Silencing Israel’s Critics: a new McCarthyism?

Israel has always depended heavily on emotional and moral blackmail to influence public debate internationally and neutralize its critics.   Few supporters of South African apartheid ever openly defended the system itself, whatever they believed privately.   Even when governments were broadly supportive of the apartheid regime,  such as the British government under Thatcher, or the United States during Reagan’s ‘constructive engagement’ period,  they generally tried to present their efforts as a more effective means of bringing apartheid to an end than boycotts or sanctions.

With Israel it has always been different.  Those who criticize Israeli violence or the oppression of the Palestinians have long become accustomed to accusations of antisemitism, supporting terrorism, or racist collusion with jihadist death cults, etc, etc.   But there are signs that Israel’s supporters are moving beyond guilt, Holocaust smears and moral intimidation,  and actively seeking to silence public figures with the temerity to say things that Israel doesn’t like.

Take for example, the reports now circulating of an impending Hollywood ‘blacklist’ of Penelope Cruz and Javier Bardem because they co-signed the ‘open letter’ published in the Spanish press condemning the Israeli assault on Gaza.   The letter was written by Bardem and cosigned by more than a hundred filmmakers, actors and musicians.   Now you may or may not agree with its characterization of Operation Protective Edge as ‘genocidal’, and you might not agree with its argument that the roots of the war lie in Israel’s ongoing occupation and domination of the Palestinians, but there is nothing in that letter to warrant a studio ban.

Unlike Mel Gibson’s rantings a few years back, the letter is not antisemitic, it does not advocate genocide.  It doesn’t even argue in favour of the Palestinian right to armed resistance. On the contrary its concluding sentence declares:

‘I wish there were compassion in the hearts of those who kill and that this murderous poison that only creates more hatred and violence would disappear; that those Israelis and Palestinians who dream only of peace and coexistence can one day find a solution.’

A fairly mild conclusion, you might think.  But Bardem does point the finger of blame squarely at Israel, and that, it seems, is not acceptable to some Hollywood producers, one of whom is said to be ‘furious at Javier and Penelope’ and dubious about working with them again.    Others have expressed similar sentiments.   Ryan Kavanagh, chief executive of Relativity Media said, ‘As the grandson of Holocaust survivors, I know that anyone calling what’s going on in Israel ‘genocide’ versus self-defence is either ignorant and shouldn’t be commenting, or is truly anti-Semitic.’

Someone who thinks that the Holocaust has anything to do with the destruction of Gaza is not exactly overflowing with insight or knowledge themselves.    Even when Cruz issued a qualification of her letter, saying that she was only in favor of ‘peace in both Israel and Gaza’ that doesn’t appear to have mollified the execs, one of whom said that Cruz’s statements provoked a ‘collective eye roll.’

These criticisms have been reported on the Internet as an attempt to ‘blacklist’ Cruz and Bardem.    Such talk naturally brings back echoes of darker days, of Senator Joseph McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

These references are clearly overdone.   McCarthy built up an extraordinarily powerful  political machine to discipline the American population during the high Cold War, that could and did destroy lives and careers.  Israel doesn’t have that power, even if it might want it, and the mutterings of Hollywood producers doesn’t amount to a blacklist.

Nevertheless, there are American supporters of Israel who have attempted to silence its critics using methods that would not have been entirely unfamiliar to McCarthy.   Norman Finkelstein’s academic career was destroyed as a result of the efforts of the blustering Zionist bully Alan Dershowitz, an Israel-firster who has far more influence than he ever should have acquired.

Dershowitz presents himself as a civil liberties advocate, but regularly attempts to browbeat academics and university departments into silence through accusations of antisemitism or poor scholarship – something that he really ought to be more quiet about.

He appears to have had a special loathing for Finkelstein,  not just because of Finkelstein’s anti-Zionist activism, but because he accused Dershowitz himself of plagiarism.  In 2006 Dershowitz lobbied Finkelstein’s employers at DePaul University to deny him tenure, and to the university’s eternal discredit, Finkelstein lost his job the following year.

Who does Dershowitz think he is, you might ask, but perhaps you might also ask how Finkelstein’s university let him get away with it.   And now there is the case of Professor Steven Salaita, a pro-Palestinian activist and scholar of comparative literature who was due to take up a new post at Illinois University,  until he posted tweets critical of Israel last month.   As a result Salaita has had his impending post ‘rescinded’, as the university puts it, because of tweets like this:

[stextbox id=”alert”]Fuck you, #Israel. And while I’m at it, fuck you, too, PA, Sisi, Arab monarchs, Obama, UK, EU, Canada, US Senate, corporate media, and ISIS.[/stextbox]

And

[stextbox id=”alert”]Zionists: transforming ‘anti-Semitism’ from something horrible into something honorable since 1948.[/stextbox]

Not to mention:

[stextbox id=”alert”]While Israel bombs children in #Gaza, Zionists are busy trying to get #BDS activists fired.[/stextbox]

Not exactly scholarly language, to be sure.  But Salaita wasn’t advocating mass murder, assassination, or inciting racial or religious hatred.  He was responding as a committed private citizen to an issue that he felt strongly about, and the university should not be able to sack him for what he says on twitter just because that issue happens to be the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

The decision to ‘rescind’ his contract appears to have followed an intervention from a Dershowitz-like figure called Eric Owens, education editor of the conservative Daily Caller website, who published a selection of Salaita’s tweets to demonstrate that he was a ‘disgusting scumbag’ and a ‘world-class Israel hater.’

That seems to have been enough for Illinois to cut Salaita loose.   The best that one can say about this violation of the fundamental democratic right to free expression is that it is cowardly, spineless and supine.  Because otherwise one would have to conclude that uncritical allegiance to Israel is in danger of becoming a public obligation and a de facto loyalty pledge that precludes the right to criticize Israeli policy.

That may not be McCarthyism, but it is certainly a bizarre and disturbing development that a foreign power should have acquired such undue influence in American society, to the point when academics who criticize it risk losing their jobs.   So I urge you to sign the petition calling for Salaita’s reinstatement, which you can find here. Because these developments aren’t limited to the United States.  In the last month various countries have banned or attempted to ban pro-Palestinian demonstrations or pro-BDS events.

They’re doing this because Israel is losing the propaganda war.   And as it loses, its powerful supporters are increasingly looking for other ways of silencing criticism of its crimes.

It’s up to us to ensure that they don’t succeed.

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