Silencing Voices That Question Israeli Actions
by Alice RothchildModerator Askia Muhammad: Our next speaker is a Boston-based physician and author and filmmaker and an activist. Dr. Falk mentioned the defamatory tactics. One defamatory tactic with which we’re all familiar is labeling someone an anti-Semite. Another, which has not been used as often as it was maybe 20 years ago, is to label someone a self-hating Jew. Dr. Alice Rothchild is involved in the activities for human rights and social justice in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She’s an active member of Jewish Voice for Peace, American Jews for a Just Peace, the Workmen’s Circle Middle East Working Group. She has been organizing health and human rights delegations to Israel, to the West Bank and Gaza since 2003. Please welcome Dr. Alice Rothchild.
Alice Rothchild: Thank you so much. I just got back from Gaza three days ago, if I’m a little verklempt, as we say. First of all, I want to talk about what silencing looks like. It kind of overlaps with active muzzling, with the strict framing of the dominant paradigm. It involves a widespread systematic intolerance of alternative framing. Silencing challenges free speech, rights of protests. It’s all about power, about fear, and about the broad cultural and political assumptions in the world that we live in.
So I’m going to first speak from my personal experiences as a self-hating Jew, as you mentioned. In 2004, I had come back from the region and I wanted to do grand rounds. I was invited to Cambridge Hospital to speak on the impact of war and occupation on civilians. Before my presentation, one of my colleagues came and leafleted the auditorium with these horrific pictures of Jews who’d been blown up by suicide bombers. After my presentation, he got up and harangued me for 10 minutes, accusing me of lack of compassion for Jews.
I wanted to do, you know, a similar kind of discussion about health care and occupation in my own hospital. I was told by my department chief that I was, quote, a danger to the Jewish people. It took five years and his leaving, and I kept trying to do my talk. Finally, they said yes. My talk was announced. They received a hundred e-mails protesting my giving these grand rounds. I had to take the word “occupation” outside of the title of my talk. And I was told to stay away from politics.
Fast forwarding the last year and a half, I’ve been doing a lot of book touring with my two books and my film and doing a lot of presentations. I’ve been bumping up against a lot of muzzling. In the academic setting, I was at American University. I was talking with students who found that if they focused on human rights and opposition to occupation, supporting BDS, etc., they found themselves marginalized and accused of bias. They described the campus that was polarized, with no conversation between the right and the left. Two professors had been included in the list of professors who are dangerous to Israel. One untenured faculty member talked about being warned to limit his critical comments about Israel because it would endanger his future career.
At John Carroll University, at a political science class called “Peacemaking in the Palestine-Israel Conflict,” there were complaints from the local Hillel stating that Jewish students on campus did not, quote, feel safe having me on campus. I get that a lot, that I make students feel unsafe. They actually had a major meeting of the faculty to determine whether I could be allowed on campus, which I was. The most disturbing part of that little event was at the end, the Israeli shaliach, which is an ambassador that the Israeli government sends out to schools and temples and things like that to, you know, do his Israel messaging, and she basically came up to me in front of all the people and started screaming at me, attacking me as a liar, doing a great disservice to the Jewish people, and just being a general bully, which was kind of an interesting experience.
At the University of Maryland, at an Arab media class, one Jewish student told the professor after I spoke that he was very unhappy with my presentation. He was disappointed in the professor. He accused me of hate speech. He said he felt offended as a member of Hillel.
At the University of Virginia at a book club, I was doing a book reading. Several alumni complained and took it all the way to the president of the university that I should not be allowed to read from my book, and then threatened to withhold funds since I was allowed. When I’ve been in more religious institutions, there’s a church in our DC suburbs that shares a building with a temple. They’ve had a long positive relationship. The rabbi told the minister there that if he showed my film that he would sever their relationship.
