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Truthdigger of the Week: Glenn Greenwald

    Lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald. (Rick Bowmer / AP)

Every week the Truthdig editorial staff selects a Truthdigger of the Week, a group or person worthy of recognition for speaking truth to power, breaking the story or blowing the whistle. It is not a lifetime achievement award. Rather, we’re looking for newsmakers whose actions in a given week are worth celebrating.

There is no shortage of opportunities to celebrate Glenn Greenwald’s journalism—hell, we’ve named him Truthdigger of the Week three times before. From standing up for WikiLeaks’ whistleblower Chelsea Manning and founder Julian Assange to publishing the now famous NSA surveillance exposé based on the Edward Snowden leaks, Greenwald has made a name for himself as a courageous writer who’s willing to go to great lengths in protecting free speech. This week we decided he deserved to be named Truthdigger once more, for his indictment of Sen. Dianne Feinstein and her billionaire husband for their shameless attempt to blackmail the University of California (UC) into punishing students for speech and activism critical of Israel.

Greenwald’s piece, published at The Intercept and titled “The Greatest Threat to Campus Free Speech is Coming From Dianne Feinstein and her Military-Contractor Husband,” revealed that two weeks ago, Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, made the following comments at a UC regents meeting in a debate over whether to severely discipline students who speak out against Israel:

I should add that over the weekend my wife, your senior Senator, and I talked about this issue at length. She wants to stay out of the conversation publicly but if we do not do the right thing she will engage publicly and is prepared to be critical of this university if we don’t have the kind of not only statement but penalties for those who commit what you can call them crimes, call them whatever you want. Students that do the things that have been cited here today probably ought to have a dismissal or a suspension from school. I don’t know how many of you feel strongly that way but my wife does and so do I.

Greenwald noted that the University of California has been considering adopting the State Department’s 2010 definition of anti-Semitism, which includes a section on the subject as it relates to Israel, and suspending or in some cases expelling students who express their opinions in a manner that falls under this definition:

What is Anti-Semitism Relative to Israel?

EXAMPLES of the ways in which anti-Semitism manifests itself with regard to the state of Israel, taking into account the overall context could include:

DEMONIZE ISRAEL:

• Using the symbols and images associated with classic anti-Semitism to characterize Israel or Israelis

• Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis

• Blaming Israel for all inter-religious or political tensions

DOUBLE STANDARD FOR ISRAEL:

• Applying double standards by requiring of it a behavior not expected or demanded of any other democratic nation

• Multilateral organizations focusing on Israel only for peace or human rights investigations

DELEGITIMIZE ISRAEL:

• Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, and denying Israel the right to exist

However, criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as anti-Semitic.

Greenwald eloquently explained why employing this definition, adopted under then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in an academic setting is not only counterintuitive but also “patently unconstitutional”:

The ironies of this definition are overwhelming. First, it warns against advocating a “double standard for Israel”—at exactly the same time that it promulgates a standard that applies only to Israel. Would the State Department ever formally condemn what it regards as excessive or one-sided criticism of any other government, such as Russia or Iran? Why isn’t the State Department also accusing people of bigotry who create “double standards” for Iran by obsessing over the anti-gay behavior of Iran while ignoring the same or worse abuses in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uganda? The State Department is purporting to regulate the discourse surrounding just one country—Israel—while at the same time condemning “double standards.”

Worse, this State Department definition explicitly equates certain forms of criticism of Israel or activism against Israeli government policies with “anti-Semitism.” In other words, the State Department embraces the twisted premise that a defining attribute of “Jews” everywhere is the actions of the Israeli government, which is itself a long-standing anti-Semitic trope.

But most important of all, whatever you think of this State Department definition, it has no place whatsoever regulating which ideas can and cannot be expressed in an academic institution, particularly one that is run by the state (such as the University of California). Adoption of this “anti-Semitism” definition clearly would function to prohibit the advocacy of, say, a one-state solution for the Israel-Palestine conflict, or even the questioning of a state’s right to exist as a non-secular entity. How can anyone think it’s appropriate to declare such ideas off limits in academic classrooms or outlaw them as part of campus activism?

