In response to the recent U.S. House of Representatives resolution equating anti-Zionism to antisemitism, a professor is soliciting faculty and staff in the University of Wisconsin system to sign a statement declaring that “criticism of the state of Israel or the political ideology of Zionism is not in and of itself antisemitic.”
University of Wisconsin Law School professor Asifa Quraishi-Landes isn’t necessarily wrong, First Amendment and academic freedom experts say. Criticizing Israel’s policies or government isn’t an act of antisemitism. But there is a fine line, particularly between critical expression and the anti-Zionism that defends ideas of the genocide of Jews and the elimination of Israel as a Jewish homeland.
Quraishi-Landes, who specializes in “comparative Islamic U.S. constitutional law,” is asking university employees to add their names to the statement following the congressional measure, which was overwhelmingly approved, 314-14, with 13 Democrats and one Republican (Rep. Thomas Massie of Kentucky) voting against it. Ninety-two Democrats simply voted present.
“We believe that this jeopardizes academic freedom of everyone in our university system, as detailed further in the statement,” Quraishi-Landes wrote in her letter seeking signatures on the statement. “As the title of the statement indicates, we affirm that criticism of the state of Israel and the political ideology of Zionism are not inherently antisemitic. Making this clear is an important part of the fight against antisemitism, and all forms of racial and religious bigotry on our campuses.”
As of last week, more than 140 staff and faculty members had signed the statement, some adding their support anonymously. The vast majority of the signers are from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
For Jews who have seen this movie before, the law professor’s petition creeps dangerously close to the language employed by anti-Zionists who have used the defense of free speech as a cover to call for the annihilation of Israel as the homeland for the Jewish people.
“Anti-Zionism is the second-worst form of antisemitism, second only to Hamas murdering Jews,” said Brandon Maly, the 24-year-old chairman of the Dane County Republican Party in Wisconsin.
“When you get into anti-Zionism, that’s the concept that’s become very politically charged recently, that Jews should not have a homeland, that Israel should not exist as a sovereign state,” Maly added.
It’s a particularly profound subject for the second-generation American Jew, whose family fled the Soviet Union and the sweeping widespread antisemitism that so long defined the “Evil Empire,” as President Ronald Reagan once rightly described the former communist superpower. Maly is growing increasingly concerned that the Land of the Free is moving precariously along the same path, as incidents of antisemitism soar on college campuses and elsewhere nationwide in the wake of Hamas’ barbaric terrorist attacks on Israel in October.
Antisemitism’s Safe Space on College Campuses
College students led by Hamas-endorsing campus organizations such as Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) have not only protested against Israel’s war to root out the terrorist organization, but many have praised the terrorists for the brutal crimes they have committed against thousands of innocent Israeli citizens.
As the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) notes, numerous SJP chapters have released inflammatory statements in support of Palestinians seizing control of Israeli territory, some soaked in violent rhetoric. Perhaps not surprisingly, some violent acts of antisemitism have followed.
“We reject the distinction between ‘civilian’ and ‘militant.’ We reject the distinction between ‘settler’ and ‘soldier,’” The George Washington University SJP stated. “A settler is an aggressor, a soldier, and an occupier even if they are lounging on our occupied beaches.”
The ADL reports antisemitic incidents in the United States have climbed 337 percent since the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks. ADL has tracked more than 2,000 such incidents in the last two months-plus, the most documented by the group over a two-month period since it began tracking antisemitic incidents nearly 45 years ago.
‘Socially Acceptable’ Antisemitism
ADL challenges Quraishi-Landes’ assertions, saying that “anti-Zionism is indeed antisemitism.” It’s just that anti-Zionism has become more socially acceptable than classic antisemitism. “The result is that many anti-Zionist activists can embed historic antisemitic tropes in their criticism of Israel without significant pushback,” the organization argues in a recent report.
The anti-Zionist boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) movement pushed by leftist members of Congress such as Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Mich., has received seemingly carte blanche acceptance in recent years, in no small degree thanks to political leaders cowed by aggressive BDS pushers. That has changed since the Hamas attacks, with resistance growing. Last month, the House voted to censor Tlaib over what many argued were the Palestinian American lawmaker’s antisemitic comments. Tlaib has made similar comments during her congressional tenure, long before the Israel-Hamas war.
