Having devoted the past 12 years of my career to exposing and countering Islamophobia, an effort that has included the publication of hundreds of articles and podcast episodes, it’s reasonable to conclude that I have a sharp eye for how racist bigotry looks, sounds, and feels.
More than that, I was once a bigot, having expressed a crude form of online racism toward Muslims for four years after witnessing a twin suicide bombing carried out by an al-Qaida affiliate in Indonesia in 2005. I have written and spoken about the period in which I lost my moral bearings too many times to count.
My journalism serves to warn others from taking a similar mistaken path, and along the way, I have exposed human rights violations against persecuted Muslim communities in China, Myanmar, Kashmir, India, Syria, Yemen, Afghanistan, Israel, and Palestine.
My work has made me a target of governments that persecute Muslim minorities, along with special interest groups that do their bidding.
My work has made me a target of governments that persecute Muslim minorities, along with special interest groups that do their bidding. China’s foreign secretary has accused me of peddling “groundless anti-China propaganda.” A powerful businessman in the United Arab Emirates encouraged me to “commit suicide.” The Indian government is investigating me under a draconian anti-terror law, and in February 2016, when covering a Netanyahu speech in Tel Aviv, I was removed and told by Israel’s Shin Bet (Israel’s FBI) that I had been banned from reentering the country.
I’m old enough to accept that this comes with the territory, and I view these threats and responses as evidence that my punches are landing where metaphorical upper cuts and left hooks are most needed.
That said, there is one line of attack I’m unwilling to accept as part-and-parcel of the job, and it’s one that’s routinely thrown at those who dare to criticize the state of Israel: being falsely labeled an anti-Semite, a charge that was hurled at me most recently by the right-wing, US-based publication Twitchy on November 24.
“Look, we get that journalist and ‘activist against Islamophobia’ CJ Werleman hates Jews and Israel, but we figured that even dedicated anti-Semites still understood that the Taliban is bad,” reads the Twitchy article. This was in response to a tweet I posted that day that was meant to be a back-handed compliment directed at the Taliban for promising to protect the rights of Hindus, Sikhs, and Shia Muslims.
In no way, could my tweet or anything I have ever said or written previously be accurately construed as hatred of the Jewish people, and I make this solemn and unambiguous declaration:
I, CJ Werleman, have never uttered or written a single word or sentence that could be accurately misconstrued as anti-Semitism or hatred towards Judaism or the Jewish people!
I have strongly condemned Israel’s violations of international and human rights law,
I have, however, strongly condemned Israel’s violations of international and human rights law, and what I see as the racist, ethnonationalist movement of Zionism.
This reality has not stopped pro-Israel groups from cynically and menacingly trying to make Zionism indistinguishable from the Jewish people, despite Zionism being rejected by some orthodox rabbis and an increasing number of Jewish Americans.
Pro-Israel groups have weaponized charges of anti-Semitism to delegitimize and silence pro-Palestinian activists and human rights defenders. This is highly effective because it harms reputations and causes emotional distress to the intended targets, including me.
I can live with being falsely and absurdly smeared a “terrorist sympathizer” or “Hamas defender” by pro-Israel publications, including Australia’s national broadsheet newspaper The Australian, but I will not tolerate being labeled an anti-Semite when most of my emotional, professional, and spiritual energy is spent combatting racism and bigotry in all its forms.
So, for the first time, I have sought legal counsel to explore my avenues for striking back. What I discovered is just how much pro-Israel groups and publications hold the upper hand in defaming their targets with bogus charges of anti-Semitism.
Given the baselessness of Twitchy’s accusation against me, and the sheer size of its parent company, the Nasdaq-listed Salem Media Group, my potential libel case could be “actionable and warrant damages,” according to Australian lawyer Moustafa Awad.
But the path to exacting said “damages” from the company is no easy journey, particularly for a journalist like me who lives paycheck to paycheck. A case like this would likely run up legal costs in excess of $200,000 – resources I do not possess.
The second challenge is the U.S. legal system, which grants extraordinary protection to publications under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and tends to support the premise that mere criticism of Israel renders an individual an anti-Semite by default.
Critics of Saudi Arabia are not labeled “Islamophobic,” so why should those who question Israeli governance be smeared as anti-Semitic?
Criticism of the U.S. government is not conflated with anti-Christianity, and critics of Saudi Arabia are not labeled “Islamophobic,” so why should those who question Israeli governance be smeared as anti-Semitic?
Awad said I have “no chance of vindicating these types of [defamation] allegations” in the United States, but he suggested I might have a stronger case in Australia, where a recent libel settlement untangled criticism of Israel from anti-Semitism.
“The core of your case will be allegations that you are an “anti-Semite” and “Jew hater,” Awad said. “The current stance in Australia is that those allegations are actionable and warrant damages.”
Earlier this year, former Australian parliamentarian Melissa Parke successfully settled her libel case against Australia-Israel & Jewish Affairs Council Executive Director Colin Rubenstein.
Ms. Parke, who not only worked with the United Nations as a lawyer from 1999 until her move into politics but also oversaw humanitarian efforts in Gaza and Beirut, was slandered by Rubenstein as an “anti-Semite” after she condemned the Israeli military for abusing a pregnant Palestinian woman at a checkpoint.
As part of the settlement, Rubenstein stated that he had not intended to attack Parke personally and that he regretted that his comments caused her distress. The Rupert Murdoch-owned Herald Sun, meanwhile, issued a formal apology to Parke last year over the same matter.
“Her settlement was a great win for the pro-Palestinian camp against pro-Israel groups,” Awad said.
Yet, this outcome represents an all-too-rare victory in the effort to protect political leaders, journalists, and activists against scurrilous and damaging accusations of anti-Semitism from pro-Israel groups and publications.
Ultimately, while anti-Semitism is a real and pernicious form of racism, Parke’s settlement demonstrates that condemnation of Israel’s human rights violations against the Palestinians does not make one an anti-Semite.
In response to similar libelous statements by Twitchy about me, I am pursuing all my legal options. Enough is enough!