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Why Anti-Israel Protesters Won’t Stop Harassing Jews

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The anti-Israel demonstrations around Columbia University turned threatening and antisemitic Saturday night, as they have repeatedly across the country. On social media, you can find footage of crowds taunting Jewish students to “Go back to Poland!” and chanting, “We don’t want no Zionists here!” There is a masked protester with a sign that reads “Al-Qasam’s Next Target” with an arrow pointing at Jewish counterprotesters nearby. Al-Qassam is the military wing of Hamas. A protester screamed at Jewish students, “The 7th of October is going to be every day for you!”

The protest groups and their supporters have attacked the Biden administration for denouncing these incidents and the media for reporting them. “We are frustrated by media distractions focusing on inflammatory individuals who do not represent us,” asserts the Columbia chapter for Students for Justice in Palestine.

It is true that most anti-Israel protesters do not engage in antisemitic harassment. It is also true that the formal demands associated with anti-Israel protests are legitimate (if not policies I’d endorse) and do not require the collective punishment of American Jews. But the reason incidents like these occur over and over is that they are part of the ideological character of the movements that give rise to them. Dismissing this pattern as the actions of “inflammatory individuals” is to evade the question of who is inflaming them.

The anti-Israel movement exists in the United States as a result of a decades-long conflict in the Middle East, the cause of which is complex and has faults on many sides. It was both inevitable and necessary for the United States to have a pro-Palestinian movement. The makeup of that movement is the contingent, tragic factor that has made its activities so ugly and routinely bigoted.

The main national umbrella group for campus pro-Palestinian protests is Students for Justice in Palestine. SJP takes a violent eliminationist stance toward Israel. In the wake of the October 7 terrorist attacks, it issued a celebratory statement instructing its affiliates that all Jewish Israelis are legitimate targets:

Liberation is not an abstract concept. It is not a moment circumscribed to a revolutionary past as it is often characterized. Rather, liberating colonized land is a real process that requires confrontation by any means necessary. In essence, decolonization is a call to action, a commitment to the restoration of Indigenous sovereignty. It calls upon us to engage in meaningful actions that go beyond symbolism and rhetoric. Resistance comes in all forms — armed struggle, general strikes, and popular demonstrations. All of it is legitimate, and all of it is necessary.

SJP likewise directed its members to join the struggle directly: “This is a moment of mobilization for all Palestinians. We must act as part of this movement. All of our efforts continue the work and resistance of Palestinians on the ground.”

When you consider this kind of violent rhetoric in the context of slogans like “Globalize the Intifada,” especially when you consider the lack of authentic Israeli military targets outside of Israel, then the pattern of harassment and violence that follows from this propaganda is inevitable.

A second group that has helped organize the demonstrations at Columbia is called Within Our Lifetime. Like SJP, WOL takes an uncompromising eliminationist stance toward Israel, even calling for “the abolition of zionism.” If you suspect it would be difficult to exterminate an idea peacefully, you are correct. WOL, like SJP, endorses all violent attacks on Israeli Jews: “We defend the right of Palestinians as colonized people to resist the zionist occupation by any means necessary.”

More pertinently, WOL “reject[s] all collaboration and dialogue with zionist organizations” as “normalization,” which is to say it believes people anywhere in the world who wish to see a Jewish state survive in any form should not be permitted to live normal lives. If there is a theoretical distinction between this doctrine and direct advocacy of systematic harassment of mainstream Jewish people and organizations, it is paper thin.

Many students were attracted to these groups because of the horrendous human toll inflicted by Israel’s counterattack in Gaza. But the groups themselves are very clearly not advocating for “peace.” They are for war. Their objection is not to human suffering but that the wrong humans are suffering.

More broadly, these groups reflect the influence of “settler-colonist” theory, a fashionable school of thought that is being taught at many institutions. (In this sense, the universities themselves are incubating the protests against their own administrations.) Settler-colonist theory is a left-wing version of blood-and-soil nationalism, positing that every ethnic group possesses an inherent attachment to certain lands and is inherently alien to others. The theory has some use in explaining European imperialism, but when applied to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it turns the Jews into a global alien subaltern class.

This ideological framework works in concert with a rhetorical approach that seeks to shrink the mental space between Gaza and the outside world, inviting activists to conceive of themselves as literal participants in the struggle. Their practice of accusing anybody who refuses to endorse their views of murder — hence the otherwise bizarre chants accusing figures like American university professors and administrators of “genocide” — reimagines any dissent from the movement’s demands as a form of literal violence.

Of course, these groups do welcome the participation of Jews in their movement, not least because it is useful in deflecting charges of antisemitism. But this does not settle the question of their relation to antisemitism any more than “Blacks for Trump” puts to rest concerns about Republican racism. A situation in which Jews can avoid exclusion and harassment through a combination of avoiding outward signs of their identity and endorsing anti-Israel groups (or at least keeping their heads down) is what Jews mean when they allege an atmosphere of antisemitism on campus. It is not that Jews cannot avoid harassment and exclusion; it is that they feel pressure to publicly renounce aspects of their culture, beliefs, and heritage.

An Orthodox rabbi at Columbia/Barnard advised Jewish students to remain home until the campus is safe. Claims like this can’t be taken at face value from any group, because demands for safety are a weapon in political struggle, especially on campus.

Israel supporters are no more immune than advocates of other social causes from the temptation to hurl spurious charges of bias at their adversaries to insulate themselves from criticism. I’ve written many columns attacking this practice. (A handful of examples can be found here, here, here, and here.) A fair amount of the rhetoric about antisemitism and safety that has erupted in the wake of October 7 follows this pattern. Some of the discomfort Jewish students have felt is the unavoidable experience of confronting novel and objectionable beliefs, a discomfort that colleges not only ought to tolerate but should actively create.

But on the whole, the handwringers are more right than wrong. Jewish students have been forced to endure an atmosphere of eliminationist rhetoric that is consistently unable to modulate or confine its Manichean demands. The pro-Palestinian groups have chosen to embrace violent fundamentalist death cults as their allies. They have chosen to spurn compromise and coexistence. The gaping void of a humane, universalist, liberal movement to advocate for the cause of Palestinian freedom is their failure, and its fruit is the rancid antisemitism that, despite their feeble denials, has sprung up everywhere since October 7.



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