Why “pro-Palestinian” campus mobs consider Jew-hatred a progressive value

Pro-Palestinian and pro-Hamas supporters set up a protest encampment on the campus of Columbia University in New York, as seen on April 22, 2024. Credit: Lev Radin/Shutterstock.

by Jonathan Tobin

(JNS) — Ideas that reduce complex problems into simple mantras are always popular. But those that cloak a political ideology in the sort of language and symbolism in sync with the cultural fashions of the moment and allow people to imagine themselves on the right side of history can spawn world-changing movements. When young people especially are indoctrinated with such notions — the idea of correcting a historical wrong — the results can produce the shocking surge of antisemitism that’s unfolding right now on U.S. college campuses.

The spectacle of a critical mass of this current generation of American college students — egged on by many of their professors and even administrators — chanting slogans about erasing the State of Israel from the map (“from the river to the sea”), cheering on Islamist terror against Jews everywhere (“intifada revolution” and “globalize the intifada”) and speaking openly about banning the presence of “Zionists” from their midst, if not condoning violence against them, has shaken many Americans. That is especially true for liberal Jews and others who believe that antisemitism is primarily if not solely a problem on the political right.

Yet the most important part of this story is what hasn’t happened. Instead of a united nation responding to these expressions of hate and bigotry with one voice, many declarations are being heard in defense of what are, for all intents and purposes, a burgeoning mass movement supporting the Hamas terrorist movement that carried out the manifold atrocities in southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Toxic leftist ideas

How is it possible for what is supposed to be the best and the brightest of American students — those who attend Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Cornell and many other elite universities where the “pro-Palestine” protests have sprung up — to embrace such a profoundly evil cause?

The simple answer for what should be seen as responsible points to the intellectual fashion of the day, which, for lack of a better term, we are forced to call “woke” ideologies. The toxic ideas of critical race theory and intersectionality, which teach that the world is permanently divided between “white” oppressors and people of color who are their victims, have decided that Israel and the Jews belong to the former, and Hamas and its mass of Palestinian supporters are among the latter.

These ideas have been mainstreamed of late in America’s educational system and culture. Since the moral panic about race that occurred in the Black Lives Matter summer after a Minneapolis police officer killed George Floyd in May 2020, they have become the new orthodoxy against which dissent is not permitted in U.S. leading institutions.

While some of us have been pointing out for years that the BLM movement and the ideas behind it grant a permission slip for antisemitism, this has only become obvious to most people in the last six months. To the horror of many people, the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust didn’t engender sympathy for Israel or the Jewish people. Instead, it provided the spark for a surge in antisemitism around the world almost immediately after Oct. 7.

Many Jews believed they could always count on enlightened liberal opinion in this country not only to condemn expressions of right-wing Jew-hatred in the strongest terms but to also isolate it. Instead, they have watched with amazement and concern as the mobs engaging in antisemitic invective have been defended or rationalized in mainstream liberal media like The New York Times and MSNBC as idealists or, at worst, emotional children whose actions are an understandable reaction to Israeli atrocities. In doing so, those who are taking this line aren’t just repeating and spreading Hamas propaganda and blatant falsehoods. They are accepting the premise that opposition to the existence of the one Jewish state on the planet is somehow the natural political position of those who call themselves progressives.

‘Very fine people’

Indeed, much like the BLM riots that wreaked havoc in American cities in the summer of 2020, the campus protests are being described as “mostly peaceful.” The narrative about the campus mobs in much of the corporate media is that they are merely “pro-Palestine” and that any antisemitism is merely the excessive behavior of a few marginal people who don’t represent the true spirit of the protests.

Almost as troubling is the fact that even when the antisemitic nature of the protests is recognized, the core problem is ignored. It’s not just that those taking part are engaging in demonstrations where Israel and its supporters are demonized, Jewish rights erased and Jews are being threatened. It’s that the people doing this don’t think they are wrong. They are convinced that they are speaking up for a righteous cause. Not only is that false premise being reinforced by mainstream press coverage, but it is also being upheld by leaders of the political left.

Indeed, the most outrageous example of that didn’t come from Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), who is notorious for her own antisemitic statements and who showed up on the Columbia campus this week to show solidarity with the “pro-Palestine” mob in the company of her daughter, a student at Barnard College who had been suspended for her role in violating the school’s rules.

The best encouragement the students received was from President Joe Biden, who, when asked about antisemitism on college campuses, condemned it but then added that he was just as concerned about “those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.” It was, as Alan Dershowitz and Andrew Stein wrote in The Wall Street Journal, a “very fine people” moment for the president.

