I say they mean, nothing more, nothing less.’

In August 2018, in the Israeli Knesset, this strategy reached a climax with the passing of the Jewish Nation State Law of the Jewish People which asserts the exclusivity of Jewish rights in Israel. The law begins with the claim that Israel is the historical homeland of the Jewish people in which the state of Israel was established. It goes on to say – without any reference to Palestinians – that this state actualizes its national, religious and historical rights for self-determination. As if to guarantee the exclusivity of Jewish rights in Israel, it insists, “The actualization of the right of national self-determination in the state of Israel is unique to the Jewish people.”

The Knesset, Israel’s parliament. (IMAGE: Ze’ev Barkan, Flickr)

In defiance of international law, the Jewish State Law says “The unified and complete (city of ) Jerusalem is the capital of Israel.” But to achieve that objective, the racially unworthy Palestinian residents of the city are being evicted.

Gideon Levy writes in Haaretz, “Nothing can be expected from an occupier that calls itself the victim and blames everyone but itself.” He describes the ethnic cleansing in East Jerusalem. In Silwan and Sheikh Jarrah and in other places Israeli flags multiply, together with the hundreds of Palestinians made homeless after being kicked out of their homes in shame, on the order of the egalitarian and just courts of the state of Israel. If anyone has it in their hearts to understand how afflicted the Israeli legal system is with moral rot and how far it is from the fundamental principles of equality and justice, here lies the proof. Writes Levy, two types of blood exist in Israel: Jewish blood and non-Jewish blood. ‘Jewish blood is priceless, it must be protected in every possible way. Non-Jewish blood is terrifyingly cheap, it can be shed like water.’

In their UN report for the Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia, Professor Richard Falk and Virginia Tilley refer to the 1973 Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the International Crime of Apartheid. They concluded that Israel had formally adopted apartheid as a form of governance. Even the most blindly committed Zionist would find it difficult to refute that, or would they?

Writing for the Saker Blog about ‘Zionism, Judaism and the Jewish State of Israel’, Israeli human rights lawyer Lynda Brayer says the designation of Israel as an apartheid state characterized by apartheid -style laws has been accepted by leading jurists and by many international organizations. “A political system is not democratic if all the citizens of the country cannot participate on an equal basis.” She concludes that Israeli governments’ use of force, violence and inhumanity has been justified ‘in legal somersaults’ influenced by religious teachings about national identity. Those teachings have emphasized the value of being separate, hence apartheid, and consequent assumptions about non-Jews as chattels and inferior.

To confirm critics’ judgements that the Jewish state of Israel is racist, that its governance amounts to apartheid, in December 2018, the Israeli Knesset rejected the Equality Bill, introduced by Mossi Raz of the Meretz party. The text was a direct quote from Israel’s Declaration of Independence. “The State of Israel shall maintain equal political rights among all its citizens, without any difference between religions, race and sex.” The bill was rejected by 71 -38.

In the journal Mondoweiss, Yossi Gurvitz commented, “Those 71 votes represent the hard core of practical Zionism who decided that Israel would be a Jewish country not a democratic one.”

US president Donald Trump meets with Israeli president Benyamin Netanyahu in May 2017. (IMAGE: Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs).

Gurvitz finished his evaluation of that vote by comparing the status of the non-Jewish Palestinian citizens of Israel with slaves in the United States where they were regarded as 3/5 of a person. Gurvitz concluded, “Next time the government of Israel tells you it ‘shares values’ with the US, remember what that value is: 3/5 of a person.”


The Anti-Semitism Awareness Act

American advocates of Palestinians’ rights, including supporters of the world wide BDS movement are being met with massive intolerance, a Maginot line mentality. Defenders of Israel’s human rights abuses must show no weakness, they should discriminate against and punish anyone who breaks through this Maginot line and thereby shows they are anti-Semitic. Such individuals should be criminalised and prosecuted, even for insisting on the sanctity of free speech.

