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Herb Rothschild Jr.: Fight Zionist suppression

Last week I shared Peace House’s commitment to work for a just peace in Israel/Palestine by promoting open discussion of the realities of the conflict there. I concluded by saying that our first challenge is to overcome pro-Zionist suppression of such discussion. That is the subject of this column.

This past August 21, The Rev. Bruce Shipman, who was serving as interim chaplain of the Episcopal Church at Yale University (ECY), published a letter in The New York Times suggesting that there was a link between an increase of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe and Israeli treatment of Palestinians. Predictably, the letter created some furor. Shipman said he was forced to resign; the ECY board said there were other reasons.

The incident raises three interrelated concerns I have. First, I’m distressed by the resurgence of the deadly sickness of anti-Semitism. Second, I’m distressed by the difficulty of disentangling anti-Semitism from anger over Israel’s policies and conduct. Third, I’m concerned by the way those who have tried to suppress criticism of Israel have contributed to this unhappy entanglement.

While some who criticized Shipman rightly pointed out that anti-Semites use criticism of Israel as a cover for their hatred of Jews, the matter is far more complex than that. If we’re honest, we must understand (though not condone) the failure to consistently distinguish between “Israelis” and “Jews,” or “the Israel lobby” and “the Jewish lobby,” especially because the Jewish voices that most people hear uncritically support Israeli behavior.

Further, defenders of Israel have themselves fostered the entanglement by using the charge of anti-Semitism to try to stifle all criticism of Israel. Even further, I think many Jews actually believe the two are equivalent. Ironically, then, die-hard defenders of Israel may be a mirror image of die-hard anti-Semites.

In this country, unlike in Israel, it’s risky to criticize Israel. Members of Congress have learned this lesson from the repeated defeat of colleagues who “dared to speak out,” a phrase I put in quotation marks because it is almost the title of a 1985 book on the political power of pro-Zionist forces in America by former Congressman Paul Findley. But private citizens are likely to come under attack as well and pay a heavy price. In Baton Rouge I knew a man who was nearly fired from Ethyl Corporation because he advised a group of Palestinian-Americans about telling their story more effectively. That silenced him.

The most stunning instance of that power of suppression was the cover-up of the Israeli attack on the USS Liberty in international waters off the coast of Egypt during the 1967 Six-Day War. It left 34 American seamen dead and 171 injured. Lyndon Johnson was induced to peddle to a compliant media the Israeli cover story that they had misidentified the nationality of the ship. At last the true story has been told — and the victims have had some solace — in a documentary available on YouTube called “The Day Israel Attacked America.” Al Jazeera produced the film, but that doesn’t discredit its veracity. Almost all the voices in the film are those of surviving crew members, a widow, and high-level U.S. intelligence officers at the time, including Admiral Bobby Inman, who later headed the National Security Agency.

I’m pleased to say that an increasing number of American Jews are willing to voice our distress about Israeli conduct. We do so to serve truth and justice, but also to give the lie to anti-Semites who assume that all of us condone crimes against the Palestinians.

Herb Rothschild Jr. is chairman of the board of Peace House.