I guess it’s a sign of desperation. Interest in Israel among young Jews is way down. And among the community at large, only 23 percent of Jewish voters list Israel as among their top three considerations when deciding for whom to vote. (A mere 6 percent say Israel is the No. 1 factor in casting their votes).
The election of Donald Trump only accelerated the decline in interest in Israel. Jews overwhelmingly opposed Trump in the November 2016 election. That opposition has only intensified as anti-Semitism has seriously spiked since his inauguration. It’s lost on no one that the chant of the racist demonstrators at the violent “alt-right” riot in Charlottesville was, “The Jews will not replace us.”
All in all, these are scary times for Jews right here at home. As for Israel, American Jewish discomfort with the occupation and Netanyahu’s policies in general, combined with fears about developments in our own country, have moved it far from the center of Jewish concerns. Simply put, we have more immediate threats to worry about.
Accordingly, it appears that it’s time for the Israel lobby (led by AIPAC but consisting of all the Jewish mainstream organizations) to scare Jews into worrying about anti-Semitism. But not the anti-Semitism of the “alt-right” and the more extreme Trump supporters but the supposed anti-Semitism of critics of Israel. (They know that progressive critics of Israel’s behavior are safer targets than the real anti-Semites of the right, who are dangerously close to the Trump administration).
In a previous piece on HuffPost, I wrote about the bipartisan congressional effort to criminalize those who choose to boycott Israel to protest the occupation. In fact, fighting the boycott effort led by the BDS (boycott, divestment and sanctions) movement is AIPAC’s highest priority, right after securing Israel’s multi-billion dollar aid package, which actually passes with no opposition, anyway.
In any case, a new front has been opened in the battle to use fear of anti-semitism to scare Jews into supporting Israel, and it is absolutely astounding. Earlier this week, the House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the Anti-Semitism Awareness Act, which would, if violated, withhold federal financial assistance to colleges and universities which tolerate criticism of Israel. The bill (which has already passed the Senate) offers no new protections to Jews per se who are protected under existing civil rights laws.
Or, putting it simply, criticizing Israel.
After all, criticism of Israel is routinely labelled as delegitimization, demonization and “holding Israel to a double standard” by Israel’s right-wing supporters on pretty much every campus in the United States already. If this bill passed progressive organizations, Palestinian student groups or anti-occupation Jewish organizations like J Street or If Not Now could be shut down on the grounds that their presence put the university in danger of losing federal funding.
This is crazy stuff. Nonetheless the House Judiciary Committee held its hearing on it this week at which major Jewish organizations testified in its support (J Street issued a statement in strong opposition). And again, the bill has already passed the Senate. My guess is that it will pass the House too; after all, the lobby rarely loses its carefully chosen battles.
And then the fight will begin. Some professor will say that, in his opinion, the State of Israel’s creation was a mistake. Or a student group (Students for Palestine or J Street) will set up an exhibit portraying the occupation of Hebron or the blockade of Gaza. Or a progressive organization will call for the evolution of Israel into a single state with equal rights for all its people.
One of the “pro-Israel” organizations will file suit and suddenly a university will be fighting to maintain the federal funding it needs for research or scholarships. Or it can just shut down the “troublemakers.” It’s not hard to imagine which course they will choose.