In the very month in which I read articles condemning the “cancel culture” – which some apply exclusively to the “left’s efforts to silence or shame views with which they disagree” – several disturbing incidents caught my attention.
A Palestinian American Congresswoman was called an anti-Semite because she greeted the announcement of President-elect Joe Biden’s pick for Secretary of State with the hope that her right to support the movement to Boycott, Divest, or Sanction (BDS) Israel would be recognised.
An accomplished Arab American woman of Palestinian descent appointed to a position in Biden’s White House was condemned for an observation she made as a student, two decades ago, in which she pointed out how it must have been despair that drove young Palestinians to become suicide bombers.
The California Board of Education removed Arab American studies from a model ethnic studies curriculum and eliminated any mention of Palestine.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that the State Department will adopt a definition of anti-Semitism that conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism. As a result, he will designate the BDS movement as an anti-Semitic “cancer” and may also sanction respected human rights organisations because of their criticism of Israeli policies.
These are examples of the pervasive “cancel culture” working to silence voices that are critical of Israel, or supportive of Palestinian rights.
Silencing Palestinians and their supporters is born of bigotry. Denying Palestinians their fundamental right to express pain and to protest is to deny their very humanity.
While it is shameful for the US State Department to consistently ignore Israel’s systematic violations of Palestinian human rights, it is beyond shameful to now seek to call Palestinians and their supporters anti-Semites for speaking out against these violations or calling for a non-violent boycott.
When Baruch Goldstein, an extremist Israeli settler, massacred 29 Palestinian worshippers in a mosque in Hebron, the Washington Post carried an article asking the question, “What happened to drive this Jewish doctor to do what he did?” There was no mention of the Palestinian victims. Nor were there interviews with the victims’ families or those who survived the mass murder.
But when a 20-year-old Palestinian American attempted to understand why a young Palestinian would be in such despair that he would commit suicide in an act of terror, she is condemned today.
Many groups who are the quickest to denounce Arabs as anti-Semitic for legitimately condemning Israeli policies are the very ones who will accept the view of Palestinians and Arabs as prone to violence because of their culture or religion. This is also bigotry.
Agreed, there are instances where criticism of Israel can be anti-Semitic – when it attributes Israeli behaviours to negative stereotypes of Jews, as a collective.
But to go from this to seeing all criticism of Israel as anti-Semitic not only strains logic, it distorts the meaning of the word. It is also a crude effort to shield Israel from criticism.
The expanded definition of anti-Semitism includes those who condemn the injustice to the Palestinians resulting from the foundation of the state of Israel. But when we rightly welcome a discussion of the injustices done to the indigenous peoples of America or the crimes of slavery and Jim Crow, how can we deny Palestinians the right to protest their expulsion and dispossession?
Even before this current campaign to conflate criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, some major Jewish organisations made a determined effort to silence Arab Americans. Groups published reports warning of the danger posed by “pro-Palestinian” or “Arab propagandists”. As a result, Arab Americans (myself included) were denied jobs, harassed, had speaking engagements cancelled, and received threats of violence.
Thoughtful proponents of reasoned discourse, in particular among progressive Arab Americans and American Jews, must make a determined effort to convene a respectful conversation to challenge this dangerous slide towards repression and incivility.