Why can’t I criticize the war in Gaza without being called antisemitic?
Chicago Tribune February 6, 2024
(Tribune News Service) — I have a question. Can I criticize Israel’s war in Gaza without being called antisemitic? Am I allowed to point out that so often the historically oppressed becomes the oppressor du jour?
Will I be dismissed as a pearl-clutching peacenik when I point out that, in 2022, 99.7% of the staggering $3.3 billion in U.S. foreign aid we gift to Israel went directly to its military, and that since World War II, that tiny country with some 9 million people has received more U.S. foreign aid than any other nation?
Who will be the next university president forced to resign or be fired because of a pro-Palestinian campus protest or because of a linguistic trap set by anti-intellectual members of Congress who demand fealty of all students and faculty in support of Israel’s aggressive bombing of Gaza? Are universities becoming islands of repression in a sea of democracy?
Can we at least agree that all the news from Gaza is bad? Images of the skeletal husks of bombed-out buildings evoke scenes from Europe in the 1940s. Some 26,400 people in Gaza have been killed by Israeli bombs, many of them women and children. For those who are wounded, medical care is almost nonexistent.
Starvation is rampant. United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food Michael Fakhri posted on X that for 2.2 million Gazans, “Famine is now inevitable.”
These are facts, not opinions. And facts should still matter, whether they are deemed politically incorrect, even here in the United States during this country’s greatest test of its fragile democracy.
Also a fact: Hamas is a terrorist group that butchered more that 1,100 innocent Israelis on Oct. 7 and is still holding more than 100 hostages in no doubt deplorable conditions. The attack by Hamas was horrific, and the group has no place in a civilized world.
But can we rationally discuss whether Israel’s response to this attack was proportional? Has the seemingly scorched-earth response disguised another fact: that the fabled Israeli intelligence arm did not detect Hamas’ evil plans and that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to protect his citizens and, thus, a protracted war is an asset to his political survival? Does he even want to rebuild Gaza or, instead, use the territory for more Jewish settlements?
Consider this additional fact that is getting scant attention: On Jan. 28 a conference was held in Jerusalem involving, according to The Guardian, “11 cabinet ministers and 15 members of the Knesset, some of them members of the prime minister’s Likud party.” The rather smugly titled “Victory of Israel Conference: Settlement Brings Security” event laid out plans by Netanyahu’s coalition to repopulate Gaza with Israeli settlements through the use of “voluntary migration” for Palestinians. Thousands of cheering and dancing supporters at the conference in Jerusalem welcomed the plans.
Minister of National Security of Israel Itamar Ben-Gvir explained: “We must encourage voluntary migration. Let them leave. Part of correcting the mistake of the sin of the preconception that brought us to 7 October is to return home to Gush Katif (southern Gaza) and to northern Samaria. We have to return home, because that is the Torah, that is morality, that is historic justice, that is logic and that is the right thing.”
The Times of Israel reported that “Ben Gvir, together with six coalition (members of the Knesset), signed what was dubbed the ‘Covenant of Victory and Renewal of Settlement,’ which pledged that the signatories would ‘grow Jewish settlements full of life’ in the Gaza Strip.”
Netanyahu, who could have denounced the remarks by his far-right supporters, instead said they were “entitled to their opinions.” So, free speech is fine when it supports Israel’s aggression, but not when it condemns it.
Those of us on the outside looking at this travesty of a war are also entitled to our opinions, and we would be negligent to turn away from the horrors of the Israeli military campaign even if we are accused of being antisemitic or written off somehow as cohorts of anti-Israeli foes such as Iran.
In the 1927 ruling in Whitney v. California, Justice Louis D. Brandeis wrote his concurring opinion in what would be called the “counterspeech doctrine.” He wrote, “If there be time to expose through discussion, the falsehoods and fallacies, to avert the evil by the processes of education, the remedy to be applied is more speech, not enforced silence.”
Simply stated, the remedy to speech you don’t like is not less speech, but more speech. But apparently, this doctrine does not apply to the current war in Gaza. Recently the House, taking a rare break from attacking Hunter Biden, passed Resolution 894, “strongly condemning and denouncing the drastic rise of antisemitism in the United States and around the world.” The resolution says the House of Representatives “clearly and firmly states that anti-Zionism is antisemitism.”
In response, Palestinian American U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said, “Opposing the policies of the government of Israel and Netanyahu’s extremism is not antisemitic. Speaking up for human rights and a cease-fire to save lives should never be condemned.”
Meanwhile, the systematic obliteration of Gaza continues unabated and, along with it, our own right to protest its destruction.
Stephen J. Lyons is the author of six books of reportage and essays, most recently “Searching for Home: Misadventures with Misanthropes.”
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