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Are Pro-Palestinan College Protesters Anti-Semetic?

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By Howard Winant, Used with Permission from Common Dreams

Like the Black movement and the anti-Vietnam War movement, the movement for a free Palestine is global, not just a U.S. domestic movement. Central to the movement is opposition to the war on the civilian population of Gaza, rightly labeled genocidal. This combines with ongoing opposition to the slower-moving but still brutal Israeli offensive against Palestinians in the West Bank.

Yes, the destruction of Gaza was in reaction to the unprecedented and unjustifiable October 7, 2023 attack by Hamas (rightly labeled terrorist) on Israeli civilians. But there is no equivalence between these two criminal acts, at least not in quantitative terms. To equate them is to engage in ideological posturing, not credible political analysis. Indeed the parallel between the terms “genocide” and “terrorism” is a lot more intelligible.

I have been told by family members I have in Israel that “all Palestinians are terrorists” (full disclosure: I am Jewish and the child of survivors of the Shoah), but I don’t think they really believe that; they are expressing their rage rather than thinking deeply. I’m sure some Palestinians would say that Zionism equals genocide, but I don’t think they really believe that either. They are expressing their rage rather than thinking deeply.

The student-led movement for a free Palestine is not antisemitic. Thousands of Jewish students have joined it. Hundreds of rabbis and cantors too, as well as leaders of Jewish organizations and prominent Jews across U.S. society and beyond. Despite fervent attempts to stigmatize anti-Zionism as anti-Jewish, despite strident efforts on Israel’s part to merge its national identity with Judaism itself, or indeed with Jewish culture and ethnicity, despite the wildly inappropriate calls from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the U.S. to crack down on student protest, Israel does not represent all Jewish people or types of Jewishness. So the movement for a free Palestine is not a movement to destroy Israel and expel Jews. Everybody knows that the Israeli Jewish population is not going anywhere, any more than the Palestinians are. The phrase “from the river to the sea” is frequently used both by both Palestinians and Israelis. The movement for a free Palestine and the Israeli peace movement (small but important) should demand that that language be rearticulated so that it applies to both peoples.

Efforts to repress the student movement for a free Palestine will never succeed. It is too big and too broad. It is part of a worldwide struggle for justice. It is a working-class and poor people’s movement. It is an anti-racist movement and a feminist movement. It is an anti-colonialist movement, connected to the long struggle against European empires and the U.S. empire. It closely resembles the movements against South African apartheid and the Black Lives Matter movement, among many others.

It is not an accident that attacks on the movement have concentrated on repressing student voices. As they have so many times before, students have shown that they are our leaders in struggles for freedom, equality, and democracy. As has been true so many times before, opposition to the movement is concentrated among the wealthy and the right wing. It is wealthy donors who play the most significant role in opposing freedom for Palestinians, pressuring universities to prohibit pro-Palestinian speech and seeking to curtail nonviolent student protests. It is right-wing politicians who have become the new “snowflakes,” madly canceling students and faculty for the “antisemitism” of criticizing Israel. Not just the students, but the university itself is their frequent target.

Notably, universities were already under sustained attack before October 7, indeed long before that awful day. Universities are one of the most central institutions in society. They have not yet effectively been brought under the control of the wealthy, of anti-democratic governments and political parties, of racist and sexist power structures, and of repressive religiously based groups. This is because universities are institutions where knowledge and culture are produced, where democratic debate happens, where the wisdom of the past is preserved and studied, and where youth are able to develop their ideas and skills. Even though attacking universities is attacking their own children and destroying the futures of their own country, U.S. holders of wealth and power are willing to carry out those attacks, because they feel threatened by their own children’s views of the world. They fear the future they themselves are creating: one of permanent warfare, global heating and ecocide, and planetary apartheid. They hate being reminded, especially by their own kids, of their hypocrisy and violence.

The movement for freedom in Palestine shows us what a different future looks like. The movement demands university divestment from the Israeli warfare state and from Israeli apartheid. It calls out the oligarchs who threaten their own type of divestment, threatening to withdraw their funding from Penn, or Harvard, or the University of California, my own professional home. Let them go! Let them support Bob Jones University or Bari Weiss’ ridiculous University of Austin. Let them subsidize notorious political hacks like Christopher Rufo and political poseurs like Rep. Elise Stefanik (D-N.Y.). By and large rich donors’ funding is based on a hunger for prestige, not on any commitment to education. They seek tax write-offs. They subsidize their businesses through their donations. They hardly care about poor or working-class students, and even less about the humanities, arts, and social sciences, which are the fields where most undergraduate students major, and where the future of civilizational knowledge resides. Higher education is a public trust; it cannot be entrusted to the rich. As elsewhere in the world, it should be financed by the public, not greedy and blind billionaires.

The movement for freedom in Palestine is a new kind of movement, because it is not siloed. Students supporting freedom in Palestine have learned from Palestinians. Many have noted the connections between the Black Lives Matter movement and Palestinian freedom struggles. For example, in 2014 after the police killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, Palestinians who had long experience with the repressive police tactics of the Israelis taught Black protesters how to resist militarized police repression. (Meanwhile the Anti-Defamation League ferried U.S. cops to Israel to learn torture techniques practiced upon Palestinians.)

