How pervasive is antisemitism on US campuses? A look at the language of the protests | US news

The protesters who seized Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall on Tuesday swiftly unfurled a banner down the front of the storied building with just one word: intifada.

Other students among the pro-Palestinian demonstrators in the heart of the New York campus were sceptical about invoking the Arabic call for an uprising because it has been so widely used by pro-Israeli groups to discredit their cause as support for terrorism and therefore antisemitic.

Those students’ fears were swiftly realised when the White House described the use of intifada as “hate speech”. Supporters of Israel at Columbia said it represented a threat to Jewish lives on campus because it amounted to a glorification of the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign during the second intifada against the Israeli occupation two decades ago.

Eric Adams, New York’s mayor, accused the students who hung the banner of being antisemites as he sent in the police to haul them out of Hamilton Hall and dismantle a tent camp erected to demand the university sell its investments in Israel and to show support for the Palestinians as the war in Gaza grinds on.

Columbia’s administration said it called in the police to stop the protest that began on the campus last month, and then spread to other universities, in part to protect the safety of Jewish students threatened by antisemitic actions.

But pro-Palestinian students accuse Columbia of using concerns about safety as cover to shut them down under pressure from politicians and pro-Israel groups with a long history of wielding claims of antisemitism to curb legitimate protest against Israel.

It’s hard to deny that there have been antisemitic incidents on the campus, including the targeting of students, probably Jewish, called “Nazi bitches” and told to “go back to Poland”.

One female Jewish student described a masked pro-Palestinian demonstrator confronting her as she walked across campus one evening. She said he got extremely close and menacingly demanded to know if she was a Zionist. After that, she stopped wearing a Star of David necklace.

A flag reading ‘Intifada’ hangs from Hamilton Hall on Tuesday. Photograph: Mary Altaffer/AP

“It was genuinely frightening. Looking back, I don’t think he would have physically attacked me but I was very afraid in that moment and I am still afraid to come on to campus alone,” she said.

Gil Zussman, a professor of electrical engineering and member of Columbia’s antisemitism taskforce, said other students had had similar experiences of being threatened or verbally attacked.

“Several times I met Jewish girls sitting on the stairs and crying. They are being targeted personally. When people are calling a Jewish girl, with family murdered in the Holocaust, a Nazi, this is really, really bad,” he said.

Nonetheless, instances of threatening behaviour directed at individuals appear to have been relatively isolated and more likely to occur at parallel protests by non-students outside the campus.

The wider issue for Zussman and other pro-Israel activists is the more complex area of anti-Zionism that they claim creates an “unsafe” and “threatening” climate for Jews at Columbia.

The day before the police shut down the protests, pro-Palestinian students led marches around the heart of the campus chanting “Brick by brick, wall by wall, Israel will fall” and “We don’t want no two state, we will take all of it”. Others led with a variation on the popular but contentious “river to the sea” slogan: “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be Arab.” One protester cried: “Fuck Israel, Israel’s a bitch.”

Zussman, who was part of a small group of Israel supporters gathered next to a wall overlooking the camp the day before the police arrested the protesters, argued that the denunciations of Zionism, as opposed to opposition to the war in Gaza or protests in support of an end to occupation, left many Jewish students feeling threatened on campus.

“I’ve seen relatively large crowds of more than 100 people saying Zionists are not wanted here. This has really veered away from free speech and into something you will never see in a college campus towards any other minority group. When they shout ‘no Zionists here’ then they are targeting us personally,” said Zussman, who is Israeli and Jewish.

“Even if you are unhappy about the policies of Mexico, if somebody would be shouting ‘we don’t want Mexicans here’ the university would act very quickly.”

Zussman said he had also seen students carrying signs glorifying Hamas rocket attacks.

“It’s like, we will kill you because you are Israeli or Jewish,” he said.

The university suspended one of the protest leaders, Khymani James, after video emerged of him saying in January that “Zionists don’t deserve to live” and “Be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists”.

Students hold a rally in support of Israel and demand greater protection from antisemitism on campus at Columbia on 14 February 2024. Photograph: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

James also said that Zionists, white supremacists and Nazis “are all the same people” because their existence is “antithetical to peace”.

“I feel very comfortable, very comfortable, calling for those people to die,” he said.

James apologised for his comments after they were made public and said they were “wrong”.

“Every member of our community deserves to feel safe without qualification,” he wrote.

