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At CUNY, My Union Condemns Israel for Human Rights Abuses, but Cheers on China

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A mural calling for a boycott of Israeli goods in the al-Azzeh refugee camp near the West Bank city of Bethlehem
A mural calling for a boycott of Israeli goods in the al-Azzeh refugee camp near the West Bank city of BethlehemCredit: AFP
David Brodsky
David Brodsky

In May and June of this year, my union, PSC [Professional Staff Congress]-CUNY, passed two resolutions on international issues, the first on China and the second "In Support of the Palestinian People."

While there are points of comparison in weighing up denunciation or support for China and Israel, the two resolutions could not be more different. The disparity is emblematic of how antisemitism today operates in subtle but powerful ways – not least on the left and in academia.

If the two resolutions were made in good faith, on the basis of widely available information, and according to the progressive values espoused by the CUNY union, then would it be reasonable that one resolution resolutely defended the Chinese government and the pro-Palestinian resolution called to consider boycotting Israel and for cutting U.S. aid? Let's have a brief look.

The Chinese government has, indeed, lifted millions of its citizens out of poverty. But that achievement has come with the sacrifice of numerous other progressive values – not least, human rights.

China severely represses freedom of speech (winning, for the past two years, the inglorious title of the world's worst jailer of journalists) and is oppressing millions of Uyghurs, Tibetans, and most recently pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong protesters attend a rally in support of China's Uyghur minority; Hong Kong's pro-democracy movement likened their own plight to the oppressed Muslim minority, riot police broke up the rallyCredit: DALE DE LA REY / AFP

In Xianjiang, its oppression is so brutal that it set up concentration camps for over a million Uyghurs, where sexual abuse and mass sterilization of women is rampant, and forces Uyghur women to marry Han men against their will as a form of ethnic cleansing. There are reports of widespread, forced organ harvesting. The Ughyurs' cultural and religious identity is ruthlessly suppressed, with an estimated 16,000 mosques destroyed or damaged.

The U.S., along with the U.K., Netherlands and Canada, has declared it considers China's action a form of genocide

Israel is a democratic state with imperfect but mostly equal rights for all its citizens regardless of race, religion, nationality, sex, or sexual orientation, with a parliament that is diverse along all these lines. In terms of progressive norms, there is a big but here, too.

Israel controls the West Bank where Palestinians are denied either independence or citizenship. Palestinians concomitantly face a daily brutal struggle that goes along with living under occupation, including the restriction of freedom of movement through checkpoints, detention of citizens without charge, and demolition of homes.

As for Gaza, although Israel pulled out in 2005, both Israel and Egypt began a blockade of the strip two years later, when Hamas took control and began importing and developing rockets with which to fire on Israeli civilians. Hamas has initiated the rocket attacks in every conflict between Israel and Gaza since then.

Israel’s response, despite taking precautions to mitigate the loss of civilian life, resulted in the deaths of thousands of Gazans—a significant percentage of them civilians—thousands more injured, and tens of thousands more displaced.

Israeli artillery fires at targets in Gaza during this year's fightingCredit: AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov

There’s another area in which it’s worth exploring the China-Israel comparison. Both Asian Americans and American Jews respectively bear the brunt of antagonism, whether official or activist, against both countries, a racist form of collective blame and insinuation of guilt by association, not distinguishing between China, the state, and Asian-Americans (no matter if/what relationship they have with China) or between Israel, the state, and Jews in America (no matter if/what relationship they have with Israel.)

The PSC-CUNY resolution entitled "No Cold War with China" focuses on "U.S. belligerence towards China" and its "incessant China-bashing." The consequences, according to the resolution, include "inflaming imperialist, xenophobic, racist, and misogynist ideologies, triggering violence against Chinese, Chinese-American and Asian communities at home" and harms "students, researchers and educators in China and the U.S." due to "barriers to international academic collaboration and exchange."

Those are valid points. What is glaring, though, are the omissions: no mention of the plights of the Uyghurs, Tibetans, Hong Kongers, or of the lack of freedom of Chinese citizens in general.

In contrast, the "Resolution in Support of the Palestinian People" has a very different content and tone. It straightforwardly accuses Israel of massacring Palestinians and then calls for considering the adoption of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against Israel, as the correct response of "people of conscience…in the spirit of international solidarity, moral consistency and resistance to injustice and oppression."

A mask-clad Palestinian youth walks past a mural painting in Gaza City this weekCredit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP

In the other resolution, there was no hint of language like this, in response to the Chinese state’s oppression. And while the China resolution opposed erecting "barriers to international academic collaboration and exchange," here, the call is to definitively erect such barriers.

There are other differences. Rather than the entirely correct denunciation of racism against Asian Americans, lumped together with China as an excuse for abuse, there is only passing reference to antisemitism: "PSC-CUNY condemns racism in all forms, including anti-Semitism," but then immediately qualifies its condemnation: "criticisms of Israel, a diverse nation-state, are not inherently anti-Semitic."

Unlike the China resolution, there’s no mention of the "inflaming" of racist violence against American Jews, Israeli Americans and Israelis as the result of the demonization of Israel and Israelis. You won’t find a condemnation of America’s "incessant [Israel]-bashing" by the mainstream media. There is though, the rote activist description of Israel as a "settler colonial state," a terminology used to announce that Israel’s founding and continued existence is morally illegitimate

Both Asian Americans and American Jews are targeted by violent abuse based on a racist 'guilt by association' with China and Israel respectively. But for my CUNY union, those two racisms are not equalCredit: John Lamparski/Sipa USA via Reuters

This is in the same spirit as Human Rights Watch's Kenneth Roth, who Sunday tweeted that "antisemitism is always wrong, and it long preceded the creation of Israel," and followed that up with a "but…" suggesting Israel's actions were indeed a cause of antisemitism. As many observers noted, neither Roth (nor CUNY) would ever make the same argument about China's behavior being an understandable trigger for anti-Asian hate in the U.S.