That referenced the infamous claim that former President Donald Trump had said that there were some “very fine people” among those who gathered in Charlottesville, Va., in August 2017 for the neo-Nazi “Unite the Right” rally. Of course, Trump didn’t say that since he was referencing those who opposed the taking down of Confederate statues, and not Nazis or members of the Ku Klux Klan.

While that distinction was ignored in the media scramble to condemn Trump, Biden is largely getting a pass for his own effort to treat the cause that the antisemitic agitators are supporting as valid. The point being is that much of the media and leftist opinion are treating those yelling slurs at Jews as “very fine people” who are just going a little too far in their advocacy.

In the wake of Columbia University president Minouche Shafik’s ambivalence about enforcing the school’s rules against illegal demonstrations and hate speech, the narrative in the liberal media has again flipped with The New York Times concentrating on what they see as a wrongheaded decision to call in the New York City Police Department to remove the pro-Hamas encampment (though the tents returned the next day). Indeed, the paper’s urban affairs columnist Ginia Bellafante wrote that the main problem isn’t campus antisemitism but the willingness of administrators to punish the antisemites, who she and those reporting in the news section analogized to the anti-Vietnam war and anti-South African apartheid demonstrators of the past.

A movement steeped in ignorance

What is lacking in the coverage and most of the discourse is that — as interviews with them show — most of the students even at a school like Columbia can’t really explain why they are against Israel except by mindlessly repeating slogans about racism and oppression that have nothing to do with the facts on the ground in the Middle East or patent falsehoods about “genocide” in Gaza. They don’t know the history of the conflict and seem to think that Israelis and Jews are, as Palestinian propagandists claim, settler/colonialists in the one country in the world where Jews are, in fact, the indigenous people. Their demands for university divestment from Israel are based on intersectional ideology in which the century-old Arab war to deny Jewish rights is falsely depicted as analogous to the civil-rights movement in the United States.

The ignorance of these young adults is pathetic, as is their absurd cosplaying in which the wearing of keffiyehs has become campus terrorist chic. Lacking their own strong identity, they are adopting one that they perceive will give them some cachet as supporters of an embattled though fashionable cause. But having been spoon-fed the same lies that spawned the BLM movement throughout their educational experience, in which antisemitism has been redefined as progressivism, no one should be surprised by any of this.

Nor should we accept the claim that they are merely demonstrating sympathy for Palestinians or shock at human-rights violations. Far greater losses of life in wars in the Congo or Sudan — and an actual genocide in Western China where Beijing has put an estimated 1 million Muslim Uyghurs in concentration camps — haven’t moved them to utter a single word. If they really were for peace or the theoretical cause of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they would be in favor of eradicating Hamas, which is opposed to any peace that doesn’t involve the destruction of Israel and the genocide of its people.

The sad truth is that massive numbers of students at elite schools and elsewhere have been taught to adopt the Hamas Charter, whether they understand what they are supporting or not. If you think that Zionism — the national liberation movement of the Jewish people — is racism, you are denying rights to Jews that no one would think to deny to anyone else. That is antisemitism. If you are advocating for a ceasefire that would allow Hamas to get away with mass murder, you are supporting Hamas. And if you think Israel is illegitimate and should be destroyed, you are also supporting Hamas terrorists, and their genocidal plans and actions.

Tolerating the intolerable

People who advocate for hateful ideologies — whether they are directed at African-Americans, Jews or anyone else — have a First Amendment right to express their views. But they don’t have a right to be tolerated in educational institutions or treated as principled dissenters in the Times. We all know that there is zero tolerance for neo-Nazis or other right-wing extremist Jew-haters at American universities or in the liberal media. But because these institutions have been captured by woke ideologues and mainstream politicians like Biden fear their wrath, their moral equivalents on the left demonstrating on college campuses to “free Palestine” are tolerated, rationalized, excused and even lauded as heroes. In doing so, we are being asked to tolerate the intolerable.

To be “pro-Palestine” today is not to stand up for oppressed people. To the contrary, it is an expression of solidarity with latter-day Nazis and a willingness to mainstream hatred of the Jewish people, not just Israeli policies. But to condemn them is not enough. The only way to explain what has happened and to do something about it is to roll back the woke tide and purge schools, cultural institutions and the mainstream media of those spreading racialist ideas that foment this toxic hatred. Until the “progressive” ideas at the heart of the problem are dismantled, all the hand-wringing and expressions of concern about campus antisemitism will be meaningless.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.