The statement peddled by Quraishi-Landes insists faculty and staff in the University of Wisconsin system are “concerned about the growing trend to treat criticism of the policies and practices of the state of Israel or of the ideology of Zionism as evidence of antisemitism.” A failure to distinguish antisemitism from criticism of Israel “restricts colleges and universities from educating and facilitating important civic discourse,” the statement asserts. “It also interferes with our fight against true antisemitism.”
Proponents of the argument that anti-Zionism is not antisemitism say the waters of true antisemitism have been muddied by competing definitions. The statement notes the ADL and the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance include references to the state of Israel in their descriptions of antisemitism, but the Jerusalem Declaration on Antisemitism does not.
Where are the anti-Zionists to turn? They say President Joe Biden’s White House has not offered much clarity on the question, even in its recently released National Strategy to Counter Antisemitism, which specifically avoids choosing between competing definitions of antisemitism.
“We believe it is crucial to clarify the difference between antisemitism and criticism of Israel because of the alarming rise in harassment and intimidation of students who criticize Israel today,” the document states. “Without such a clarification, students will continue to be censured, doxxed, lose their jobs, and even be physically attacked simply because of statements against Israel or in Palestinian solidarity.”
The statement doesn’t mention the spike in antisemitic incidents of late driven in no small part by anti-Zionism rhetoric
Anti-Zionism Clothed in Free Speech
Maly asks an interesting comparative question. The answer should be clear.
“Would it be racist to say that Mexico should not be a country and the homeland of the Mexican people?” said the Dane County GOP chairman, who also serves as a field representative for conservative group Turning Point Action. “Of course not. No serious group has been given a platform that advocates for these ideas, except those that call for the destruction of Israel.”
Reached for comment, University of Wisconsin spokesman John Lucas said UW-Madison Chancellor Jennifer Mnookin has previously condemned antisemitism in multiple statements this fall.
But Quraishi-Landes has the full protection of “academic freedom” — on the taxpayer’s dime. The professor drew a salary of $185,000 in 2021, the most recent year available, according to a Wisconsin state employee database.
“UW-Madison respects the rights of the author and those who signed to express their personal views on matters of public concern,” Lucas said.
This same far-left flagship university in the Wisconsin system, however, has restrained the free speech of conservative students, according to a survey released earlier this year.
Quraishi-Landes did not return a request for comment.
The Muslim American professor recently retweeted on her X account a post calling for a ceasefire and making the leftist argument that Palestinians, not Jews, are victims of genocide — at the hands of an Israeli occupation. That’s not true. The fact is that Hamas and its allies have called for the extinction of Jews and the Israeli state.
Quraishi-Landes is highly recognized in her field, particularly from many institutions protecting antisemitism and anti-Zionism. She holds a doctorate from Harvard Law School and other degrees from Columbia Law School, the University of California-Davis, and the University of California-Berkeley, according to her biography page.
The leftist Madison campus has faced its share of antisemitic activity in recent months.
A group of students on Nov. 7 reported having rocks thrown at them from a building on State Street following a vigil for Israel, and on Dec. 8, individuals disrupted a Hanukkah celebration at Hillel with political slogans and obscenities, according to student newspaper The Daily Cardinal.
“Feelings of fear came to a peak on Nov. 18, when approximately 20 neo-Nazis, part of a group called the Blood Tribe, marched up State Street to the Wisconsin State Capitol building. The group waved swastika flags, gave Nazi salutes and chanted antisemitic rhetoric and threats, including ‘Israel is not our friend’ and ‘there will be blood,’” the publication reported.
UW Hillel Chief Executive Officer and President Greg Steinberger told the newspaper that students “have now witnessed hateful displays from the extreme left and right of the political spectrum that blames Jews and calls for the extermination of Israel.”
“That channels antisemitic tropes of power and control,” he said.
Note: This story has been updated.