Last month the newly formed Institute for the Critical Study of Zionism (ICSZ) announced plans to host conferences at the University of California, Santa Cruz and New York University (NYU) School of Law. The theme of the proposed conference is battling the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism. Anti-Israel activists are particularly hostile to this definition as, among other things, it defines denying Israel’s right to exist a form of anti-Semitism. Amid a significant backlash NYU later said it would not be one of the event hosts.
The ICSZ lists a set of what it calls points of unity. First on the list is a declaration that Israel, along with America, are settler colonial states. The same point included support for the anti-Israel Boycott, Disinvestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. Among the other points is a rejection of academic objectivity. “Research on power must center the narratives and perspectives of those it dominates,” it says.
Substantive critiques of these claims was made by David Bernstein, the founder and chief executive of the Jewish Institute For Liberal Values, and by Jarrod Tanny. a professor of Jewish studies in the history department of the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Bernstein showed how the ICSZ’s claims are closely connected to false narratives started by Soviet propagandists after Israel’s triumph in the six-day war of 1967. He also pointed out the hypocrisy involved in holding Israel to a higher standard than other peoples or nations. For example, there is no Institute for the Critical Studies of Palestinian rejectionism.
Tanny focused on the points of unity and the insistence that those attending the conference state their agreement with them. Interestingly it was this loyalty oath which played a key role in NYU’s refusal to host the event. Both Bernstein and Tanny make interesting references to accusations to the malign influence of money provided by wealthy donors. Bernstein describes Qatar as a bad actor in the American education sector. Tanny mentions ICSZ accusations that wealthy Jewish donors use their wealth to suppress pro-Palestinian voices in academia.
On the face of it the ICSZ certainly looks like an institution from which any university careful of its reputation would keep its distance. Tanny points out that a founder member, Professor Rabab Ibrahim Abdulahdi, once tried to organise a webinar called"Resistance" featuring Leila Khaled. The invited speaker twice hijacked an aircraft and remains a member of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine. San Francisco State University did not block the webinar but Zoom refused to host it on the grounds that it violated anti-terrorism laws.
This raises the question of how best to tackle the ICSZ. Bernstein and others plan to use anti-discrimination laws to attack the institute. However, given the spread of ideas similar to, if not exactly the same as, those of the institute an approach based on law alone is unlikely to work.
The absurdity of many of the ICSZ’s claims might be enough to discredit it before it really takes off. One could point out the obvious flaws in the idea that the establishment of Israel was a colonialist enterprise; it was mandated and recognised by the United Nations. The refugees arriving in Palestine from Europe and Jews fleeing Arab persecution after the establishment of Israel can hardly be described as colonialists. Universities worthy of the name should surely also be concerned by the notion that the research process cannot be neutral.
Those seeking to counter the ICSZ should choose the battles they fight carefully. For example the NYU conference was supposed to be a sort of rally against the IHRA definition of anti-semitism. I have previously written on the report of Rebecca Tuck, the senior barrister who led the investigation into anti-Semitism in Britain’s National Union of Students. She came to the conclusion that definitions of anti-Semitism would not substantially reduce it. One could argue that as long as the ICSZ is obsessed with endless disputes over the IHRA it might be best just to ignore the organisation.
The best way to neutralise the ICSZ is to construct a fresh and hopefully more productive dialogue with those who are amenable to reason. This will mean that the likes of Bernstein and Tanny will have to go beyond just stating that the ICSZ regurgitates anti-Semitic tropes. They will have to form links with those who will make statements with which they are uncomfortable. That is as long as the critics are prepared to engage in such a way as to create an atmosphere in which genuine dialogue is possible.
One example is Daniel Munayer, a Palestinian Christian activist who runs an organisation called Musalaha which seeks to promote reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians. Speaking at a St Martin-in-the-Fields lecture on reconciliation, he approvingly referred to some scholars who regard what settlers are doing in the West Bank as similar to the colonial activities of former European empires. However, he was equally clear that Palestinians must be reconciled to Israel’s existence and that the type of Zionism he was campaigning against was a form of exclusive Jewish nationalism.
Those seeking to counter narratives of settler-colonialism are going to have to be prepared to engage with difficult arguments. These include the claim that, even if the establishment of Israel was not settler colonialist it is increasingly moving in that direction. Even some senior members of the Israeli elite are arguing along these lines. For example, Tamir Pardo, a former head of the Mossad, has claimed Israel is drifting into a form of apartheid because of its inability to end the occupation of the West Bank. The current Israeli government seems unwilling or unable to restrain acts of violence perpetrated against Palestinians by settlers.
To summarise: even if the ICSZ’s activities or so-called loyalty oaths do breach US anti-discrimination law, the legal approach will not be the most effective way of countering it. There is probably little point in outreach to the ICSZ itself. Its members seem classic examples of what Jake Wallis Simons, the editor of the Jewish Chronicle, calls Israelophobia. Rather the focus should be on creating alliance with those willing to engage in reasoned debate on Israel / Palestine. It is necessary to create a culture of meaningful dialogue rather than one of grandstanding and empty slogans.
Guy Whitehouse is a member of the Academy of Ideas and the Free Speech Union. His views do not necessarily reflect those of those organisations.
The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the Radicalism of fools project.