Movements resisting U.S. ecocide, like the Oceti Sakowin water protectors in the Standing Rock reservation, as well as anti-pipeline protesters and other climate justice activists, have learned from the Palestinians in the occupied West Bank defending their land against settlers who cut down their olive groves and destroy their water wells. U.S. feminists have learned from Palestinian women, like the then 17-year-old Ahed Tamimi, who in 2018 slapped an Israeli soldier as he tried to enter her family’s house in the occupied West Bank town of Nabi Saleh. U.S. LGBTQ activists have repudiated Israeli “pinkwashing” to express their support for Palestinians. U.S. doctors and nurses are supporting their Palestinian counterparts, reacting in horror as Israel has destroyed every hospital and health facility in Gaza. U.S. educators are supporting Palestinian scholars and teachers as Israel has blown up every university in Gaza, and has razed schools in the West Bank. People in the U.S. who take their religion seriously, rather than using it to score political points, recognize that Israeli policies imposing mass starvation would make Jesus weep. And Rabbi Hillel, and the Prophet Mohammed, and Mohandas K. Gandhi too. What would Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. say about Israeli policy in Gaza?

The movement for the freedom of Palestine, led by students, has emerged at long last as the leading political current in the worldwide struggle for freedom in general. Just as the student-led Black freedom movement led the global freedom struggle in the years after World War II, joined by anti-colonial movements and the student-led anti-Vietnam War movement, the movement for the freedom of Palestine has taken its place in the struggle’s leadership today. Or course the movement has its flaws: There are unsavory allies like Hamas and Iran whose politics hardly coincide with those of the student movement; Jewish students get harassed on campus just as Muslims do; not only Islamophobia but antisemitism lives on in the U.S., notably on the Christian right where the Quran is defiled and Rev. Hagee praises Hitler as an avatar of the Rapture.

But we have to look at the big picture: Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. Israel/Palestine can become a safe home for both Jews and Arabs. The student movement for the freedom of Palestine teaches us that the people of the world demand social justice everywhere, including in the Middle East. Mass murder solves nothing.

Bruce Gerencser, 66, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 45 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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  1. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    The term,” anti- Semitic” is kind of ironic, given that both Arabs and Jews are both Semites. Anti- Israel would be a better description. That said, something really needs to be done about that Netanyahu, before he does his bit to ignite World War III !

  2. Avatar

    I disagree with my hero Bruce on this topic. It is fashionable for (relatively few) young naive students to take up the Gazan/Palestinian cause. One thing I’ll say about the protesters, they are lazy. Pitching tents and laying out a food bar? That’s phoning it in, not to mention the 1st amendment doesn’t cover your tent. I’m also not surprised that some Jews in western democracies want to join the bandwagon. It would seem it is now liberal orthodoxy. Perhaps part of the problem is because no one bothers to listen to Palestinian television. In researching the topic I found this Israeli tour guide that has been giving the average Israeli perspective. Here’s the link, at least get the other side of the story.

  3. Avatar
    John S.

    Like a lot of contemporary issues, my thoughts are complicated by own moral compass as well as knowledge of history. Hamas leadership deserves whatever the government of Israel is able to deliver to them, including the fear that one day they may wake up with a Mossad assassin standing over them.
    However, like the movie “Munich”, killing every last Hamas member is not going to bring about peace.

    Benjamin Netanyahu also deserves whatever justice he receives, whether in this life or the next. You cannot convince me that he had no clue that the October 7th attack wasn’t in the works. He was in trouble due to his attempt to interfere in the duties of the Israeli Supreme Court, resulting in nationwide protests and counter protests. He now enjoys an almost Stalin-like level of unchallenged power to deal with the Palestinians in Gaza, which has resulted in a level of human suffering (particularly of children) that has alienated most of Israel’s allies. Yes, many Hamas terrorists have been killed as well, but the means and methods have been cruel and catastrophic.

    So what about these students? Are they truly sympatico with an oppressed minority being systematically wiped out, or are they “useful idiots” for a terrorist organization (Hamas) and their theocratic nation proxy (Iran)? My thought is that there are probably elements of both in this movement. While these are adults, they are (mostly) young American adults who spend most of their time in intellectual pursuits. That is both a blessing since they are able to study this problem deeper than most Americans, but also a curse in as much as they still most likely do not understand the nuance of real life in general.

    There are elements of both virtue and evil in the fight for Palestinian recognition and for the existence of the State of Israel. Accusations of “anti-semitism” and “Islamophobia”obscure the nuance of this reality.

  4. Avatar

    I agree with John S that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is complex. There’s no easy solution to the issues that have festered there for decades.

  5. Avatar
    Yulya Sevelova

    I’m watching the protests against Israel here in Los Angeles, especially UCLA, and one thing I wonder about is, how come these students and those who have been joining them aren’t interested in going after the four leaders of Hamas, who have around 11 billion dollars in assets between them,which should be shared with the residents of Gaza-the world’s biggest homeless camp- the PA, and that Netanyahu ?? I wish the US would force Netanyahu from office, before things get even worse ! He does say he plans on attacking Gaza , no matter what concessions are made by Hamas.

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