There was a church in Vermont with a very wonderful pastor who does a lot of work with a progressive-except-Palestine rabbi who really pushed him hard when he invited me to the church. I saw the e-mails. The tone of the e-mails were, I’m profoundly disappointed in you. We’ve worked together on all these issues. I thought I could trust you. And now, you are showing this anti-Semitic, one-sided film from this known self-hating Jew.
When I tried to speak in temples, that’s like getting up against the wall of McCarthyism. I’ve had a couple of little successes. There was a reformed temple in Ithaca which I found that whenever they have announcements about speakers like me, the person who does the newsletter puts a little disclaimer saying, “This does not represent the opinions of the temple.” I also found this, as I made my rounds of the few temples that would let me in, is that their maps of Israel are all the Greater Israel, including all the occupied territories. So that was sort of fascinating to find out.
I was invited to an Orthodox synagogue in DC by an Orthodox human rights lawyer who’s also a Hebrew school teacher there. We set up the film, and the rabbi cancelled it. At the Greater Jewish community—I was in Sacramento—there’s a Jewish Federation newspaper called Jewish Voice. For two times in a row, they refused to publish an announcement that I’m in town—once doing a book reading, once showing my film—because they say that I am anti-Israel.
In the Jewish community, in a public library in Ohio, I had this totally conflicted, agonized audience. They were completely unaware of the many millions of dollars that are being spent on Israeli hasbara and the aggressive control of Israel messaging. One woman got up and she said, “We could have this open conversation anywhere in the United States. But in Arab countries, we would be censored, arrested, and sold into sex slavery.” I pointed out that, actually, I cannot have this conversation anywhere in the United States. In fact, I can’t have this conversation in most temples, Hillels, and Jewish community centers.
She then pointed out that the poster for my talk was very offensive because it had the word “conflict” in it and a picture of the separation wall. She said, “It says what side you’re on.” The most disturbing point in this very interesting public library came at the end, when a little lady comes up to the poor woman who’s selling my books and announced in a very loud voice that my book should be burned. At which point, a gentleman standing behind her said, “That’s what they did in Nazi Germany.”
Last February, I was leaving New York City. I saw this huge billboard—I don’t know if you’ve seen it—that says, “New York Times against Israel, all rant, all slant. Stop the bias.” This is sponsored by the wonderfully well-funded and ironically misnamed Committee for Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America.
So silencing can be both active and it also comes from how we frame the issues and the language and what are the assumptions behind it. So going back to that temple in Ithaca, one of the mockers in the Jewish community challenged me on my maps. She basically said, you know, the Arabs are the migrants and she said that the last independent indigenous nation was 2,000 years ago. She referred me to a right-wing blog for accurate information.
I was at World Fellowship in New Hampshire, which is a wonderful family camp for progressives. A woman in the audience told me this amazing story. Her child was attending public school in the New York City school system. They were studying indigenous peoples. As an example, the teacher stated that the Jews were the indigenous people and the Palestinians were treating them badly. The daughter, being her daughter, piped up. She said, “No, no, no. It’s really, you know, the other way around.” The girl was sent out of class to the principal’s office. Her parents were called in. They were given a stern warning about that kind of talk. When the mother agreed with the daughter, the principal actually said that that version of history is not allowed in the New York City school system.
Just recently, I got this award from my town in Brookline for social justice work on Israel-Palestine. Both of the elected officials in the Massachusetts legislature boycotted the event—they’re usually presenting the awards—and one funder pulled out. So that’s what you see in your community.
If we look at the issue of framing and language, the framing is the Jews are good; the Arabs are bad. And you think about the visuals. In our newspapers, there’s a tendency towards the sympathetic Jewish settler, mother crying over her injured child, and the young men wrapped in a keffiyeh throwing a rock. That’s the visuals you see. There’s an emotional message in our media that rarely portrays Palestinians as fellow human beings who may actually have some incredibly legitimate grievances and who actually are rarely violent. Palestinians are never seen as the most educated group in the Arab world. They’re never seen as the people with a long tradition of nonviolent resistance. You just don’t see that.