After James’s remarks were made public, university officials wrote to Columbia students denouncing antisemitism as threatening safety.

“Chants, signs, taunts and social media posts from our own students that mock and threaten to ‘kill’ Jewish people are totally unacceptable, and Columbia students who are involved in such incidents will be held accountable,” the letter said.

James’s comments were widely condemned by pro-Palestinian groups, which said they did not represent the views of the movement. But pro-Israel activists and politicians have painted the student protesters at large as rooted in support for Hamas, terrorism and the destruction of Israel.

That message was reinforced in parts of the media. The CNN presenter Dana Bash drew widespread scorn for likening the situation on US campuses to antisemitism in 1930s Europe.

“The fear among Jews in this country is palpable right now,” she said.

Bash also dismissed the motives of pro-Palestinian calls for a ceasefire in Gaza by claiming there was a ceasefire before the Hamas attack on 7 October notwithstanding continued Israeli aggression in the occupied territories, including the shooting of hundreds of Palestinians in the West Bank and the army’s complicity in Jewish settler violence against Palestinians. Armed groups also fired hundreds of rockets from Gaza into Israel earlier in the year.

Nadia Abu El-Haj, a professor of anthropology and co-director of the Center for Palestine Studies at Columbia, told the New York Review of Books that she did not doubt there had been antisemitic incidents on campus alongside abuse of Muslim and other students. But El-Haj said that the “rhetoric of safety”, specifically that of Jewish students, has been used to drive a “crackdown” against pro-Palestinian activists.

One of the student protesters, Jamil Mohamad, who was born in Jordan to an exiled Palestinian family, acknowledged that some Jewish students are genuinely fearful. But he said that was in part because pro-Israel groups push the claim that opposition to Zionism amounts to support for Hamas and a call to attack Jews.

Mohamad attributes charges of antisemitism to students who do not like hearing legitimate differences of opinion such as accusations that Israel is committing genocide in Gaza.

“There is a distinction between being unsafe and feeling uncomfortable. It’s very notable to see the discourse around this issue because the right in this country that’s been talking about woke culture, and how young people are snowflakes, are suddenly adopting this narrative around safety, which is really a narrative around comfort,” he said.

“People do not have a right to feel comfortable in their ideas. This is a university. This is a place to challenge people’s ideas. Discomfort is not the same thing as danger.”

Mohamad said that the “narrative of antisemitism” was being used to silence opposition to Israel’s war in Gaza and decades of occupation. He is not alone in accusing Columbia’s president, Minouche Shafik, of seeking to appease Republican politicians who described the university as a “a hotbed of antisemitism and hatred” since protests surged in the wake of the 7 October Hamas attack and Israel’s subsequent assault on Gaza.

Minouche Shafik testifies during a House of Representatives hearing in Washington DC on 17 April 2024. Photograph: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc/Getty Images

“The university is catering to external political pressure, and also probably pressure from donors who are threatening to pull money out of the university because of the widespread protests against Israel on campus. Shafik very much adopted this line before Congress about antisemitism on campus without any nuance or qualification,” he said.

Ahead of Shafik’s testimony to Congress, Jewish members of the Columbia faculty wrote to her denouncing what they called “the weaponization of antisemitism” for political ends.

For their part, pro-Palestinian students say the university has shown little interest in their safety even as they have been the target of doxing by hardline pro-Israel groups, had their careers threatened by powerful financiers and been subject to threats of violence. So far, the only major act of violence during the nationwide protests has been an attack by supporters of Israel on a Palestine solidarity camp at UCLA.

Jared, a Jewish student at Columbia, did not want his last name used because his family was threatened after he publicly supported the Palestinian cause. He said he has been the target of antisemitism by pro-Israel activists who question his Jewishness because of his support for the Palestinians, and he is not alone. Some Jewish supporters of the pro-Palestinian protests report being called “kapos” – collaborators in Nazi concentration camp prisoners – by other Jewish students.

“Most of the students recognise that there is a divide between calling for a free Palestine and the government of Israel, and Israel does not represent the Jewish people. But there are Jewish students who are steeped in fear of anything Palestinian,” said Jared.

Part of the dispute hangs on the intent of slogans. Some pro-Israel groups have long given the most extreme interpretation to political demands, such as claiming that calls for a ceasefire in Gaza are antisemitic because they deny Israel the right to defend itself.

The Anti-Defamation League’s chief executive, Jonathan Greenblatt, declared in 2022 that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism”, a claim that has been widely picked up by US politicians.