But just as the China resolution offered a strangely partial portrait of the People’s Republic, omitting its horrific human rights abuses, the Palestine resolution paints Israel as a clownish villain and, conveniently, omits how Israeli civilians, too were targeted in the last war – by the Palestinian Hamas.

Perhaps not coincidentally, when the CUNY Doctoral Students Council proposed a BDS resolution in 2014 it also mentioned "the Palestinians killed in the recent Gaza War without acknowledging that Israeli Jews died too" or that Hamas had been shooting hundreds of missiles at Israeli civilians for over a week before the Israeli government decided to retaliate.

Iron Dome interceptor missiles (R) and rockets fired from Gaza (L) during May's fighting between Israel and GazaCredit: ANAS BABA / AFP

Similarly, the PSC-CUNY resolution presents itself as a response to the "escalating violence against Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza" beginning on May 15, 2021, yet makes no mention of the fact that Hamas began bombarding Israeli cities starting on May 10.

The point is this: Norms, and consistency, matter. My union, PSC-CUNY, should indeed be worried about the violent effects that China-bashing has on the Asian-American community, and can indeed make the point that there are plenty of legitimate and non-antisemitic ways to criticize Israel.

What is unacceptable is the vast difference between how the resolutions treat China and Israel, and the minorities in the U.S. commonly associated with them.

If PSC-CUNY really wanted to offer a critique of Israel and support for the Palestinian people without falling into the justification or use of antisemitic tropes, it could have.

People attend a pro-Palestinian protest in Dearborn, Michigan, U.S. during the latest spike in violence between Israel and HamasCredit: REBECCA COOK/ REUTERS

Such an approach would have included real concern for when Israel criticism does instigate antisemitic attacks; it would take care not to erase context, focusing exclusively on Israel’s wrong-doing, to the point of leaving out the fact that when the "escalating violence against Palestinians in East Jerusalem and Gaza" took place, Israeli civilians had been under a barrage of thousands of missiles for days.

It would acknowledge that while Israel has the weight and responsibility that comes with greater power, the Palestinians are not without agency.

Without this bare attempt to query normative failures evenly, it is too easy to slide into untethered demonization and incendiary language, which is what happened when the resolution accused Israel of "massacring" Palestinians. With that word, the union engaged in the essence of historic antisemitism dating back to the medieval blood libel, and ultimately to the crucifixion itself.

But perhaps this is an explanation for the astonishingly different approaches the union took to both countries and both sets of minorities: Outrage for perceived Jewish/Pharisaic hypocrisy runs deep in Western culture. It is a major theme in the New Testament (e.g., Matthew 23) and is even enshrined in (rather catchy) modern American Christian children’s songs.

A protester during a march against anti-Semitism, New York, January 5, 2020Credit: Gili Getz

It is a subtext of our Western cultural heritage that predisposes us to see Jews massacring but not Jews being massacred. It predisposes us to see Israeli bombs raining down on Gaza but not Hamas’s bombs raining down on Ashkelon and Ashdod that began the exchange of fire.

We have to think carefully both about the cultural predispositions that affect us and about how to call out Israel without stirring up the very kinds of antisemitism that inhere in Western culture and that are being stirred up around us all the time. Ironically, the China resolution offers good language for this, though it wasn’t, of course, used in the Palestine resolution: That "wars ‘abroad’ often translate into wars at ‘home,’ with the violent targeting of racialized communities."

This sensitivity to the history of antisemitism and how it plays into criticisms of Israel and Israelis to this day is just as important as understanding the history of Orientalism and Islamophobia as part of any critique of the Palestinians.

Likewise, when criticizing China’s treatment of the Uyghurs, we should take care to focus on criticizing the Chinese government, not all Chinese people, and clearly not Asian-Americans. We would want to note how any demonization of Chinese people (even when legitimately leveled against the totalitarian Chinese state) can and has been fodder for violent attacks against Asian-Americans.

3000 activists, residents and local politicians march to demand an end to anti-Asian violence earlier this year in New York CityCredit: SPENCER PLATT / AFP

The specific, and unfortunate, language issue could have been avoided had the union used its own human resources, its members, and reached out to those of us in the fields of Israeli/Palestinian Studies and Judaic Studies. I am the chair of the only department of Judaic Studies in all of CUNY. Yet neither I nor any of my colleagues were contacted about this resolution.

We also could have pointed out the significant omissions in the historical narrative, as well as their abuse of antisemitic tropes in the resolution. We could have pointed out how there are many ways to express staunch solidarity with Palestinians without offering unmitigated fodder to antisemites and without alienating, endangering, and traumatizing many of our Israeli and Jewish students.

We could have suggested, too, that the union interrogate its own progressive foundations when it gives a complete pass to China's atrocious human rights abuses.

Not all criticism (of any country or any group) is bigotry, but when criticism devolves into demonization, when it distorts the historical record to mention only one group's misbehavior in a two-sided conflict, when the criticism is made not to help the community improve and learn but merely to condemn on the basis of the entirely inconsistent application of normative values, then the authors have engaged in bigotry, and when that bigotry is against Jews or the Jewish state, it has a name: antisemitism. 

David Brodsky is Chair of the Department of Judaic Studies at Brooklyn College, City University of New York

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