Criticize Israel At Your Own Risk

by Mitchell Plitnick

I’d like to pose a question. Do you believe that someone who writes the following letter should be forced out of his position as chaplain at an Ivy League university?

To the Editor:

Deborah E. Lipstadt makes far too little of the relationship between Israel’s policies in the West Bank and Gaza and growing anti-Semitism in Europe and beyond.

The trend to which she alludes parallels the carnage in Gaza over the last five years, not to mention the perpetually stalled peace talks and the continuing occupation of the West Bank.

As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.

Groton, Conn., Aug. 21, 2014

One can, to be sure, disagree with the opinion Bruce Shipman, a former chaplain from Yale, expressed—I certainly do. Anti-Semitism is not the same as opposition to Israeli policiesthe two are quite distinct and plenty of Jew-haters fully support even more aggressive and brutal policies either because they hate Muslims and Arabs more than Jews or because they have some apocalyptic vision of where such Jewish behavior might take the Jews.

Anti-Semitism does not increase due to Israel’s behavior. Anti-Semitic activity might, as haters see an opportunity to cloak their hate in something else. But bigotry has a life of its own. More to the point, Israelis will not behave like “good Jews” in order to stem a theoretical rising tide of anti-Semitism. That’s not why Israel should end its occupation, should end its siege of Gaza, and should recognize, with full faith, that Palestinians have the same national, civil and human rights as Israeli Jews. Politics doesn’t work this way, but civil society should be pushing for these things because they are a moral imperative. And Israel should pursue such a course because it is the only way its citizens will ever know peace and security.

So, yes, I think Shipman was wrong. But he was hardly expressing hatred towards Jews. He was speaking out of obvious concern for both Israelis and Palestinians and a hope for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. He may have been wrong about Israeli actions causing anti-Semitism, but he is not the only person who believes this and there is room for reasonable debate on that point. In any case, he was certainly not saying that Israel’s actions justified anti-Semitism. And yet, he was forced to resign.

Is this really where we’ve ended up? Yes. Ideas are fully policed on this issue. Academia, which is precisely the place that disagreements, and especially controversial ideas, are supposed to be debated with civility, has become one of the most heavily policed arenas. The recent controversy at the University of Illinois, where Professor Steven Salaita was “de-hired” because of his outspoken statements on Twitter about Israel’s massive onslaught on Gaza, has now grown to the point where it is threatening the university’s administration. Yet they have not reversed their decision to date.

It’s not like controversial views on both sides of the Israel-Palestine conflict are under such attack. Thane Rosenbaum, for example, called on Israel to kill Palestinian civilians. His op-ed in the Wall Street Journal generated a lot of controversy, but his position at New York University’s School of Law was never in danger, and I wouldn’t want it to be.

Opinions, even hateful ones, need to be out in the open. How can they otherwise be countered? Instead, when it comes to Israel, we have gone entirely in the other direction, but only on one side of the question.

Bruce Shipman, apparently, resigned “voluntarily,” not wanting to create or be in the middle of further controversy at Yale. But there never should have been any such pressure on him. There is no conceivable stretch that can turn what Shipman wrote, regardless of how much anyone disagrees with him, into hate speech. Short of that, any individual should be able to express an opinion. That is especially true about community leaders, which school chaplains obviously are, and the academic world.

So enough with the false allegations of anti-Semitism, which are insulting to those like myself who have experienced physical violence from anti-Semitism. Enough with the extremists supporting the worst Israeli policies whoapparently knowing that their case cannot withstand open debatethreaten and pressure those who raise opposing opinions (I have received death threats from such people as well).

It’s high time for everyone to agree that ideas can and should be debated. Islamophobes and others who do not acknowledge Palestinians’ basic human rights have a national platform with FOX News. More legitimate defenders of Israeli policies and those who are deeply opposed to those policies should also be able to voice their views in public. Everyone who is interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict should agree with this fair and just principle. The only ones who can’t, it would seem, are the naysayers who oppose legitimate debate. I wonder why.

Mitchell Plitnick

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. His previous positions include vice president at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, director of the US Office of B’Tselem: The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, and co-director of Jewish Voice for Peace. His writing has appeared in Ha’aretz, the New Republic, the Jordan Times, Middle East Report, the San Francisco Chronicle, +972 Magazine, Outlook, and other outlets. He was a columnist for Tikkun Magazine, Zeek Magazine and Souciant. He has spoken all over the country on Middle East politics, and has regularly offered commentary in a wide range of radio and television outlets including PBS News Hour, the O’Reilly Factor, i24 (Israel), Pacifica Radio, CNBC Asia and many other outlets, as well as at his own blog, Rethinking Foreign Policy, at You can find him on Twitter @MJPlitnick.



  1. Yes, the letter is grounds for dismissal. The author legitimizes attacks on Jews around the world for the actions of the Israeli government. It would have been appropriate for the author to condemn the Israeli government, even the Israeli people for electing that government. He went much farther though when he gave an excuse for random attacks on Jews around the world. Good riddance.

  2. Within my extended family, there are people from a wide range of racial origins, holding very different religious beliefs and political opinions. So I find it hard to understand why anyone should think it is so important to be a member of a special race that practices an exclusive religion. We now know that we are all descended from just two ancestral mothers, so the idea of race does not seem to have much relevance in the 21st century.
    But regardless of where they live, many people still choose to identify themselves as belonging to a particular ethnic group and will empathize with others of the same ethnicity elsewhere and declare their support for those people’s actions, no matter what the rest of the world thinks.
    As a result, all Arabs still suffer from the backlash of 9/11 and it is no surprise that some people will want to blame all Jews for the excessive violence against Palestinians in 2014.
    It is all very sad and regrettable, but hate is easier to do than tolerance and forgiveness and you can’t really expect ordinary people to behave better than the politicians who represent them.

  3. Anti-Semitism and all forms of bigotry are censurable.

    Who are the most anti-Semites? The Israeli leaders are the frontrunners of anti-Semitism! People mistakenly think Jews are like the Prime Minister of Israel, wicked!

    It is easy to reduce it. Stop occupation, period.


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