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December 27, 2018 8:22 am

Columbia Law Professor Dishonestly Smears Israel

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avatar by Emanuel Miller


Low Memorial Library at Columbia University. Photo: Alex Proimos.

Every so often, an opinion piece in The New York Review of Books catches our attention. When Israel is mentioned, it’s rarely positive. A recent op-ed by Professor Katherine Franke is no exception. Ominously titled “The Pro-Israel Push to Purge US Campus Critics,” Franke paints a picture of Israeli censorship curtailing freedom of speech in American academia.

From the very beginning, the piece is rife with exaggeration and riddled with inaccuracy. Early on, Franke makes a particularly egregious claim — that “the US Department of Education recently adopted a new definition of anti-Semitism, one that equates any criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews.” This, quite simply, is untrue.

First, the facts: The US Department of Education adopted the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism. The definition has been adopted by the US and numerous other countries and groups. It explicitly states that “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.”

There it is, in black and white the definition unequivocally does not equate any and all criticism of Israel with hatred of Jews.

Franke is either ignorant or lying when she construes the definition as equating all criticism of Israel to Jew-hatred. Quite the opposite of claiming that all criticism of Israel is illegitimate, the definition clearly recognizes that not all disapproval constitutes antisemitism. Either way, her claim falls well short of the most basic academic standards.

The problem is much wider than Franke alone, however. When given a platform in The New York Review of Books, her words influence a wide audience. Unfortunately, her editor Matt Seaton not only failed to identify the grotesque mischaracterization as a lie but continued to call it “campus censorship” and responded with a disdainful ad hominem attack after Twitter user “WIKHNSMD” pointed out that the IHRA definition does not actually equate any criticism of Israel with a hatred of Jews. (HonestReporting was contacted via email by the person who runs this account. We can confirm that he is real.)

Even before making the aforementioned claim, Franke suggests that wondering aloud whether the US should question its diplomatic and financial support for Israel was “unsayable” until now. This too is demonstrably false. Over a decade ago, famed academics John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt published the book The Israel Lobby and U.S. Foreign Policy to great acclaim and profit. The notorious book depicted America’s pro-Israel lobby as being the prime motivator behind American policy in the Middle East, while repeatedly failing to document the extent of the Arab lobby and the advancing of Arab interests.

Franke goes on to claim that Arab-American graduate students would be “prevented from applying” to study at an Israeli academic institution. Indeed, she goes on to add:

In another recent case, the University of Michigan disciplined a professor who declined to write a letter of recommendation for a student who sought a fellowship in Israel. I would do the same if the situation arose, because I would regard it as ethically inappropriate to recommend students for an educational opportunity for which my other graduate students who are Palestinian or Arab would be prevented from applying.

Following this incident, two members of the Michigan faculty were disciplined. In a letter to Michigan students during the controversy, President Mark Schlissel and Provost Martin Philbert pointed out, “Such actions interfere with our students’ opportunities, violate their academic freedom and betray our university’s educational mission.”

So what does Columbia University have to say about one of its professors staunchly refusing to issue letters of recommendation to students who might wish to study in Israel?

As an Israeli who studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, I find Franke’s claim absolutely ludicrous. I deliberately opted to study at the Hebrew University, as I knew it would provide me with opportunities to meet Arab Israelis and Palestinians. Far from being closed off to Arabs and Palestinians, there are literally thousands of Arab students at Hebrew University, as well as Haifa University, Ben Gurion University, and Tel Aviv University.

While studying at the Hebrew University, I shared the same classrooms as Palestinians, ate at the same cafeteria tables together with Palestinians, and pored over the same books in the same library with Palestinians. I remember stumbling across a particular place in the library where a prayer rug is left so that Muslims can pray there in peace and quiet. Hijabs and burkas are a regular sight, intermingling with secular Jews and Arabs, as well as religious Jews wearing their own head coverings.

As for foreign nationals applying to attend one of these schools, it would be intriguing to know how on earth Franke arrived at the conclusion that anyone would be prevented from applying based on nationality. As with all countries, nobody has a divine right to enter Israel or study at one of Israel’s universities; these are privileges that each state can choose to bestow upon individuals, just as homeowners are not obligated to allow anyone on to their private property. That’s why many countries require foreign nationals to apply for a student visa.

The example of Lara Alqasem underlines that point precisely — it was her earlier support for the boycott of Israel that caused her to be temporarily denied entry, not her ethnic roots.

In recent years, firebrand Israeli MK Moshe Feiglin has been denied entry to Britain, as it was claimed his presence “would do more harm than good.” Canada has turned away Venezuelans for fear that they might try to stay in the country. America has banned nationals of Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen from entering. It’s clear that sovereign countries have the right to determine who may enter and who may not.

Moreover, the claim that Alqasem was “held” by Israeli authorities is also untrue — she was free to leave at any time. Alqasem was not detained, but told that access to Israel was not permissible. She was given the freedom to choose between departing the country or staying in a detention facility that she could leave at any time. Nobody held her against her will.

Not content with the growing litany of lies, Franke then goes on to describe an infamous genocidal call issued by Marc Lamont-Hill as “simply a statement of support for a one-state solution.” That’s a convenient deception. The words “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” are commonly understood as a call to destroy Israel.

No matter how Franke may try to spin it, that’s what these words mean, and that’s how Israelis understand them. If someone wants to express support for a one-state solution, there are myriad ways to do that without appearing to stand with the antisemites who seek the destruction of an entire state. But in Franke’s eyes this is a part of a “campaign” to “shut down any discussion of Israel or Palestine that casts a critical light on the State of Israel.”

None of this is too surprising. When a wave of Palestinian terrorists set about knifing and shooting Israeli civilians in 2015, Franke saw fit to tweet, “Palestinian resistance 2 Israeli policy isn’t ‘Islamic terrorism’ — it’s anti-colonial resistance.” Having justified and romantically whitewashed vicious murder as mere “resistance,” Franke’s voice is hardly one of moral authority.

Moving beyond the individual points raised, it’s hard to ignore the wider effect of speech like this on Jews on American campuses nowadays. Increasingly, Jews are confronted by vitriolic hatred of Israel on campus, forcing them to either cease speaking up for the human rights of Jews and Israelis or become targets for hate themselves for having the temerity to push back against the racism directed their way. Franke’s essay is so myopically self-deluded, it’s mind-boggling.

Far from criticism against Israel being shut down, it’s reaching fever pitch in some parts, and threatens to boil over with attacks on Jewish and Israeli students. 

Franke’s university, Columbia, has become a hotbed of such hatred in recent years, with a Jewish professor recently confronted by antisemitic graffiti, and not for the first time. Israeli and Jewish students on campus have reported being “systematically harassed,” targeted for their nationality, and being screamed at and physically intimidated by members of the anti-Israel organization Students for Justice in Palestine. None of this seems to matter to Franke.

The New York Review of Books should more carefully screen its contributors — peddling hateful lies like these is tearing American society apart from within.

Emanuel Miller is a writer for HonestReporting, where this article was originally published.

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