Opinion // The Activists Who Cry Censorship

By | Jun 30, 2014
2014 July/August, Israel
Tape over mouth- Censoring

Supposedly silenced critics of Israel have plenty of platforms to air their views.

By Emanuele Ottolenghi

The Jewish war over who is entitled to speak about Israel has predictably turned into a question of free speech, with Israel’s fiercest critics insisting that they are being unfairly silenced. 

In March 2014, Professors Judith Butler of the University of California at Berkeley and Rashid Khalidi of Columbia University launched an online petition in defense of boycotts of Israel, in reaction to incidents in which, after their scheduled lectures at Jewish institutions elicited strong opposition, Butler withdrew and Khalidi’s event was cancelled.

Opining that “Those who support boycotts ought not to become subject to retaliation, surveillance, or censorship when they choose to express their political viewpoint, no matter how offensive that may be to those who disagree,” Butler and Khalidi claimed that “We are now witnessing accelerating efforts to curtail speech, to exercise censorship, and to carry out retaliatory action against individuals on the basis of their political views or associations, notably support for BDS.” 

The accusation of censorship is a common refrain.

Writing in Mondoweiss in August 2013, Jeff Warner and Dick Platkin accused “the Israel lobby, guided by the Israeli government, with the help of Israeli think tanks” of organizing “a slanderous campaign to discredit or silence American critics of the Israeli government,” thereby threatening America’s First Amendment. The implication is that Israel’s critics are vastly more reflective of mainstream Jewish opinion.

But no critic of Israel, no matter how extreme, is seriously being silenced. Theirs is not a struggle for free speech.

J Street may not be a member of the Conference of Presidents, but its leadership is routinely invited to White House briefings alongside other organizations. Its president, Jeremy Ben-Ami, has been widely published in the mainstream media.

You do not need an underground network of samizdat printers to read Max Blumenthal’s anti-Israel tirade Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel—you can buy it on Amazon. 

Peter Beinart may not be invited to an AIPAC Policy Conference, but being a contributing editor at The Atlantic and a professor at the City University of New York are hardly the hallmarks of the stifled dissident. 

The authors of The Israel Lobby, Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer, are not likely to keynote the next American Jewish Committee event, but their tenured professorships at Harvard University and the University of Chicago, respectively, are not under assault. 

As for Butler and Khalidi, both tenured academics and widely published authors, there is no lack of outlets where they can express their ideas.

The same goes for the debate over whether Hillel should host proponents of BDS—the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement. Those who wish to cast their argument as a battle over free speech argue that students are being denied exposure to important positions. In fact, students can hear the BDS argument as much as they please. In any given semester, there will be a Palestine Solidarity Campaign event or an Apartheid Week ready to offer that view. No student is being denied an opportunity to hear the anti-Israel case.

The point, surely, is that the right to free speech does not translate into an obligation for any particular institution to give anyone a platform to exercise it. Jewish organizations are not speakers’ corners. They are entitled to determine what they consider legitimate and acceptable for their audiences.

Critics should show more intellectual honesty, since the same accusation can be retorted against them. Long before groups like J Street and Open Hillel were conceived of, diaspora intellectuals sought to make Jewish commitment to Israel conditional upon Israeli policies conforming to their progressive political bias.

In 2002, in the early days of the Second Intifada, for example, a group of British Jewish academics spearheaded a boycott against Israeli universities. Academic boycotters claimed to champion human rights while at the same time aggressively seeking to silence anyone who dared disagree with their worldview. Israeli academics were spared only if they agreed to endorse the boycotters’ radical anti-Zionist agenda. The boycott was heavily criticized and was rescinded in 2005, but not much has changed today. Those who now attack Jewish organizations for denying a platform to views critical of Israel are guilty of the same doublespeak.

Criticizing Jewish leaders as unrepresentative of their constituencies is also integral to the effort to delegitimize Israel and anyone who seeks to defend the Jewish state. Jewish organizations, newspapers, synagogue leaderships, campus groups and umbrella organizations are disingenuously derided as being out of sync with what Jews really feel about Israel. These groups are routinely accused of being complicit with a cover-up of what is really happening in the Middle East.

Some unelected Jewish intellectuals claim to know the general will better than the chosen leadership of communal organizations, whom they accuse of being complicit with Israel in a conspiracy of silence to cover up Israel’s lamentable conduct. Writing in the San Francisco Gate in 2007, Stanford University Professor Joel Beinin asked, “Why discredit, defame and silence those with opposing viewpoints? I believe it is because the Zionist lobby knows it cannot win based on facts.” Beinin is entitled to his views and enjoys the freedom to publish them—hardly a sign of silencing. He is not under censorship.

Beinin is representative of what Israel’s fiercest critics are really up to. Theirs is not a noble struggle to ensure that audiences give a full hearing to all views in the debate over Israel. It is a well-designed effort to undermine the credibility of opponents by casting themselves as muzzled dissidents and their adversaries as brazen censors.

Israel’s critics are of course entitled to express their views and seek to influence America’s Jews. But they should do so by engaging in genuine debate, rather than using free speech as a straw man against their adversaries. 

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a Washington, DC-based think tank. 

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