To ban the expression of any political ideas in such a setting would not only be wildly anti-intellectual but also patently unconstitutional.

Such acts and threats, Greenwald pointed out, are part of a concerted effort by the “Israeli government and its most devoted advocates around the world [who] are petrified at the growing strength of the movement to boycott Israeli goods in protest of the almost five-decade occupation [of Palestinian lands].”

The boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement, Guy Laron wrote for the Informed Comment website, “seeks through grass-root activity in North America and Europe to bring about a consumer boycott of Israeli products, sports and cultural events as well as divestment of banks, pension funds and corporations from Israeli enterprises.” The movement has been gaining traction around the world, and U.S. university campuses are no exception. Greenwald wrote that the fear of the BDS movement lies in the fact that it is “predicated on the truth that they are most eager to suppress: the similarities between what Israel is doing to the Palestinians and the apartheid policies of South Africa.”

And it’s not just Dianne Feinstein and Richard Blum who are behind this effort to quash protected free speech. The very secretary of state and now Democratic front-runner for the presidential nomination who allowed this definition to become the United States government’s official interpretation of anti-Semitism has herself condemned the BDS movement in a letter to Israeli-American billionaire Haim Saban. The Guardian quotes from a July 2 letter that Clinton sent to Saban. The article says Clinton wrote, in part:

“… the BDS campaign is counterproductive to the pursuit of peace and harmful to Israelis and Palestinians alike” and [that she] pledged to mount a bipartisan effort “to fight back against further attempts to isolate and delegitimize Israel”.

As Stephen Zunes pointed out in Counterpunch, “this letter raises very troubling questions regarding the kind of president Hillary Clinton would be, not just in regard to Israel and Palestine, but in relation to human rights and international law overall and her reaction to those who support such principles.”

Indeed, it should worry us all that powerful, wealthy politicians such as Feinstein and Clinton would go so far as to threaten public institutions and undermine international law in order to support a government that has not only unlawfully occupied Palestinian territories but has committed heinous war crimes time and again, flouting the United Nations and other international organizations and governments. The massacre, as Greenwald calls it, that Israel inflicted on Gaza last summer should alone be enough cause to withdraw U.S. support of the right-wing Israeli government. And yet our elected officials have chosen instead to quiet those who speak about these crimes against humanity, to institutionalize a definition of anti-Semitism that blurs the line between Jews and the oppressive Israeli government and, most dangerously of all, to undermine the Constitution in order to exert power over public discourse. Perhaps, as Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges points out in his piece “Why I Support the BDS Movement Against Israel,” it is to be expected that “when we stand with the oppressed we will be treated like the oppressed.”

Greenwald finished his strong Intercept piece with an important warning we should all heed:

The obvious goal with this UC battle is to institutionalize the notion on American college campuses that activism against the Israeli government is not merely wrong but is actually “hate speech” that should subject its student advocates (or professors) to severe punishment. If this menacing censorship is allowed to take hold in an academic system as large and influential as the University of California, then it’s much easier for the censors to point to it in the future as a model, in order to infect other academic institutions in the U.S. and around the world. That’s all the more reason to vehemently oppose it in this instance. If defenders of Israel are determined to defeat the boycott movement, they’ll have to find other ways to do it besides rendering its advocacy illegal and, in the process, destroying the long-cherished precept of free speech in academia.

For standing up once again for activism protected by the Constitution and for facing up to politicians willing to destroy free speech, Glenn Greenwald is — once again — our Truthdigger of the Week.

Natasha Hakimi Zapata
Assistant Editor and Poetry Editor
Natasha Hakimi Zapata holds a Creative Writing M.F.A. from Boston University and both a B.A. in Spanish and a B.A. in English with a creative writing concentration from the University of California, Los…
Natasha Hakimi Zapata

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