Weaponisation of anti-Semitism is bad for Palestinians – and Jews

Baseless accusations of anti-Semitism directed at pro-Palestinian and anti-Zionist voices are hindering the struggle to eradicate anti-Semitic hate.

Fatima Mohammed gives the commencement speech
Fatima Mohammed gives the commencement speech at the City University of New York (CUNY) law school May 12, 2023 [Screengrab]

On May 12, in her commencement address for the City University of New York (CUNY) School of Law, Yemeni-American graduate, Fatima Mohammed, dared to speak about the plight of the Palestinians – honestly and truthfully.

The response was predictable. An organised campaign was launched to intimidate, harass and silence her by declaring her insightful speech “anti-Semitic”. Right-wing platforms like the New York Post and Fox News amplified these baseless accusations. Politicians – both Republicans and Democrats – joined in the senseless bullying of the young graduate, and Republican state legislators even called for funding to be withdrawn from CUNY for giving her a platform.

CUNY soon buckled under the pressure. On May 30, its Board of Trustees released a statement in which they condemned Mohammed’s words as “hate speech”.

Of course nothing Fatima said that day was hateful, or false. Everything she said was based on facts and guided by a desire for justice and decolonisation. Every claim she made in her commencement speech could be found in peer-reviewed journal articles, in academic books by world-renowned experts or in the everyday realities of millions of Palestinians.

If you listen to her speech, you will see that she actually said nothing whatsoever about Jewish identity or people. She made no mention of Jewish life in the US, Canada, the UK, France, or even in Israel, for that matter. Her speech was about the Israeli state, its settler colonial foundations and practices – and the US imperial hegemony of which Israel is a part.

Even if you disagree with her views, you must ask: what does such a critique have to do with Jewish identity? We are constantly told that we should never conflate Jewish life in, for example, New York, with the Israeli state. And I totally agree with that. To assume that a Jewish person in New York has “loyalty” to Israel – or is responsible for its actions – is undoubtedly anti-Semitic. But unfortunately, that association is precisely what campaigns by pro-Israel and Zionist groups have advanced as common sense within public discourse in the West. As a direct result of such campaigns, now whenever someone dares to criticise Israel in public, and especially when that person is associated with a public institution like a university, they are accused of launching an anti-Semitic attack against the local Jewish community.

The first consequence of this is that voices speaking about the plight of the Palestinian people and their aspirations for freedom and liberation are branded “anti-Semitic” and thus condemned and censored. This can have dire consequences for the lives and livelihoods of these individuals, and contributes greatly to the marginalisation of Palestinian and Arab communities in the West by creating the perception that these communities are intrinsically hateful.

But due to the bravery of people like Fatima who continue to speak up for Palestine despite the heavy price they know they will pay, many in the US and beyond now see right through these campaigns and view the charge of anti-Semitism in such cases as the baseless accusation that it is. In the case of Fatima’s commencement speech, for example, the massive applause she received at the end alone proves that her peers – who selected her to deliver the speech in the first place – do not perceive her views as anti-Semitic.

There is, however, another, equally concerning and damaging consequence of the baseless accusations of anti-Semitism directed at pro-Palestinian voices: they make all charges of anti-Semitism, including very real ones, less convincing.

Indeed, accusing everyone criticising Israel’s settler-colonial enterprise of being anti-Semitic is extremely dangerous because it will eventually begin, if it hasn’t already, to cast doubt on the very existence of the very real, damaging and pervasive societal ill that is anti-Semitism.

In this context, regardless of its few flaws, the recently released US National Strategy to Counter anti-Semitism appears to be a step in the right direction. The strategy rightly focuses on examples of anti-Semitism rising from conspiracy theories about “Jewish power and control” and even separates what it calls “domestic anti-Semitism” from global anti-Semitism. It does in passing list “efforts to delegitimise the state of Israel” as an example of global anti-Semitism (an assertion I wholeheartedly disagree with for reasons stated above) but beyond that, barely mentions Israel as it focuses on real acts of anti-Semitism rather than politically motivated accusations aimed at shielding Israel from criticism.

Because of this, this new strategy, I believe, may actually help curtail the new and very real wave of anti-Semitism in America.

Today, as pro-Israel groups focus on maligning any and all left-wing critiques of the settler colony as “anti-Semitic”, the right wing is rapidly normalising age-old anti-Semitic conspiracy theories about “Jewish power and control”.

Indeed, right-wing politics in the US, drifting ever more to the extreme, are now replete with conspiracies about “globalists” taking over the world, operating vast paedophile rings, stripping ordinary people of their freedoms, committing mass murder with vaccines and so on. Of course “globalist”, for these people, is just a code word for “Jew”.

It is critical that such dangerous ideas are properly labelled as anti-Semitic and effectively countered – for the safety and wellbeing of Jewish people as well as society at large. But the more the Israeli lobby and other Zionist groups weaponise anti-Semitism to allow the Israeli state to cement and expand its colonisation of Palestine, the less effective the fight against real anti-Semitism becomes.

In addition to diluting the charge of anti-Semitism, the weaponisation of anti-Semitism has a third consequence: it prevents an authentic discussion about the intersectionality between the struggle against anti-Semitism and other anti-racist struggles, including those against anti-Palestinian racism and Islamophobia.

Indeed, Fatima’s speech should have been an opportunity for beginning such a discussion. After all, her suggested path towards Palestinian liberation – the bringing down of empire – is also the only path towards liberating our world from the vile hatred that is anti-Semitism, which was essential to the formation of the very same empire. In this context, censoring and branding as anti-Semitic Fatima’s speech, and other Palestinian and anti-Zionist voices, serves to hinder not only Palestinian liberation, but also efforts to counter all the other interconnected consequences of colonial modernity, including anti-Semitism.

Thus all scholars, activists and everyone else interested in putting an end to all the different forms of racism and hatred that are crippling lives and livelihoods across the world should see the accusation of anti-Semitism directed at Fatima for what it really is: a dangerous attack on truth, justice, anti-racism and decolonisation.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.