Criticism of Israel and anti-Semitism: To begin, we should define the terms

By Roy Lincoln Karp
Reporter Contributor

We live in Orwellian times. Up is down, war is peace, and a report declaring that investigators could not exonerate the President for obstruction of justice becomes a rally cry of “NO OBSTRUCTION!” by that president. In political essays and novels like “1984,’’ George Orwell implored us to think critically about the manipulation of language for political ends. He also coined the term “double speak,” the repeated use of a word to mean its exact opposite, thus rendering the word meaningless.

Here in Massachusetts, two local organizations with Orwellian names – Charles Jacobs’s Americans for Peace and Tolerance and Karen Hurvitz’s Education without Indoctrination – have been using the courts to purge school curricula of anything they deem insufficiently pro-Israel. That they call their efforts to suppress dissenting viewpoints a fight against indoctrination is a good example of double speak.

These two groups have sued the Newton Public Schools over what they allege is an anti-Semitic curriculum. The problem is that their overly broad definition of anti-Semitism includes any criticism of Israeli policies toward Palestinians. This is absurd on its face as many Jews are themselves highly critical of these policies and form an important part of the Palestinian solidarity movement. These efforts not only have a chilling effect on protected speech, but they also create confusion about what anti-Semitism actually is.

Another example is a lawsuit recently filed by Hurwitz against UMass Amherst on behalf of three anonymous Jewish students. The suit sought to compel the university to cancel a panel discussion titled “Not Backing Down: Israel, Free Speech, and the Battle for Palestinian Human Rights.” The event was organized by the Media Education Foundation, a non-profit film company founded by Sut Jhally, a professor of communications at UMass Amherst. It was co-sponsored by the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine and Western Massachusetts Jewish Voice for Peace, both of which intervened as defendants in the case.

According to Jhally, the goal of the event was “to respond to attacks on recent attacks on US Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota and other progressives who have spoken out against Israel’s 50-year military occupation of Palestinian land and criticized pro-Israel pressure groups for conflating legitimate criticism of Israeli government policies with ‘anti-Semitism.’”

The panel featured Linda Sarsour, a Palestinian-American activist and co-chair of the Women’s March; Marc Lamont Hill, a professor who lost his job at CNN after making pro-Palestinian remarks; and David Zirin, a writer who covers the politics of sports for The Nation; and rock musician Roger Waters of Pink Floyd fame. The moderator was journalist and historian Vijay Prashad.

Hurwitz’s complaint alleged the event constituted racial discrimination against Jewish students and would violate US Department of Education guidelines prohibiting anti-Semitism. This is part of a broader effort, led by Kenneth Marcus, a Trump-appointed Undersecretary of Education, to use an overly broad definition of anti-Semitism to suppress pro-Palestinian speech and activism on college campuses across the country.

As any first-year law student could have predicted, the lawsuit went nowhere. The court denied the students’ request for an injunction and the event went ahead as planned on May 4. In his ruling, Suffolk Superior Court Judge Robert Ullmann declined to impose a “prior restraint” on protected speech, which courts have long held to be repugnant to the First Amendment. He did not address the lawsuit’s underlying premise that criticism of Israel is inherently anti-Semitic, nor did he need to.

But it is a premise we should be ever vigilant in debunking. Anti-Semitism presents a real threat to Jewish communities and should be taken seriously. So should the political indoctrination of students. That is precisely why we must think critically about the way language is used, to be ever watchful for Orwellian double speak. This is imperative if words like “peace” and “tolerance” are to retain their original meaning and their true aims achieved.