The question is, why is history that? Because history in our world is really a creation of groupthink. If you go back in history, for decades, Palestinian history, trauma, aspirations, rights have been really invisible in Western discourse. I think it’s partly a reflection of our own racism towards Arabs, our Islamophobia, guilt about the Holocaust, and manipulation by Zionist leaders. Then we add in cultural, economic, and military imperialism.
So how far does this go back? Well, there was early silencing of the Palestinian experience by U.S. Zionists in the 1940s and the 1950s. Even back then, you would be viciously attacked if you criticized the partition plan, if you criticized Jewish nationalism and all that kind of stuff, or you mentioned that there was a Palestinian tragedy. And so journalists were accused of anti-Semitism. They were threatened. Politicians were threatened with loss of financial support.
I mean this goes way back to the founding of Israel. Then, as was mentioned, in 1974 the Anti-Defamation League officially defined what they call the new anti-Semitism as criticism of Israel. Ten years later, AIPAC issued this college guide exposing the, quote, anti-Israel campaign on campus, which they still think is going on, and basically was trying to tell students why they shouldn’t listen to people who are critical of Israel because they’re all obviously foreign terrorists and anti-Semitic.
So, you see, this kind of McCarthyism crept into Jewish institutions, and the epithet of anti-Semitism has been used ever since to silence and demonize critical voices. The Israelis joined in the fray with the Herzliya Conference in 2010, where they had a whole session on winning the battle of the narrative, and it's all about rebranding. It’s a PR problem. Then a year later, the Reut Institute in Tel Aviv—it’s a think tank—issued a position paper laying out a strategy of, quote, naming and shaming those on the left who are critical of various things.
The important thing is that they identify the strategy to engage Jewish institutions and individuals to identify and marginalize groups, to separate medium-sized liberals from more critical liberals, and to create this Israeli brand. You also see that point. They go against people who are delegitimizing Israel. So that’s another, you know, word that comes up.
What’s happening now is a direct result of those kinds of policy decisions. People talked about shielding Israel from the abuse of human rights law. Then in 2011, Haaretz reported that there was actually an Israeli military intelligence unit that was created to monitor folks like us. In academia, we have Hillel International, which is the umbrella organization for the Hillel chapters on American campuses. It did start out not as a Zionist organization, but it’s basically become an Israel advocacy organization. Despite espousing pluralism and tolerance, they actually have very strict guidelines about what you’re allowed to talk about and what kind of speakers you’re allowed to have.
And in December of 2014, Hillel International and the Simon Wiesenthal Center developed a new campus surveillance tool, which is a phone app, to fight anti-Semitism, which will be deployed on 550 U.S. campuses with Hillel centers. It’s supposed to report students and professors who are being anti-Semitic. They call it See It and Report It. The Anti-Defamation League last December also published a list, a blacklist, of those who have linked what’s going on in Ferguson with what’s going on in Palestine.
Also, as was mentioned, there’s been more than 6,000 U.S. police trained in Israeli police and military units, and this is funded by the ADL. It’s also funded by JINSA, which is another group to watch, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. You may not know that the New York City Police Department now has a branch in Tel Aviv. So we now have our police emulating the Israel Defense Forces. We have academics being monitored and attacked. We have university donors pressuring administrators. We have groups sympathetic to Palestinians being confronted with lies. I suggest you Google “Hamas on campus.” It’s a really interesting YouTube. Then people are emotionally blacklisted and, you know, called anti-Semitic.
Now, in the Jewish community there’s actually a tremendous conflict, because Jews have traditionally been more left-wing on every other right but Palestine. Many of us, particularly people under 35, which obviously doesn’t include me, feel that we are being asked to suspend our love of justice, democracy and fighting for the oppressed when it comes to Israel-Palestine. We see very right-wing forces, Campus Watch, StandWithUs, CAMERA, AIPAC, David Project, etc., etc., etc. aligned with the Christian right lobbying Congress to support the most right-wing governments in Israel. I call this our own U.S. branch of the Likud. Then we have muzzling of dissent, intolerance in our own community.
