Professor Tomis Kapitan Responds to Cary Nelson’s article on Anti-Semitism

It is important that AAUP avoid even the hint of censorship. It is essential that criticism of Israel not be restricted by cultural norms of racialism that could preclude impassioned, robust criticism of an occupying nation. Nationalism educes emotions; the  power differential between a colonial occupying nuclear power and persecuted, humiliated Palestinains should induce ethical outrage and impassioned argumentation. Making comparisons between Israel and Germany during World War II cannot and must not be dismissed as anti-semitic. Historical comparisons merit all due consideration and the marketplace of ideas can determine their validity through debate. I urge the AAUP to read their Faulkner: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” One cannot preclude a priori that any mode of comparative historical inquiry should be stillborn. AAUPs response as Cary Nelson pointed out in his great work that I reviewed for two journals, No University is an Island, was too passive and non-responsive to the persecution and tenure travesty of Norman Finkelstein at DePaul. Anti-semitism in academia is a non-issue in terms of systemic or widespread spectre of oppression. It is not thankfully one of the many challenges to academic freedom and an impetus to have smothering speech codes on campuses.

It is important for us to avoid anti-semitism. It is important for us to avoid all forms of racialism and discrimination. It is equally important that we not use our quest for racial or religious tolerance to manifest itself in  suppresssing appropriate argumentation. Many professors have been persecuted for criticism of Israel and support of the Palestinians. The verifiable persecution of academicians, Jews and non-Jews who challenge Zionism as racism, the concentration camp wall (defence barrier built on Palestinian land) declared illegal by the International Court of Justice and the widespread butchery of Gaza civilians as documented in the Goldstone Report is palpable. Terri Ginsberg is an example of an adjunct professor fired from North Carolina State for daring to be human, for daring to challenge Israeli hegemony and daring to challenge the canon of silence with her students.

May 6, 2011

The Chronicle of Higher Education

Definition of Anti-Semitism Is Historically and Legally Naïve

To the Editor:

In “Anti-Semitism on Campus,” a recent article that appeared on the Web site of the American Association of University Professors, Cary Nelson, the president of the AAUP, and Kenneth Stern, a representative of the American Jewish Committee, endorsed the following “working definition” of anti-Semitism, created by the European Monitoring Centre [EUMC] on Racism and xenophobia: “Anti-Semitism is a certain perception of Jews, which may be expressed as hatred toward Jews. Rhetorical and physical manifestations of anti-Semitism are directed toward Jewish or non-Jewish individuals and/or their property, toward Jewish community institutions or religious facilities.” In its gloss on this definition, the EUMC indicated that such manifestations of anti-Semitism could also “target the state of Israel, conceived as Jewish collectivity,” for example, “denying Jews their right to self-determination.” Mr. Nelson and Mr. Stern note that the U.S. Department of State has also embraced this definition.

Despite the EUMC’s claim that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled at other countries cannot be considered anti-Semitism,” its definition of anti-Semitism has a curious consequence for those claiming to champion academic freedom, such as the AAUP. Many thinkers have long opposed nationalism and the nationalist interpretation of the principle of self-determination, namely, that each national, ethnic, or cultural group is entitled to political autonomy or statehood. They cite historical evidence that political systems favoring one nation or culture have too often shown intolerance and discrimination toward resident minorities, besides fostering a good deal of interstate belligerence. There is another interpretation of the principle of self-determination by which self-determination is recognized as a right of popular sovereignty belonging to regionally defined collectives regardless of the ethnic, cultural, or religious identities and affiliations of their members. In this sense, all have a right to share in self-determination, Jews and non-Jews alike, but they have this right as residents of regions, not as members of cultural or national units.

By implying that those who deny a right of self-determination to Jews qua Jews, or who raise doubts about the legitimacy of the state of Israel, are anti-Semitic, the working definition is thereby privileging the nationalist interpretation of the principle of self-determination, and de facto criminalizing the views and acts of those who oppose nationalism, including Jewish nationalism. This is not only an instance of historical and legal naïveté; it is a dangerous assault on our cherished democratic freedoms of expression and opinion.

Tomis Kapitan
Professor of Philosophy
Northern Illinois University
DeKalb, Ill.

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