Jonathan Greenblatt in Washington DC on 2 May 2017. Photograph: Carolyn Kaster/AP

Pro-Israel activists on campus also say student demands to divest from Israel are antisemitic because they “single out” the Jewish state. In recent years, pro-Israeli organisations have successfully pushed through laws in several states penalising support for the non-violent Boycott, Divest, Sanctions (BDS) movement on similar grounds.

Two slogans in particular draw accusations that they amount to calls for violence against Jews and therefore make Jewish students feel threatened by those who chant them.

“From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” is frequently denounced as a call to eradicate Israel and even its Jewish population. The demand for an intifada is widely seen as invoking the Palestinian suicide bombing campaign against Israel of the early 2000s.

Some Palestinian activists say that one is a call for equal rights for Palestinians in a single state and the other for a popular uprising to achieve that. They note that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, used a similar phrase to “the river to the sea” in January when he said that his country “must have security control over the entire territory west of the Jordan River”.

Even so, Norman Finkelstein, the Jewish American political scientist who is a strong critic of Israel, advised the protesters to reconsider the use of slogans that can be used against them. Finkelstein went to Columbia to praise the students for raising public consciousness about the Palestinian cause but he advised them “to adjust to the new political reality that there are large numbers of people, probably a majority, who are potentially receptive to your message”.

“One has to exercise at a moment like this, if for no other reason than for the people of Gaza, one has to exercise maximum responsibility. Maximum responsibility to get out of one’s navel, to crawl out of one’s ego, and to always keep in mind one particular question: what are we trying to accomplish at this particular moment?” he said.

Once Finkelstein has finished speaking, a protester took the microphone and led a chant of “from the river to the sea”.

Mohamad said that while he respected Finkelstein, “this is not a top-down movement”.

“We cannot dictate slogans from the top down. We can’t tell people you can say this, you can’t say that,” he said.

Norman Finkelstein speaks to students at Columbia on 19 April 2024. Photograph: Katie Smith/Sipa USA via Alamy

Mohamad said that, in any case, he doubted whether abandoning chants such as “from the river to the sea” would make very much difference.

“It has been a slogan in the pro-Palestine movement for many years. Telling people not to use the slogan at this stage because it’s ambiguous – and, yes, there is some ambiguity to it – goes along with this rightwing weaponisation of antisemitism because there are bad faith forces. They do not want to interpret any slogan for Palestinian liberation in a good light. They want to paint us all as antisemites and as Jew-haters,” he said.

Jared, the Jewish student, said he thought Finkelstein had a point about the language but that critics were really only interested in objecting to slogans as a means of distracting from the scale of killing in Gaza.

“We could be better in the slogans that we choose to use. I agree that maybe we should be focusing on protesting against genocide. But the focus on the language of protesters here is meant to take the focus off the genocide going on in Gaza,” he said.

The result, though, is that a movement to press for an end to Israel’s war on Gaza in which more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, most of them children and women, has now found itself overshadowed by its loudest voices.

After the police raid on Columbia and other New York campuses, the NYPD’s deputy commissioner for operations, Kaz Daughtry, posted video of what he called a “proud moment” as officers took down a Palestinian flag at City College, tossed it aside and raised the US flag.

To some pro-Palestinian activists the incident seemed to resemble the actions of a conquering army marking its victory over a defeated enemy, and provided further evidence that the police action was not about campus safety but in support of Israel at the behest of politicians allied with the Jewish state.

On Wednesday, the House of Representatives took up the cause when it passed the Antisemitism Awareness Act requiring the US education department to use the controversial International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance definition of antisemitism in enforcing anti-discrimination laws. The American Civil Liberties Union described the law as “an effort to stifle criticism of Israel”.

Some Jewish activists have warned that, by playing into tropes about powerful Jews manipulating power, the perception that freedom of speech is being curtailed and protesters arrested at the behest of powerful pro-Israel interests risks fuelling antisemitism.

Jared saw another danger too.

“If you protest against the genocide, and then a lot of people come out and say, that’s offensive to Jewish people, people will associate Jewish people with committing a genocide, and that makes us infinitely less safe,” he said.

“Jewish people aren’t committing a genocide. Israel is and Israel does not represent all of the Jewish people. And by using the Jewish people to shield Israel from any criticism will lead to an unbelievable amount of antisemitism.”

You may also like

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *