American college campuses, as well as our society more broadly, continue to be roiled by incidents of hate targeting Jews as well as Muslims and Palestinians that grow out of the ongoing war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. The conflict has certainly created tension within our country’s politics as well.
A recent antisemitic incident at Yale provides an opportunity to explore the differences between hate and legitimate protest/political expression, and to highlight and praise a collection of pro-Palestinian groups who drew that line in a crystal clear fashion. These groups definitively rejected an antisemitic act that occurred during their protest. One can question the importance of such an act in the face of so much violence and suffering. However, for some people, taking heart where they are able to can provide the hope for the future they need in order to keep going.
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On Dec. 9, a pro-Palestinian rally organized in New Haven, Connecticut, by a coalition of groups consisting of American Muslims for Palestine’s Connecticut chapter, Students for Justice in Palestine at the University of Connecticut, We Will Return Palestine, and Yalies4Palestine took place near the Yale campus.
Three hundred or so people marched, and one rallygoer—whose face was masked by a keffiyeh (a black and white garment that has come to symbolize the Palestinian cause)—climbed up a large menorah being publicly displayed to celebrate Hanukkah, and placed a Palestinian flag over it. Authorities are continuing to investigate the incident and, well over a month later, don’t know the identity of this person or whether they are a member of the Yale community. The coalition of organizers stated that this person was not a member of any of their groups (more on their very important statement below).
As you can see, rallygoers ran over almost immediately and demanded that the masked individual take down the flag. They yelled “get down” and “take it down,” and one said “that looks bad for us.” Although the video stops before it happens, the person who put the flag on the menorah did take it down right after putting it up, as Jake Dressler, who took the video, told reporters.
Something else of note occurred during the rally. According to New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker and Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, some people threw eggs at the pro-Palestinian protesters. Both leaders condemned this action as well, calling it “hate violence.”
Returning to the act of antisemitism, what took place right after the flag went up was a positive response in the moment from the other participants in the pro-Palestinian march. Even if one or more of them was motivated at least in part by concern for any potential fallout for the groups as a result from the incident, there’s nothing wrong with that. Their immediate concern was getting the flag taken down, and those words might have been what convinced the perpetrator to remove it.
It is, however, the righteous response released by the coalition of organizers the next day that shows the depth of their empathy. The groups said they “unequivocally condemn the antisemitic action,” and added, “we are appalled by this behavior, and are especially disappointed since it comes during the religious observation of Hanukkah.” The statement continued:
These actions do not align with our goals of promoting respective [sic] dialogue and peaceful advocacy. As organizers, we apologize deeply for the hurt this has caused. Moving forward, we will take further precautions to uphold our commitment to foster an inclusive and respectful environment for all participants. … Our movement for Palestine … has no room for antisemitism.
As a Jew, I greatly appreciate these words. This was no half-hearted statement of disapproval with a “but …” attached to it. The groups recognized the act was not only wrong, but named it as antisemitic, apologized for its impact—even though they themselves didn’t put the flag up—and mentioned taking steps to prevent future problematic actions. Their words make clear that these pro-Palestinian activists reject hatred of Jews, and provide a model for how any group should respond when those claiming affiliation with their cause commit an act of hate. These things matter.
Yale University strongly condemned the incident as well, as did political and religious leaders, again specifically noting that the act was antisemitic. The reason for that is that it targeted a religious symbol of Judaism, rather than the Israeli state. The act thus conflated the actions of Israel—which, as a country, is obviously a legitimate focus of protest—with all Jews worldwide by attacking a symbol of their faith and peoplehood. Doing so represents a core antisemitic trope.
the debate over zionism
Those of us who decry acts of antisemitism that connect in some way to Israel must also state clearly that not all protests against or criticisms of Israel are antisemitic. There is a lot of debate over whether anti-Zionism in any form is by definition antisemitic. The Anti-Defamation League has stated clearly that this is the case. Separately, Republicans have used the question to divide Democrats.
My take is that it is antisemitic to argue that Jews should not have a state of their own but that it’s fine for other groups to have one. Singling out Israel in this way doesn’t pass the smell test. What complicates the issue even more is that the definition of terms like Zionism and anti-Zionism are themselves debated.
For me, Zionism simply equates to a belief that Jews not only deserve but need to have a territory that they govern. There are at least two reasons for this: first, humanity has shown time and again that they can’t be trusted not to massacre us in large numbers; and second because millions of Jews have now been living within the official borders of Israel for three-quarters of a century (separate from Jews’ indigeneity to the region going back to before their violent expulsion by the Roman Empire over two millennia ago), and most have no other land to “go back” to. I’m also a Zionist who profoundly disagrees with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and many of Israel’s policies in recent decades—in particular regarding West Bank settlements—as do many other Zionists.
I have written extensively about Jewish students facing antisemitism on college campuses, and anti-Jewish hate and violence more broadly. It is a severe and pervasive problem that has gotten worse in recent years; antisemitic incidents are up almost 400% since Oct. 7, compared to the same period a year earlier (even intruding on a high school basketball game). Furthermore, many Jews have been frustrated by what appears to be, as Len Gutkin wrote in the Chronicle of Higher Education, “a double standard whereby college administrators encourage exquisite sensitivity toward every kind of potentially harmful speech except for the radical chic embrace of, say, Hamas iconography.”
intent vs. impact
The dominant argument on campus has long been that it’s not the intent behind a potential microaggression that matters, but rather the impact on those who feel targeted. Campuses haven’t applied that argument with the same vigor when it comes to rhetoric that targets Jews. Linguist John McWhorter called this lack of consistency “almost chilling.”
On the other hand—and this is no easy balancing act—we cannot allow the fight against antisemitism to quash legitimate debate on Israel and the right to advocate without fear for Palestinian rights and liberation, which are goals I strongly endorse as well. Just as Jews must have a country, so must Palestinians. I stand with anyone pushing for a two-state solution, the only solution that can provide freedom and security for both peoples. However, even though I disagree with them, those advocating for a one-state solution—so long as they don’t call for or condone violence, or use hateful rhetoric—must have the right to make their case as well.
As for those who do spout such extremism, well, Gaza-born Palestinian activist Ezzeldeen Masri, the U.S. outreach director for OneVoice, whose mission is to “empower” moderate Palestinian and Israeli voices working for a just peace, has some words for them:
To all those protesting in support of the Palestinian people, thank you. But to those who think you are supporting my people by defending Hamas, please be aware: Your radical positions aren’t helping us. They are hurting us more.
By using violence (which it does not hesitate to inflict upon civilians) to achieve its goals, Hamas is a terrorist organization by definition. The overwhelming majority of Palestinians do not condone violence and acts of terror. Those who lump us together with a terrorist group contribute to misconceptions and stereotypes about our people that sow anti-Muslim hate.
To those who were exhilarated at witnessing Hamas’ acts, I ask whether you have experienced the centuries of pain my people have suffered. For us, it is not a video on TikTok; it’s real life. I ask whether you can bring us closer to the ultimate goal of peace.
Colleges have to support free speech as well as students on all sides of the Israel-Palestine question who face hate. When it comes to antisemitism, we’ve certainly seen instances of failure on the part of colleges, but pro-Palestinian students and groups believe they’ve been failed as well, as The New York Times reported:
Radhika Sainath, an attorney with Palestine Legal, a civil rights group, said her organization has received more than 450 requests for help for campus-related cases since the Hamas attack, more than a tenfold increase from the same period last year. The cases include students who have had scholarships revoked or been doxxed, professors who have been disciplined, and administrators who have gotten pressured by trustees.
“It’s truly like nothing else we’ve ever seen before,” Ms. Sainath said. “We’re having a ’60s-level moment here, both as far as the repression but also the mass student mobilization.”
feeling threatened goes both ways
Beyond what colleges themselves are doing to restrict speech, there have even been instances of pro-Palestinian activists feeling physically threatened, and one incident, at Columbia University, where protesters were sprayed with some kind of liquid, causing nausea and vomiting (not to mention multiple acts of violence committed away from campuses). A Republican New York City Council member, Inna Vernikov, went to a pro-Palestinian rally at Brooklyn College openly carrying a firearm. She declared that the students were “pro-Hamas” and added, “If you’re here today standing with these people, you’re nothing short of a terrorist without the bombs.” The councilwoman was arrested and faces charges for carrying a gun at a rally.
A number of Brooklyn College students stated that they felt afraid of violence. “We haven’t been to classes in a week because we feel unsafe,” explained Ruya Hazeyen, co-president of the campus chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine. Like-minded students at other colleges have expressed similar fears after making their views known. I may not agree with everything said at every pro-Palestinian protest, and some SJP chapters have said things that are downright despicable. Nevertheless, people peacefully advocating certainly don’t deserve to feel like their safety is at risk.
Universities need to support those who are pro-Israel or pro-Palestinian, however one defines those terms, by providing space for robust, hate-free debate. Those who are protesting but not spreading hate must be able to proclaim their views—even if those views make those on the other side of the issue uncomfortable—and remain free of punishment and harassment. And universities must do everything they can to prevent students from being doxxed under any circumstances.
Separate from protecting students’ right to protest, these institutions must also: 1) define what kinds of speech represent hate and/or a call for violence, 2) sanction those who engage in such speech, and 3) provide active support for all students, of any identity, whom the spreaders of hate and violence target with their bile.
Yale has certainly seen some problematic statements since the Oct. 7 attacks. Zareena Grewal, a tenured professor in the department of American Studies, for example, justified the Hamas murders as being part of the Palestinians’ “right to resist through armed struggle,” and characterized the murdered and raped Israeli victims as “settlers” who are “not civilians”—and thus legitimate targets of said resistance. Imagine how unsafe Israeli and Jewish students felt hearing that one of their professors posted such dehumanizing sentiments on social media.
However, the response of the pro-Palestinian coalition to the Dec. 9 flag incident near Yale is so heartening precisely because students who disagree profoundly with the policies of the Israeli government during this war stood up for the right of Jewish members of their community to be free from antisemitism.
We have also seen Jewish groups who identify as supporters of Israel speak out against Islamophobia and anti-Arab/anti-Palestinian violence and hate. In fact, 162 organizations signed a statement declaring exactly that. It also rightly noted: “Our communities’ safety is inextricably linked, and only by coming together and calling it out can we defeat the forces of hate and violence.”
Although it can’t end the fighting and the bloodshed right now, the kind of empathy these Palestinian and Jewish groups have shown matters a great deal, and maybe helps in some small way to contribute to a more peaceful future.
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Ian Reifowitz is the author of The Tribalization of Politics: How Rush Limbaugh’s Race-Baiting Rhetoric on the Obama Presidency Paved the Way for Trump (Foreword by Markos Moulitsas)