The brutal murders of Ambassador Chris Stevens and his staff in Libya, blamed on the anger over the display of the video, now appear to have been a premeditated murder by terrorists. That said, the antipathy toward America, illustrated by widespread demonstrations after the release of the video, for its long-standing treatment and demonization of the Muslim world should not be downplayed.
In addressing both the video and the response, representatives of the Obama administration, as well as other members of the political establishment, condemned the violence but also distanced themselves from the video. At the same time, they offered the view that as abhorrent as is the video, in America, there is the First Amendment that guarantees freedom of speech. The message, and one that the Republican Party screamed as loud as they could, was that in America, one can say whatever one wants and that this is guaranteed by the Constitution. Except when it comes to the matter of Israel.
A recent resolution of the California State Assembly, introduced on August 6, that covered anti-Semitism (specifically in post-secondary educational institutions in California), has sent chills up the spines of many people who actually believe in freedom of speech. Claiming to be encouraging a clamping down on anti-Semitic activities, this very strange resolution expands the definition of anti-Semitism to virtually any criticism of Israel. It includes in the list of criticisms that should be silenced, suggestions that Israel is a racist and apartheid state.
Let us be clear: This is a tremendous expansion of any legitimate definition of anti-Semitism. This would be the equivalent of suggesting that a criticism of the government of the People’s Republic of China is automatically anti-Chinese. Or that a criticism of Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe is automatically anti-Black.
Anti-Semitism has a long, ignominious history, particularly in Europe. It has been associated with the persecution and murder of millions of Jews over time. It has been associated with identifying Jews, as a people, with the execution of Jesus Christ. It has been associated with the myth that all Jews are wealthy. It has been associated with the notion that there is some sort of global Jewish conspiracy to dominate the world. That is anti-Semitism. That is the sort of irrational, racist thinking and behavior that must be fought.
But to link the struggle against anti-Semitism with the question of Israel is nothing short of duplicity. It completely ignores the manner in which Israel was formed (over the objections of the people who were living there); Israel’s constant violations of United Nations resolutions; the establishment of the apartheid wall that destroys entire Palestinian communities; as well as Israel’s pre-1994 collaboration with apartheid South Africa in the creation of weapons of mass destruction.
As such, speaking out on Israel is political criticism and should not be confused with anti-Semitism.
America needs to have one standard. If it is going to claim that a hideous mocking of the Prophet Muhammad is protected by freedom of speech it cannot, at nearly the same moment, suggest that those who criticize the racist and expansionist policies of Israel are anti-Semitic and not subject to the protections contained in the U.S. Constitution. Doing so is not only duplicity, but it also helps to explain why the motives of America are so often questioned around the world.
Bill Fletcher, Jr. is a senior scholar with the Institute for Policy Studies, the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum, and the author of two books on labor unions. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.