April 3, 2009

SJP allegations off the mark

Over the last couple months, members of Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have leveled a number of accusations against Chicago Friends of Israel (CFI) and other Jewish groups on campus. The most controversial of these has been the accusation that CFI and other Jewish groups aggressively throw around accusations of anti-Semitism to silence criticism of Israel. A forum held last quarter for Jewish students with the administration has been held up as a prime example of this clampdown of free speech regarding criticism of Israel.

Aside from ignoring the legitimate grievances held by Jewish students about January 8’s Gaza event, accusations that CFI or Jewish groups are silencing debate through claims of anti-Semitism are utterly false and extremely disappointing.

Let us also be clear about one other thing: Anti-Israel sentiment can sometimes traverse into or be motivated by anti-Semitism. That is one reason why the administration held the forum last quarter: to deal with grievances of Jewish students who felt that a certain animus in the Israel-bashing crossed the line. At the “Crisis in Gaza” event, there were a number of anti-Semitic incidents, as reported by the Chicago Maroon. A Jewish student was assaulted and called a Nazi for handing out pro-Israel flyers, and a pro-Palestinian protester brought in a flag with swastikas and Jewish stars on it. These comparisons are not only illogical but, in parallelizing the slaughtered Jews of the Holocaust to the slaughterers, invoke the idea that the Holocaust fits within a historical equilibrium. In addition, at different points during the panel, panelists Ali Abunimah and Norman Finklestein excused anti-Semitism. Both men described Hamas as a legitimate resistance organization, despite the fact that Hamas has genocidal aims and has deliberately targeted and killed hundreds of innocent Israeli (and several American) civilians. Hamas’s charter declares its intention to kill every Jewish person on Earth. Describing Hamas as legitimate is like describing the Ku Klux Klan as an advocacy group. Neither description is appropriate.

CFI has stuck by the reputation of this University and has striven for academic debate and clear thinking with regard to the Israel–Palestinian conflict. I expect that most students at this university would expect no less of a commitment to academic integrity on the part of any Registered Student Organization. Unfortunately, the pro-Palestinian groups on campus do not seem to apply similar standards of encouraging debate and discussion.

Since it was formed last year, SJP has consistently held entirely one-sided events that have often devolved into pernicious Israel-bashing. Instead of following CFI in creating panels of speakers with both pro- and anti-Israel opinions represented, SJP, as well as the Muslim Student Organization, organized several events last quarter, all firmly anti-Israel and many that descended into intense extremism.

The “Crisis in Gaza” event held on January 8 was sheer propaganda. Three speakers, all virulently anti-Israel, with only one of them even acknowledging Israel’s right to exist (Professor John Mearsheimer), thrashed Israel without nuance or academic tone. No debate, no discussion; just castigation after castigation of the Jewish state. A few weeks later, SJP brought in Allison Weir to present her film, Occupation 101, which was designed to elicit contempt for Israel. The fact that Weir condemned Judaism as “such a ruthless and supremacist faith” in an opinion piece last year in The Greenwich Citizen did not faze SJP or dissuade the group from bringing her in. This quarter, SJP has continued its one-sided Israel bashing spree with an event with Mads Gilbert, a doctor who practiced in Gaza during Israel’s recent military operation. Gilbert is a radical who has expressed support for the September 11 attacks on the United States and has been accused of staging videos of Palestinian suffering for propaganda purposes.

The University of Chicago remains committed to free inquiry and rigorous debate. Touting propaganda, treating demagogues as experts, and trying to muzzle legitimate grievances all contradict the expectations of this institution. SJP’s members need to figure out whether they want to contribute to dialogue and discussion or provide brutish and unscholarly Israel-bashing. I hope SJP uses its voice prudently—our campus’ discourse will be better for it.

Spencer Burger is a first-year in the College and the vice president­–elect of Chicago Friends of Israel.