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The Misuses of Anti-Semitism

Harvard President Lawrence Summers has equated favoring university divestment from Israeli stocks with anti-Semitism. Summers has for some time misunderstood the duties of his office to include bullying professors, and in this recent equation he is profoundly wrong. He and others who are taking this tack are also pursuing an extremely dangerous and troubling course with dire implications for civil liberties.

In twentieth century American history, Jews were excluded from admission to some private universities, denied the right to rent or buy certain houses, and suffered from false stereotypes. Prominent Americans like Henry Ford spewed vile slanders about them. These bigoted exclusions were profoundly wrong, as were those visited on African-Americans and Asian-Americans.

Prejudice and discrimination against Jews is iconic of ethnic hatred because of the Nazi holocaust. The Holocaust makes the dangers of a pervasive hatred of a particular people palpable, and for that reason it is a deeply human event, in the sense that it affects all humankind. The cry of "Never again" is a key support in the struggles of all civil libertarians and human rights workers.

But some use "Never again" in a far more disturbing way, as a warrant for imprisoning, crushing or dispersing the Palestinian people. The state of Israel is a project of Jewish nationalism that is as legitimate as any other national project. But Israel as a state is not perfect and cannot be above criticism in democratic societies, including practical criticism.

The Israeli state is in violation the Fourth Geneva Convention of 1949 (which forbids the mistreatment of civilian populations under military occupation), and of too many Security Council resolutions to list. The government of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon seems intent on seizing more Palestinian land. Over a fifth of Palestinian children under Israeli occupation are acutely or chronically malnourished, according to US AID and the United Nations.

Ariel Sharon's arrogant trampling on the basic human rights of Palestinians is often justified by reference to the horrible incidents of terrorism suffered by Israel in the past two years. These suicide bombings are unspeakable. A sober estimation of their impact, however, would reveal that about 300 Israelis have died in them per year. More innocent Palestinian civilians, including women and children, have been killed in Israeli military action against the terrorists than have Israeli civilians in the terrorist attacks. The terrorists have amounted to a few dozen individuals, whereas almost all the 3.2 million Palestinians in the occupied territories have been peaceful.

Israel's current harsh lockdown of the entire West Bank would not be countenanced in other similar international situations. Would the United Kingdom have been justified in militarily occupying all of Ireland and keeping all Irish under strict curfew in their houses because of the terrorist attacks of the Irish Republican Army? In the 1970s, after all, the Northern Irish death toll was similar to what Israel has suffered in the past two years. It is hard not to conclude that a certain amount of racism toward west Asians like the Palestinians allows the world to turn a blind eye to such collective punishment.

Sharon's policies are widely perceived in the rest of the world to be an extension of those of the United States. A U.S. F-16 was used by Israel to attack a terrorist leader in an apartment building full of civilians, resulting in numerous civilian deaths. The footage of such events is shown repeatedly throughout the Middle East. The U.S. government keeps silent about Israeli human rights abuses. Sharon's iron fist is creating waves of new anti-Americanism in the rest of the world at a time when our country is still reeling from the September 11 attacks and attempting to dampen the flames of terrorism. With friends like Ariel Sharon, who needs enemies?

University communities have very little impact on world affairs and can exercise influence only through writing or through local campus actions. The false and monstrous equation of practical criticism of Ariel Sharon's policies with anti-Semitism is designed to silence voices critical of those policies, and to make the divestment movement look as though it were motivated merely by bigotry.

In the 1980s, many campuses saw a successful campaign for divestment against South Africa, a racist regime with which U.S. and Israel governments and industry at times collaborated. Only fringe voices would have suggested that the campaign was animated by prejudice against white people or by anti-Semitism. Summers's statements are most urgently dangerous because they cheapen the phrase "anti-Semitism," and thereby weaken its force and its power in the struggle for civil liberties and human rights for everyone.