For the great majority of Jews living in Los Angeles, anti-Semitism is a lot like clean air: We know it exists elsewhere, we just haven’t encountered much of it ourselves.
That inexperience is one reason why so many of us have a problem defining the border between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. When does honest criticism of Israel bleed into ethnic prejudice? When is an Israel basher a Jew hater? And, more to the point for us all, will anti-Semitism that masks itself as anti-Zionism grow and spread beyond the Arab world, beyond Old Europe and eventually reach our shores?
A case in point arose earlier this month after an Oxford professor turned down an Israeli student’s request for a fellowship by e-mail.
Amit Duvshani, who is completing his master’s degree in molecular biology at the University of Tel Aviv, e-mailed Andrew Wilkie, a geneticist at Oxford University, asking to work in Wilkie’s lab to continue his research into HIV.
Wilkie’s e-mailed response has since seen the world via the Internet. He rejected Duvshani’s request on the grounds that the young man served in the "oppressive" Israeli army, as is compulsory for all Jewish Israeli men.
"I am sure that you are perfectly nice at a personal level," Wilkie wrote, "but no way would I take on somebody who had served in the Israeli army."
L’affaire Duvshani would not be so distressing were it unique. Last December, Paris VI University adopted a motion calling for the suspension of scientific cooperation agreements with Israeli academics. In April, more than 100 academics in England signed a letter proposing a boycott of Israeli scholars to protest Israeli policy toward the Palestinians.
Shortly thereafter, the editor of an academic journal on translation fired two Israeli members of the editorial board.
The good news is that these academic blacklists are being met with muscular opposition from Jews and non-Jews. Oxford University put Wilkie under investigation for possible violations of the university’s anti-discrimination rules, and made him issue a public apology.
Even before that, a group of leading Oxford University scientists condemned academic boycotts based on nationality, as did the British Medical Journal and the Royal Institution, Britain’s oldest independent research body.
The bad news is that such nonsense has easily leapt the pond. Rutgers University will reluctantly provide a venue to an Oct. 13 conference hosted by New Jersey Solidarity, a virulently anti-Israel group. According to a report in The Jewish Standard, this will be the third annual National Student Conference held by the Palestine Solidarity Movement; the other two were at UC Berkeley and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. The conferences called for an end to "apartheid" in Israel and for divestment from Israeli companies.
Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin list many of the defenses anti-Zionists offer to the question of whether they are, in fact, anti-Semitic in "Why the Jews: The Reason for Anti-Semitism," a clear and mostly cogent text, first published in 1983 and soon to be reissued in a revised and updated version. The authors assert that anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism are of a piece.
The fact that a major publisher felt it was time to reissue "Why the Jews?" is depressing enough commentary on our times. The new version includes an introduction titled, "Is It 1938 Again for the Jews?" that provides ample evidence of "an astonishing eruption of international anti-Semitism."
At its best, the book provides clear refutations of the classic anti-Semitic and anti-Israel canards and deserves to be packed into every Jewish freshman’s steamer trunk this fall.
Yet the book suffers from overstatement and oversimplification — perhaps a function of aiming for a concise, mass-market paperback. The authors underplay the support Jewish communities around the world have received from non-Jews in response to anti-Semitism. The glass may not even be half-full, but it is certainly not empty. And sentences like, "In America, the greatest threat to Jewish security now emanates from the secular left," is a claim that few professionals in the world of Jewish defense organizations would agree with. The last two violent attacks on Jews in Los Angeles were committed by a right-wing militia member and a Muslim fundamentalist, not by breakaway cells of Sen. Barbara Boxer supporters.
But when Prager and Telushkin write that, "Zionism, whose major aim was to end Jew-hatred through the establishment of a Jewish State, has produced the most hated state in the world," they are not far off the mark.
It may take a more delicate scalpel to tease apart anti-Israel comments from base anti-Semitism — a lot of anti-Israel criticism comes from knee-jerk liberalism, ignorance and biased media reports, not Jew-hatred.
In a recent essay, author Rabbi Shmuely Boteach says British academics like Wilkie are not anti-Semites, just stupid and ill-informed.
"We debase the seriousness of the allegation [of anti-Semitism] through misuse," he writes, adding that many of these academics can be countered with clear and consistent rebuttal.
The same, I believe, goes for academics and students here. Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz announced this week he will go to Rutgers and engage organizers of the anti-Israel conference in argument.
"The good news is that if the students just know the facts they can devastate the arguments on the other side," he said.
In the end, the border between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism may be — like the air in Los Angeles — murky and gray. But let’s give unclear minds the benefit of the doubt, and present our side with accuracy and forthrightness.
"The best answer to falsehood is truth," Dershowitz said, "and the pro-Israel community should never be afraid."