Last Thursday, the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) released a report identifying what it calls the “Top 10 Anti-Israel Groups” in the United States. In addition to organizations like Jewish Voice for Peace, it named Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which has a chapter at Yale. Abraham H. Foxman, ADL National Director, explains: “While there are hundreds of groups that organize and participate in various anti-Israel activities, we have identified the largest and most well-coordinated anti-Israel groups.”
It is difficult to overstate the seriousness of branding an organization as one of the most “anti-Israel” groups in the United States. But let us pause for a moment: what does “anti-Israel” actually mean? The term is used more than 50 times in the ADL’s short report, but it is never defined. In fact, I could find no coherent definition anywhere on the ADL’s website that would permit us to differentiate an anti-Israel group or person from a non-anti-Israel group or person. Before returning to the usage of this indefinite term, let me first discuss SJP.
SJP, founded at Yale in 2009, is motivated by a commitment to human rights and an unequivocal condemnation of all forms of racism and bigotry, including — and often primarily — anti-Semitism. The ADL report asserts that SJP chapters organize “biased” events like “mock ‘apartheid walls’ and ‘checkpoint’ displays” and “presentations by sensationalistic anti-Israel speakers”; these activities sound like run-of-the-mill student group activities. Attempts to raise awareness about realities of the everyday lives of Palestinians, it seems, are “biased,” as if the violation of Palestinian rights is an invention or lie. However, the ADL’s rhetoric aside, it is difficult to see what makes SJP different from any other student group that is advocating its message and encouraging others to act. Clearly, there is nothing about these values or activities per se that is worth writing an alarmist report — and we have yet to understand what it means to be “anti-Israel.”
Conceivably, “anti-Israel” could refer to the most vitriolic and violent anti-Semitism, which would indeed justify the seriousness and necessity of the report. However, most if not all of the organizations listed in the report do not fall into this category; certainly, most activists supporting Palestinian rights do not either. Therefore, this alarming version of “anti-Israel” certainly can’t be the meaning intended by the ADL.
Another possibility is that “anti-Israel” refers simply to people who criticize Israeli policies and actions, whether on moral, legal or political grounds. I suppose that could be accurate, given that all the groups named in the ADL report are indeed critical of Israel. But, is it fair? Are Democrats “anti-America” for criticizing the Bush invasion of Iraq; are Republicans “anti-America” for criticizing universal health care; are activists “anti-America” for criticizing corporate influence on Congress? By the same token, why should critics of Israel, many of whom are Jewish or Israeli themselves, be branded simplistically as “anti-Israel”? Is the free exchange of rational and critical ideas really “defamation”? While this definition of “anti-Israel” is probably the only one that works in the ADL’s report, it certainly deflates the negative charge and urgency of the report when articulated.
What should we make of this? Perhaps the term is deliberately left undefined in order to conflate the two, so that legitimate discussion is implicitly tainted by the first form of illegitimate bigotry. Indeed, given that most people would be inclined to take the term at face value without examining its real content, this conflation is easy. Such a ruse would deflect a lot of serious material challenging the morality and the legality of Israeli actions, even from reputable organizations such as the United Nations, Human Rights Watch, the International Red Cross, Amnesty International, and regional groups like B’tselem, Adalah, the Right to Education Campaign and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.
Now another question arises: How can we explain the ADL’s misleading and simplistic intervention? So much is at stake that it is unfair to the people of Palestine and Israel to resort to cliché dichotomies like “pro” or “anti-Israel,” not to mention that it impairs the seriousness of academic discussions on the issue. If the ADL — which is at odds with international law and the majority of the human rights and social justice scene — is so confident that Israel is acting in a morally defensible manner, then is it not the case that a free and fair discussion, devoid of unfair dichotomies, should only benefit its position? Alternatively, if the ADL is indeed committed to fighting bigotry, racism, inequality — which it does admirably on so many other fronts — then why can’t it acknowledge the dismal situation of the Palestinian people and the culpability of the Israeli occupation and Israeli policy? To that end, the ADL should see a friend in SJP, not an enemy.
Samer Sabri is a sophomore in Saybrook College.