Guardian reporter promotes unfounded ‘free speech’ hyperbole

On October 17th the Guardian published an article by its chief reporter in the US, Ed Pilkington, under the dramatic headline “Revealed: rightwing push to ban criticism of Israel on US campusesGuardian art

The sub-heading of that interestingly illustrated article told readers that “documents seen by Guardian show fresh attack on university debate under the guise of prohibiting antisemitism” and its opening lines declared that: [emphasis added]

“Rightwing activists are attempting to spread new laws across Republican-controlled states that would ban criticism on public university campuses of Israel and its occupation of Palestinian territory.

Pro-Israel and conservative lobbyists are encouraging state lawmakers to outlaw antisemitism in public education, from kindergarten through to graduate universities. But the proposed definition of antisemitism is so wide that, in addition to standard protections against hate speech towards Jews, it would also prohibit debate about the human rights violations of the Israeli government.”

With no clarification of the source of his quoted claims, Pilkington told readers that:

“Among the activities that would be prohibited by the new laws are human rights investigations focusing specifically on Israel. Also banned would be any speech “demonizing Israel by … blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions” or “delegitimizing Israel by … questioning Israel’s right to exist”.”

Referring to legislation passed in Florida earlier this year, Pilkington stated that:

“In the context of this rising violence, much of the text of the Florida antisemitism bill is non-contentious. It outlaws a number of anti-Jewish tropes such as “accusing Jews as a people of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust”.

But critics say such uncontroversial material sits alongside clauses in the bill that would censor debate on Israeli government action.”

He went on to quote one of those “critics” –  noting the irrelevant topic of her ethnicity but without informing readers of the background to the organisation she represents.

“Liz Jackson, a staff attorney with Palestine Legal that represents campaigners for Palestinian rights in the US who is herself Jewish, said: “It’s riding off the universally agreed idea that antisemitism is bad and must be stopped at a time of a frightening resurgence in white supremacist violence. It’s extremely cynical to masquerade as fighting antisemitism when you are, in fact, shutting down criticism of Israel.””

Pilkington then told readers that:

“The clauses relating to Israel in the definition of antisemitism now being disseminated to several states emanates from a 2005 text from the European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC). Ken Stern, director of the Bard Center for the Study of Hate who was a lead drafter of the EUMC text, said it was intended to facilitate reporting of antisemitic attacks across Europe.

“It was never intended to suppress discussion of ideas on campuses.”

Stern said that attempts to silence opposition was happening on both sides of the Israel-Palestinian divide on US campuses. “It’s a battlefield right now.”

But, he added, he was concerned “about the attempt to curtail free speech among students – the whole idea is to encourage them to wrestle with new ideas, particularly those they find disturbing”.”

In fact, as the two emails highlighted by Pilkington in his article show, the Florida legislation is based on the US State Department’s definition of antisemitism which is the widely adopted 2016 IHRA working definition of antisemitism which is based on the old EUMC working definition of antisemitism.

Pilkington chose to quote just one of several people who contributed to the writing of the EUMC working definition of antisemitism – notably the one who has said that he thinks it inappropriate for use on university campuses.

However, as Dr Dave Rich has pointed out, the IHRA definition does not “curtail” freedom of speech at all.

“The IHRA definition does no such thing, stating plainly that “criticism of Israel similar to that levelled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.” This leaves room for the full range of rational, evidence-based opposition to Israeli laws, policies and actions. It doesn’t allow for the kind of obsessive, irrational hatred that depicts Israel as a Nazi state of unparalleled cruelty that needs to be wiped off the map, or that sees “Zionist” conspiracies behind everything from 9/11 to the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal, and for good reason: because, as the IHRA definition recognises, antisemitism sometimes includes “the targeting of the State of Israel, conceived as a Jewish collectivity.”

Such expert analysis however has no place in the Guardian’s hyperbolic click-bait story which, when boiled down, does nothing more than promote patently unfounded claims about the most widely accepted definition of antisemitism.

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