January-April 2023Vol.XXXV No. 3

A Response to the Article by the Coalition Against Apartheid

Daniel Jackson

A recent Faculty Newsletter (Vol. XXXV No. 1; September/October 2022) included a two-page article entitled “Palestine, MIT, and Free Speech: A Letter from Student Activists to Our Professors” alleging encumbrances limiting the free speech of Palestinian activists at MIT.

Readers will draw their own conclusions regarding the article’s arguments that ensuring that activities “fall within the guidelines set by the administration” is an unreasonable burden, or that President Reif overstepped his office in a 2013 letter condemning a boycott of Israeli academics as antithetical to MIT values.

But as a member (and former president) of the board of directors of MIT Hillel, I feel obliged to respond to their complaint that the Jewish community, and MIT Hillel in particular, suppresses Palestinian rights by “defamatory claims of antisemitism.”

The article’s criticism of Hillel rests primarily on a claim that a workshop provided by a Hillel staff member “conflated anti-Zionism and antisemitism.” The presentation in fact included a slide with a Venn diagram explaining precisely that the categories of antisemitism, anti-Zionism and anti-Israel speech are distinct and do not fully coincide. That this accusation is untrue is hardly surprising given that, by the authors’ own admission, their material was in part based on hearsay (“stories submitted to us from the MIT community,” in this case from unnamed “MIT staff members”).

The article insinuates, more broadly, that the Jewish community is oversensitive to criticism of Israel, and that one cannot “write the phrase ‘Israeli Government’ without being called antisemitic before the ink dries.” This is a strange claim, given that criticism of the Israeli government is widespread throughout the Jewish community itself. A Pew survey[1] found that fewer than half of American Jews gave Netanyahu a positive rating (even while a vast majority repudiated BDS, the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement) – and that was in 2020, before Netanyahu assembled an extremist coalition and pushed a judicial reform bill that elicited massive demonstrations within Israel itself and that has been denounced by Jewish American leaders[2].

At the same time, there is indeed a growing perception in the Jewish community – justified in my view – that anti-Zionism and antisemitism, despite being distinct doctrines, are increasingly intertwined.

When Wellesley’s student newspaper endorsed the BDS “mapping project” that provided the locations of almost all Jewish organizations in the Boston area (including the school that my children attended) in order that they might be “disrupted” in the fight against “colonialism,” a columnist in Haaretz (Israel’s left-leaning broadsheet) wrote: “There is no delicate way to say this: Following and marking out Jewish businesses and institutions, wherever they are, is antisemitism of the lowest kind”[3]. A month after the Wellesley paper walked back their endorsement of the mapping project, MIT’s Coalition Against Apartheid retweeted a thread from the project, calling for a “dismantling of MIT”[4].

Zionism takes many forms: from the 5th century BCE[5] through medieval[6] to modern[7] times; from religious[8] to secular[9]; from collectivist binationalism[10] to irredentist expansionism[11]; and, within Israeli politics, on the left[12] and the right[13]. So an outright condemnation of Jews for being Zionists amounts in practice only to rejecting the common denominator of all forms of Zionism, namely a Jewish right to self-determination. Telling Jews they shouldn’t be Zionists is like telling Palestinians they should have no nationalist aspirations.

Not surprising, then, that anti-Zionist activists frequently borrow the libels of classical Jew hating. Mohammed El-Kurd, for example – brought to MIT as a guest speaker last October by the CAA – has accused Israelis of eating the organs of Palestinians and having an “unquenchable thirst” for Palestinian blood[14]. Such sentiments fit a pattern in which anti-Zionists often express antisemitic views[15].

Antisemitic attitudes have practical consequences. Attacks against Jews have risen steeply in the last few years, with the sad distinction of happening at a higher per capita rate than attacks against any other ethnic group[16][17]. And while it has become de rigueur to validate the “lived experience” of every minority group, this courtesy has not been extended to Jews[18]. With all this, is a sense of unease in the Jewish community unwarranted?

