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Why the Right Loves the Anti-Israel Encampments

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The Democratic Party has been consumed with division and anguish over the rise of radical anti-Israel demonstrations, which first disrupted its speeches and fundraisers and are now occupying numerous campuses. On the right, however, the protesters have been greeted as liberators.

“This encampment escalation divides the Left, alienates influential supporters, and creates a sense of chaos that will move people against it,” writes conservative activist Chris Rufo in his newsletter. “The correct response from the Right is to create the conditions for these protests to flourish in blue cities and campuses, while preventing them in red cities and campuses.”

There are several reasons for this unusual right-left alliance. The most obvious is that Israel is an issue that bitterly divides the Democratic Party while uniting the GOP. Any news coverage raising the salience of this issue detracts from coverage of issues like abortion, Donald Trump’s various crimes, health care, or other subjects that divide Republicans while uniting Democrats.

A second reason is that the campus protests, with their ragged encampments and radical chants, enhance the image of chaos that Donald Trump claims has overtaken the country. The previous basis for the chaos theme was a rise in crime that has since abated. Obviously, neither Trump nor Fox News require claims to be true in order to make them a campaign theme. But the encampments are good visual fodder for conservative media that is always on the lookout for signs of counterculture radicals they can shove into the faces of its audience.

But perhaps the biggest reason is that extremists thrive on an atmosphere of crisis. The Middle East has been teetering on crisis for decades, which is why advocates of peaceful partition and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians have never had an easy time of it. The more fevered the atmosphere, the easier it is for Trumpian conservatives, along with radicals on the left, to argue that the conflict pits good against evil and that compromise is unthinkable.

Many progressives deny that any such extremism characterizes the protests, projecting onto them a desire to end the war in Gaza and pressure Israel’s government to give Palestinians a state. “I’m pretty sure most young people and community members and faculty protesting now in 75 campuses are clear on what they want: an end to Israel’s war and occupation,” writes Daily Beast columnist Wajahat Ali. “The leadership you have is so fantastic,” cooed Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in a visit to Columbia’s occupation.

But this hope contains a significant amount of denial and wishful thinking over who is running these protests. Obviously, the demonstrators, like any large group of people engaged in any political activity, have a range of motives. Some are horrified by the starvation and slaughter of Palestinian civilians. Some are drawn to the comradeship and excitement of student protests. It is useful to ask protesters what they believe and why they are protesting.

But the best way to understand the beliefs of protests is usually to read the published statements of the groups organizing them. That is especially true when the protests are well organized by an established network. In this case, the protests have been organized by Students for Justice in Palestine, an organization that’s existed for decades, alongside other left-wing protest groups. And their position is totally explicit: They believe in the total destruction of Israel as a state by any means, including violence.

Not every protester joining the encampments shares this goal, of course. But it is the goal of the people directing the protests. That is why their slogans and chants call for elimination rather than coexistence. It was instructive when left-wing Israel critic Norman Finkelstein pleaded with protesters at Columbia to change their slogan to “From the river to the sea, Palestinians” — rather than “Palestine” — “will be free,” only for protesters to mock him by immediately repeating the original chant.

Allies of the protesters have tried to blame the constant antisemitic harassment and atmosphere of menace emanating from their activities on a handful of outsiders, and some news coverage has sympathetically repeated this theme. “Video re-emerged this week of a Columbia student who has taken part in the pro-Palestinian protest encampments declaring that ‘Zionists don’t deserve to live,’” reports the Washington Post. This student didn’t merely take part in protests, he was a leader of them, and he negotiated with the administration on their behalf.

At the University of Michigan, the leader of the main student anti-Israel group, who had been sympathetically profiled in the New York Times and given the university’s prestigious award for students “who best exemplify the leadership and extraordinary vision of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.,” wrote on social media, “Until my last breath I will utter death to every single individual who supports the Zionist state. Death and more. Death and worse.”

The most violent and unhinged statements are coming not from the periphery of the protests but from their leadership, because the most committed members of these groups have most thoroughly absorbed their radical commitments and relentless dehumanization of political opponents.

This is catnip not only for American conservatives, but also for the Israeli right. The central argument advanced by Israeli reactionaries since even before the founding of Israel has held that peacefully partitioning the land into Jewish and Arab states is hopelessly naïve. The two sides are engaged in a zero-sum struggle for control of the land, and only one can prevail.

Israeli conservatives have used this idea to discredit peace and deflect any concerns that Israel’s own actions can feed into the backlash by Palestinians and the international community. They all hate Jews no matter what we do is a misguided and self-pitying analysis that nonetheless has deep emotional appeal to Jews inside and outside Israel. Benjamin Netanyahu has accordingly drawn attention to the protests with wild denunciations rather than ignore them.

The elevation of eliminationist rhetoric in the United States is a gift to Netanyahu. It supports his case that the only alternative to total Israeli control of Israel and the occupied territories is total Arab control of the land.

And perhaps not incidentally, the protests increase the chance Trump wins, a prospect Netanyahu no doubt would relish. If Netanyahu can simply drag out the war and delay Israeli elections until Biden leaves office, Trump — who, unlike Biden, has never evinced the slightest concern for the welfare of Palestinians — would give him a free hand. (That Netanyahu can increase the likelihood of this occurring — the more he drags out the war, the better the chance that he gets a friendlier administration next year — has hopefully factored into Biden’s assessment of Netanyahu’s incentive structure.)

In a recent social-media post, Trump demanded, “STOP THE PROTESTS NOW!!!” If they are still going on during a prospective second Trump term, he will probably stop them with maximal violence. In the meantime, he fervently wishes them to continue through November.



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