On International Day of Solidarity for the Palestinian People, Marc Lamont Hill, a Professor of Media Studies at Temple University and a commentator for the Television station CNN, spoke at the UN in favour of a Palestine from the river to the sea. That common expression is used by champions of national identity in Israel and in Palestine, yet his words were seized on as evidence that he wanted Israel to disappear.

The Anti-Defamation League and the Zionist Organization of America (ZOA) pressured CNN to terminate Hill’s employment, which they did. The ZOA President denounced Hill’s speech as ‘Jew hating, violence initiating and genocidal’. The President of Temple University judged his speech to be hateful and anti-Semitic.

The rush to judgement over one academic’s freedom to speak in favour of Palestinians’ human rights characterises US Senators’ contention that any criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic.

There is growing opposition to this proposed Anti-Semitism Awareness Act. The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) says that the Act risks controlling the free speech of students on college campuses and is unnecessary to enforce Federal laws which prohibit harassment in education. They argue that Title VI of the US Civil Rights Act of 1964 already prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in programmes receiving federal financial assistance, including higher education. The ACLU has urged Congress to reject this dangerous and unnecessary bill.

Writing in the Jewish journal Forward, Barry Trachtenburg says that Congress’ Anti-Semitism Awareness Act does not protect Jews, it protects Israel. He argues that the backers of this legislation “are less concerned with combatting actual occurrences of anti-Semitism than with suppressing growing criticism on college campuses of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians and the US complicity in it”.

Max Brenner stores in Australia have been targetted by BDS activists angry over Brenner’s support of Israeli Defence Force units, and the companies role in aiding the suppression of the Palestinian people. (IMAGE: Kate Ausburn, Flickr)

In Arizona, as in other states, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) is especially provoked by any support for the BDS movement in support of Palestinians’ rights to self- determination. In Arizona a Federal judge has blocked her state from enforcing a 2016 law that denied state and local government contracts to firms unless they agree not to boycott Israel or companies that operate there. The US District Court Judge, Diane Hametewa ruled in favour of free speech. She wrote, “Collective boycotting activities undertaken to achieve social, political or economic ends is conduct that is protected by the First Amendment.”

Despite the optimism of the Arizona judge, the attempt by pro-Israel groups to purge US campus critics of Israel is gaining momentum. Writing in the New York Review of Books, Katherine Franke says, “Not since the McCarthy anti-Communist purges have we seen such an aggressive effort to censor teaching and learning on topics that the government disfavors.” She notes that it is especially chilling that under the Trump Administration, the US Department of Education recently adopted a new definition of anti-Semitism, one that equates any criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews.


A Future for Free Speech ?

We face a time when conformity to authoritarian attitudes are said to show respect for security, when fear of dissent is bolstered by warnings about the presence of allegedly illegal others. Free speech is stifled by US legislators in order to prevent criticism of the human rights abuses of a significant ally, and all this in a country whose First Amendment of the constitution says, inter alia, “Congress shall make no law …abridging the freedom of speech or of the press….”

A reported rise of anti-Semitism across Europe and the United States has been fueled by widening definitions of this prejudice, as in attempts by authoritarian governments to outlaw almost any criticism of Israeli government policies.

Anti-Semitism remains a dangerous and illegal act but in relation to Israeli policies, it needs to be addressed with a certain subtlety, not by bullying to disallow criticism of a powerful country. In Open Democracy, Antony Lerman displayed such subtlety by insisting on the need to distinguish between legitimate criticism of Israeli policies and criticism which spills over into anti-Semitic hate speech.

If the principle of free speech is to be maintained, the world needs neither the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, nor the Anti-Defamation Awareness Act let alone the racism legitimated by the Jewish Nation State Law. Lerman argues that citizens in all democracies should simply keep the obligation to abide by Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights which protects freedom of speech.

Support for freedom of speech must remain central to the values of western democracies and not be eroded by false claims about anti-Semitism.

Stuart Rees

Emeritus Professor Stuart Rees AM is a regular New Matilda contributor, an Australian academic and author who is the founder of the Sydney Peace Foundation and Emeritus Professor at the Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies at the University of Sydney in Australia.