The situation in Israel/Palestine is not encouraging. Gaza is still controlled by Hamas; the Palestinian Authority has not had an election since 2005; and Israel’s first joint Jewish-Arab government has been replaced by a coalition dominated by rightwing Jewish extremists.

Given that the electoral losses of Israel’s Arab and center/left parties were due in large part to failures to form broader coalitions (and to poor voting rates, especially amongst Arab citizens), this does not seem like a good time for a hardening of positions.

At MIT, we have an opportunity to set a tone for respectful and constructive dialog, and to show that reason and generosity offer our best chance for progress in a discordant world. As faculty, we can play a part in encouraging all members of the community – faculty, staff and students – to express their opinions, even if we will sometimes choose to disagree.

In representing the faculty, the Newsletter has a role too. In this case, the editors told me they made an exception to their policy in publishing an article not only from a non-faculty source but also with unnamed authors. Especially under such circumstances they should have fact-checked the article and questioned the inclusion of criticism, based on hearsay alone, of another MIT organization and community.

My experience at MIT suggests that anonymity, far from encouraging productive conversation, more often degrades it. Should the CAA choose to join other MIT organizations in making their leadership public, I believe they would be pleasantly surprised by the eagerness of faculty and other members of our community to engage with them. I for one would welcome getting together with the authors of the article, and working with them to make MIT a place where important issues can be discussed with empathy and candor.

[1] Pew Research Center. Jewish Americans in 2020: U.S. Jews’ connections with and attitudes toward Israel. May 11, 2021. https://www.pewresearch.org/religion/2021/05/11/u-s-jews-connections-with-and-attitudes-toward-israel/

[2] Michael Crowley and Ruth Graham. Israel’s Judicial Overhaul Plan Ignites Debate Among American Jews. New York Times, March 8, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2023/03/08/us/politics/israel-judicial-overhaul.html

[3] Anat Kamm. The Pro-Palestinian Left Must Reject BDS. Haaretz, October 12, 2022. https://www.haaretz.com/opinion/2022-10-12/ty-article-opinion/.premium/wellesley-college-women-caught-in-the-bds-web/00000183-cd93-da47-abcb-fd97281b0000

[4] MIT Coalition Against Apartheid Twitter account retweets Mapping Project’s thread “Dismantle MIT.” https://twitter.com/mit_caa

[5] Psalm 126. When the Lord brought back the captives to Zion. https://www.sefaria.org/Psalms.126.1

[6] Judah Halevi. To Zion. https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/to-zion/. See also: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judah_Halevi

[7] Wikipedia. Hovevei Zion. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hovevei_Zion

[8] Wikipedia. Abraham Isaac Kook. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Abraham_Isaac_Kook

[9] Wikipedia. Cultural Zionism. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_Zionism

[10] Wikipedia. Martin Buber. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Martin_Buber

[11] Wikipedia. Greater Israel. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Greater_Israel

[12] Wikipedia. Meretz. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meretz

[13] Wikipedia. Likud. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Likud

[14] Anti Defamation League. Backgrounder: Mohammed El Kurd. https://www.adl.org/resources/backgrounder/mohammed-el-kurd

[15] Edward H. Kaplan, Charles A. Small. Anti-Israel Sentiment Predicts Anti-Semitism in Europe. The Journal of Conflict Resolution, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Aug. 2006), pp.548–561. https://www.jstor.org/stable/27638506

[16] American Enterprise Institute. Based on 2019 FBI Data, Jews Were 2.6X More Likely Than Blacks and 2.2X More Likely Than Muslims to Be Victims of Hate Crimes. https://www.aei.org/carpe-diem/based-on-2019-fbi-data-jews-were-2-6x-more-likely-than-blacks-and-2-2x-more-likely-than-muslims-to-be-victims-of-hate-crimes/

[17] Department of Justice. Hate Crime Statistics, 2020. https://www.justice.gov/crs/highlights/2020-hate-crimes-statistics

[18] David Baddiel. Jews Don’t Count. Harper Collins, 2022. https://www.harpercollins.com/products/jews-dont-count-david-baddiel