So these assumptions are reinforced. You know, the Jews are the good people; Arabs are the bad people. Jews are like us. They’re white people creating a Western-style state in a savage untamed region of the world. So after ’67, there was this move towards making uncritical support of Israel the cornerstone of being a good Jew. Being a Jew and a Zionist are now merged, and Israel is the religion. Christian Zionists marched up and embraced the idea. We all got to return so we can have an apocalypse. So they embraced this settler movement. Liberal Christians then bought the mythology. The U.S. government developed our huge military industrial complex. With this framing, the history and trauma and aspirations of Palestinians become more and more invisible.
So this manipulation happens by controlling the message. How is that done? We have Birthright trips, which are basically brainwashing. We have students that have been recruited and, I’ve heard, paid to use social media to compliment Israel. They call this public diplomacy. There are a ton of free junkets for all kinds of people, ranging from academics to food and wine critics, to go to Israel. We have all the academic collaborations. We have our Israeli ambassadors in all sorts of Jewish settings and forcing what the message is. So there is this multimillion-dollar industry to brand Israel with pink washing, green washing, faith washing, and all those kind of things.
The good news is that there is pushback. There’s a lot of pushback towards green washing and pink washing and faith washing. If you don’t know what it is, just ask me. There’s also pushback within the Jewish community. We are not monolithic. More than 50 percent of Jews in America, particularly those under 35, have no interest in Israel or feel some sympathy for Palestinians. The interesting thing for me as a confirmed secular Jew is that many groups are questioning all of this framing using Jewish values and doing it in the name of Jewish religion. So I have young students telling me Zionism has hijacked Judaism.
We keep mentioning Jewish Voice for Peace. This is an example of the growth of one of those kinds of groups. We tripled in size during the Gaza war. A group called If Not Now came out during the Gaza war demanding the Jewish communal organizations recognize the Gaza dead. We have the Open Hillel Movement, which is demanding that Hillels do not monitor and have these red lines. These kids are having these conferences breaking all the rules, talking about BDS in Hillels. It actually did happen just in February at Harvard. Three civil rights leaders from the ’60s got up and talked about BDS at Harvard Hillel. We’re all very happy.
The other thing that you’re seeing is what I call an increase in intersectionality, so that there are unified coalitions forming between students of color, Muslim students from colonized countries, queer and trans students, feminists, all seeing the links between the oppression of Palestinians and their own oppressions.
So in conclusion, because I’m going to get this in 18 minutes, what is happening to Jews and their allies is a loud battle about the meaning and understanding of history. We’re separating Judaism the religion from Zionism the national political movement. We are making a call to define the Jew as someone grounded in religion or culture or history, a set of ethics, a sense of peoplehood. And all these definitions are equally compelling. It does not matter if you’re in the Diaspora, you know, because Israeli Jews think us Diaspora Jews are not really first-rate Jews. So Diaspora Jews are really reclaiming our legitimacy and our voice as Jews.
There’s a delineation of the racist ideology of anti-Semitism from thoughtful moral criticism of the policies of the country of Israel, and the treatment and solidarity of Palestinians has now become the civil rights movement of our day. We see major challenges such as the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement, the Campus Open Hillels, Students for Justice in Palestine, etc. We have African-American civil rights leaders embracing this issue and drawing parallels with our civil rights struggles. With all of the increased amount of information that we now have access to, you really can’t hide reality anymore.
And I would like to propose that the intensity of the backlash and the muzzling may also reflect that the mainstream and right-wing forces are feeling increasingly cornered. Their positions are less defensible. Perhaps this is the beginning of a major turning point in the long struggle for justice in Israel-Palestine.