Last spring, a controversial Santa Cruz-based group called the AMCHA Initiative alerted SF State officials about some threatening Tumblr posts by a then-current student. The posts were genuinely disturbing. In them, the student posed with a knife and ranted about wanting to kill Israelis. Needless to say, he no longer attends SF State.
Unfortunately, most of the students and professors AMCHA and similar groups speak out against are not even threatening violence. Instead, they are targeted because of their memberships in groups like Students For Justice in Palestine, or simply because they have criticized the Israeli government’s policies.
This is extremely problematic because it stifles legitimate criticisms of war, occupation and the right to land use. In light of the events of this past summer, we need to start talking seriously about the situation in the Middle East.
A small number of groups including AMCHA, Committee For Accuracy in Middle East Reporting in America (CAMERA) and Stand With Us are behind the vast majority of attacks on students and professors who criticize Israel or sympathize with Palestinians. For saying anything that these groups interpret as anti-Israel—even if the person is Jewish—the group will label a person anti-Semitic.
“If you criticize Israel you’re anti-Semitic, even if you’re Jewish,” said Nora Barrows-Friedman, a Bay Area based freelance journalist who has been harassed by AMCHA for writing about Israel and Palestine. “In my view, that’s a pretty anti-Semitic thing to do.”
According to Barrows-Friedman, who is Jewish, AMCHA and similar groups have never won a case, despite filing several against professors and students. Barrows-Friedman believes the group’s real strategy is to prevent activism or scholarship on the complex Middle East situation.
Since no one wants to be accused of this particularly infamous form of bigotry, lots of college students and professors simply choose not to talk about the problems in Israel and Palestine. Meanwhile, anything else is fair game for criticism, from ISIS in Syria to the vote for Scottish independence in Britain.
Cecilie Surasky of Jewish Voice For Peace said that AMCHA’s strategies include making lists of professors’ names—and often, their contact information—and emailing them to school administrators and journalists. While the accusations usually lead to nothing, professors can be disciplined or even fired for engaging in academic freedom.
Last semester’s knife incident proves that occasionally, Jewish and Israeli students face violent threats. In this case, calling out this student and alerting the authorities was most likely the right thing to do. Unfortunately, it’s easy to brush off accusations of “anti-Semitism” when it’s brought up by groups like AMCHA every time a student or professor sympathizes with Palestine.
Oliver Benn, director of SF State’s chapter of the Jewish campus organization Hillel said that although they do not work with groups like AMCHA, they are glad when incidents like last semester’s are brought to their attention.
“Jewish groups on and off campus are concerned about the safety of students,” Benn said. “The knife incident illustrates why.”
Students and professors are more likely to utter pro-Palestinian phrases rather than anti-Israel, or anti-Jewish, speech. Even if they were expressing actual anti-Semitism, constant accusations and intimidation techniques would only stifle their freedom of speech, not change their opinions.