As a Jew in the social justice tradition, I am finding some value in the current Palestine/Israel debate now raging against the backdrop of the Hamas attack on Israel and Israel’s retaliation.
Even in these rancorous discussions, I believe that there has been a separation of the wheat from the chaff among progressives, clarifying where people stand on Israel/Palestine, and revealing some hard truths about the American left, and the Jewish left in particular.
In the current atmosphere, I suppose I am required to state my bona fides (and biases): I was a civilian volunteer attached to the IDF in El Arish, Sinai, in 1967. In the years since, I have always supported the democratic, liberal forces in Israel—and a two-state solution. I have opposed BDS, although as an economic campaign, especially one that has been such an abject failure, I find it less threatening than a violent one. I have never belonged to or contributed to a Jewish political organization. And as a journalist, I have spent the last 12 years reporting on the rise of antisemitism in the diaspora, for Jewish, secular and international publications, platforms and broadcast outlets like the BBC.
[Access Moment‘s ongoing coverage of the Hamas-Israel war here.]
For years I have argued in conversation and in print that anti-Zionism does not always equate with antisemitism. In the unfolding debate, I am now not so sure.
It seems to me that the inescapable implication of the two slogans “From the River to the Sea” and “End the Occupation Now,” taken together, is the end of the Jewish state—leaving the region Judenrein (the Nazi term for “free of Jews”). Drained of superheated rhetoric, what remains is simple, understandable Palestinian nationalism, no matter how you dress it up with ideology, or claims of “colonizers,” “settlers” and “occupation.”
To be clear, it is wrong to equate Hamas with the Nazis, and to do so diminishes the Holocaust. The Nazis wanted to exterminate all the Jews on earth. Hamas wants to displace (or, yes, kill) those Jews living on land they claim for themselves. Likewise, the loose charges of “genocide” lodged against the Israeli government and army are inaccurate: Genocide is the systematic extermination of a people targeted by their nationality, ethnicity, race or religion.
On the left, there have been some discouraging strands in this debate. American feminists have been conspicuous in their silence regarding rape as a tool of war by Hamas. Similarly, LGBTQ+ activists give Hamas a pass for their draconian views about sexuality. And democratic reformists seem unconcerned that Hamas has not had an election in more than a decade in power.
If one can justify rape, baby killing. hostage-taking, and shooting unarmed civilians as “legitimate military action,” then in the words of a letter from members of the Columbia University faculty, that tells us all we need to know about people we once thought were our allies.
That’s not my left or my progressive movement.
At the same time, none of this justifies in any way the Israeli bombings of Gazan civilians, which I do not and cannot. Given the grossly asymmetrical death toll among civilians, calling for a ceasefire or at least a pause is a principled and humanitarian position, one that is morally defensible. However, the reality is that a sustained ceasefire won’t happen before the war is over, a conflict in which many more will die. And in fairness, it must be said that intention is irrelevant to the victims on both sides, or to their survivors. Dead is dead.
Yet the debate in this country, especially on college campuses, has become a runaway train.
It is true that there have been physical attacks, both on campuses and on streets. They are real and should be condemned and prosecuted, but they are by no means widespread, and in and of themselves, anonymous postings on social media do not constitute a “wave” of antisemitism. Tearing down posters of kidnapped Israelis and verbal confrontations that ensue may fuel paranoia and provide ammunition for Israel supporters, but they do not represent a campus “upheaval,” as charged by numerous Jewish groups.
For example, at Cooper Union, a private college in New York City, the fact that Jewish students barricaded themselves in the library, in the absence of credible physical threats (the New York Police Department told the press there was “no direct threat” in the incident), speaks more to their current and historical mindset than the jeopardy they were in. Or take the most recent situation at Cornell University, involving a handful of emails, all vile, to be sure. But authorities now say they have come from one, troubled person. With people dying in Israel and Gaza, this equation of perceived danger with the killings in Israel and Gaza seems to me madness.
In my experience covering antisemitism in the U.S. in the past dozen years, few if any actual attacks are preceded by public threats. Similarly, anonymous threats on social media are just that, although they exploit the atmosphere created by actual attacks.
Students’ and parents’ demands that universities they want to apply to guarantee their safety are wholly out of proportion to any actual threat. As a journalist, it offends me when, on numerous campuses, each time a single student makes the claim that they feel threatened or intimidated, groups count that as another example of antisemitism or Islamophobia. An assertion is not evidence. Some Jewish groups, including the ADL, have used such creative bookkeeping to advance their agendas. This results in hysteria that inflates the numbers into a “wave,” which in turn generates funding appeals.
Antisemitism, like Islamophobia—charges of which have been similarly made by Muslim and Arab students on a number of campuses—should be calculated by actual, violent incidents on campuses, not by unverifiable threats, or perceived feelings of being threatened.
Here again, some things have been clarified. There are real cases of campus intimidation. Physically threatening people with violence for political disagreements, much less attacking them, is unacceptable. Likewise, professors who abuse their authority in the classroom, singling out Jewish students and Israel supporters.
But students and faculty who were so loose with their words unilaterally condemning Israel are learning that actions have consequences. Their complaints about those consequences—costing them elite first jobs at law firms starting at $200,000 a year or cushy university sinecures—and then charging they are the object of persecution, makes them sound to me like entitled crybabies.
Top image: A pro-Palestine/anti-Israel rally in Washington, DC. Photo credit: Ted Eytan via Wikimedia (CC-BY-SA-2.0)