In late February, “Saturday Night Live” cast member Michael Che came under fire for a joke where he alluded to the alleged apartheid occurring in Palestine. He said, “Israel is reporting they vaccinated half their population… and I am going to guess it is the Jewish half.” He was deemed an anti-Semite for bringing attention to the reality that Israelis have yet to extend vaccinations to Palestinians.
In response, many prominent members of the Jewish community claimed that this joke was anti-Semitic, including Jonathan Greenblatt, CEO of the Anti-Defamation League, who said the joke “leaned into anti-Semitic tropes.” Behind this joke is the harsh reality that Palestinians are being left out of the vaccine rollout as little to no Palestinians have received vaccinations, despite Israel’s widely celebrated vaccine rollout.
Despite the legitimacy behind his joke, Che has permanently been labeled an anti-Semite. He is certainly not the first celebrity given this label; in fact, many celebrities have earned this label for the mere mention of Palestine.
Celebrities are not the only people who face repercussions for openly supporting Palestine; the association between supporters of Palestine and anti-Semitism exists by design. Anti-Zionism, which opposes the movement to develop a Jewish state on Palestinian land, is often conflated with anti-Semitism, which is “hostility and prejudice directed against Jewish people.” The conflation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is harmful because it works to silence Palestinian activists in their movement to bring awareness to the occupation.
In her research article “The Anti-Zionism, Anti-Semitism, Anti-Racism Controversy Revisited — Controversially?,” Islah Jad explores the root of the association between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. She discusses how the Israeli state has intentionally encouraged the attachment between anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism to mask the movement to expose and dismantle the practices and policies of the Israeli state that harm Palestinians. The Israeli government has sunk millions of dollars into this effort; this includes $72 million dollars to suppress the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement which is influenced by the movement to end apartheid in South Africa. Multiple U.S. states, including Texas, have passed anti-boycott laws to penalize companies that cut ties with Israel, arguing that supporting these boycotts is anti-Semitic.
Applying the “anti-Semitic” label to any form of Palestinian activism censors any and all criticism of the state of Israel. College students who engage in pro-Palestinian activism have been among those most affected by this censorship. On December 11, 2019, Donald Trump signed an executive order called “Executive Order on Combating Anti-Semitism” in response to instances of anti-Semitism on college campuses. While this executive order was developed under the guise of creating a hate-free learning environment for Jewish students, it ultimately served to limit free speech. This executive order adopted the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, which classifies the labeling the state of Israel as racist and anti-Semitic act and threatened to defund any institution that allowed any criticism of the state of Israel on their campus. This is one of the only instances where criticism of a foreign government is classified as hatred or discrimination.
While some may argue that this executive order was necessary to create a better learning environment for Jewish students, some found it to be a misguided political stunt. Jeremy Ben-Ami, who is the president of a Jewish advocacy group called J-Street, said the executive order has a “chilling effect on free speech and to crack down on campus critics of Israel” rather than fight anti-Semitism. Others pointed to previous anti-Semitic statements made by the former president and his refusal to denounce white nationalist Nazi groups, which undermine his legitimacy and sincerity to genuinely decrease anti-Semitism on college campuses.
Long before this executive order was signed, college students involved in organizations that support Palestinian liberation such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have faced major repercussions. In 2011, 10 university students from UC Irvine and UC Riverside were convicted for one misdemeanor count of disturbing a meeting for their part in a protest against a screening of Beneath the Helmet, a documentary about the lives of recruits in the Israeli Defense Forces, which they believed to be pro-Israeli propaganda. Universities such as Northeastern and Fordham have both suspended their campus SJPs to silence Palestinian activism. However, the most major repercussions these students have faced is their placement on the Canary Mission website. Canary Mission is a blacklist of pro-Palestinian activists that features students, faculty and individuals who speak out in favor of Palestine. Canary Mission regularly updates their website with personal information of those they feature — including the contact information for their employers, schools and close family members. People featured have struggled to find work, have received death threats and have had to wipe themselves from the internet to avoid scrutiny.
In my personal experience with Palestinian advocacy on a college campus, I have faced similar obstacles with free speech. In January of this year, a student organization called “Students Supporting Israel” authored a resolution called “Resolution Against Anti-Semitism.” Akin to Donald Trump’s executive order, this resolution would ask UC Riverside to formally adopt the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and effectively suspend Students for Justice in Palestine and any other Palestinian activism on campus. A group of pro-Palestinian activists led the charge to explain the ramifications of this resolution to each ASUCR senator who would be voting. The component of the resolution that would limit the free speech of pro-Palestinian activists is not written in plain text; it was hidden in a hyperlink the sponsor of the resolution did not care to review. After an in-depth explanation of the obscured implications of this resolution, the sponsor and senate voted to table the resolution indefinitely.
This situation signaled the major issue with the association of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism — it plays on people’s desire to oppose hatred and bias in all forms. It masks a movement that aims to bring awareness to the Israeli occupation of Palestine and falsely paints it as a hateful movement against the Jewish community. The false equation of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism is not a movement to shield the Jewish community from facing hatred; it is one that aims to suppress the Palestinian community from bringing awareness to hardship and trauma that they face from the occupation.
Most importantly, it hinders the freedom of speech of millions of Americans, an action that goes against our most fundamental right.