By Jonathan Greenblatt
CEO of the Anti-Defamation League
At Camp David in 2000, during the most hopeful discussions about resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a Palestinian representative at the table denied any Jewish historic connection to Jerusalem. Speaking of the Holy sites, he referred to the Dome of the Rock and Al Aksa mosques sitting on the Temple Mount, but labeled as fantasy the notion that there had ever been a Jewish Temple on that spot or in the city at all.
This allegation at a critical juncture undercut the aspiration of achieving a two-state solution — the Jewish state of Israel and a Palestinian state — and proved devastating to the left-of-center Israeli delegation seeking a compromise that would serve the interests of both peoples. With the hope that each side was finally willing to accept one another’s narrative, now the Israelis were being told once again that they had no legitimacy in their historic homeland.
This came to mind as we learned about a “DeCal” student-led course being offered at the University of California, Berkeley, called “Palestine: A Settler Colonial Analysis.” The class thesis and much of its syllabus are built on the foundation of the denial of the Jewish connection to the land of Israel.
Issues of academic freedom aside, it is important to understand the underpinnings of such an approach. If this were a course focusing on Israeli control of the West Bank since the 1967 Six Day War and it blamed the status quo simply on Israel, many informed observers would be unhappy with a biased, one-sided presentation of a complex issue. Here, however, we are not dealing with bias alone, but with rewriting of history, either by falsehood or omission. The accusation that underlies the syllabus is that the Jewish return to Israel and the recreation of the Jewish state is a classic example of colonialism. The rationale employed is only justified if one simply denies the three thousand year history of the Jewish people.
The prejudice is apparent from outset as the course begins its look at Israel in the 1880’s, as if political Zionism was simply one more manifestation of European colonialism of the 19th Century. The misleading premise willfully ignores that Jews made up the majority population of Jerusalem at the advent of the Zionism movement. And though it is true that nationalism in 19th Century Europe was a backdrop for the advent of Zionism, unlike any of the other overseas ventures in the 19th century, Zionism was rooted in the daily lives of millions of Jews the world over for millennia. Jews prayed three times a day for a return to Zion. At Jewish wedding celebrations, a glass was broken to remember the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple even on the happiest of occasions. Indeed, it is safe to say that there never would have been a Jewish people and they surely would not have survived for so long without the fundamental connection to the land of Israel.
Simply put, to deny this history is an out-and-out lie. It is anti-Semitism because it’s an immense falsehood intended to harm the Jewish people and to deny them their right to self-determination in their historic homeland.
None of this is intended to negate the fact that there is another people in the land and that they too have rights and expectations. That is what the partition of Palestine by the UN in 1947 was about, providing for a Jewish state and an Arab state in Palestine. And that is what a two-state solution is about today.
The course reinforces an approach to the conflict that hurts both sides, but ironically the Palestinians far worse. The denial of Israel’s legitimacy, which is the clear intention of the course, is the central reason why the conflict has not been resolved and why a Palestinian state has not emerged. With friends like the course sponsors, the Palestinians need no enemies.
There are so many more troubling aspects to such a class, not the least of which is that it leaves many Jewish students and community members with the impression that anti-Semitism is treated differently than other forms of prejudice. On campus, it would seem, anti-Semitism cloaked in scholarship is tolerated and defended under academic freedom in a way that other bigotry is not.
Most important, however, from an academic standpoint, is the travesty of the distortion of history under the guise of an academic discipline. Whatever one thinks of colonial analysis as a discipline, it can be defended as a legitimate concept. Misapplying it to the Jewish people’s ties to the land of Israel, however, is a betrayal of the pursuit of truth and the recording and understanding of history. It should be seen for what it is: anti-Semitism, manifesting as a calculated tactic in the effort to delegitimize the state of Israel and the Jewish people.