‘Anti-Israelism’ is the Problem, Not Antisemitism

Prime Minister Netanyahu has no doubts.  According to The Times of Israel, he has asserted in an English-language video that “Antisemitic mobs have taken over leading universities.  They call for the annihilation of Israel, they attack Jewish students, they attack Jewish faculty,” in acts reminiscent of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. [This was posted a day prior to the police crackdowns at Columbia and CCNY.]

Although there are serious reasons for concern, the situation’s not out of hand in the way that Netanyahu describes. American colleges and universities are nothing like Germany in the 1930s. Yet I’ve been shaken by some of the X posts I’ve seen — such as demonstrators identifying themselves as Hamas, and another shrilly promising “thousands” more October 7th massacres of Israelis.

I’m also aware that there have been other hateful incidents, such as a social media video by a Columbia student-leader of the protests, Khymani James, stating that “Zionists don’t deserve to live . . . The existence of them and the projects they have built i.e. Israel, it’s all antithetical to peace. So yes I feel very comfortable — very comfortable — calling for those people to die.” (He’s been suspended by Columbia, and has apologized — sort of.)

Since I live within a mile of Columbia’s main campus, I walked up there twice in recent days. Things along the street were under control, but definitely not normal.  There was a heavy police presence near metal barricades outside the locked gates of the main entrance.  Small groups of demonstrators were confined by the barricades, but not actually hemmed in.

The day before Passover, I saw about 30 very energetic and loud young people.  Some of their chants, as I recall them: “From the river to the sea …,” ending with “Palestine is almost free.”  (In cheerfully adding “almost,” the lead chanter seemed to be endorsing recent events.) I also heard “From the sea to the river, Palestine will live forever,” “occupation is a crime, free free Palestine,” and “Is-ra-el go to hell.”

On another day, the same space was bisected between anti-Zionist Chasidim and a group identifying as Christians for the liberation of Palestine.  The Chasidim occasionally chanted (rather softly) for an end to the war, condemning “Zionist crimes” and a more rousing “2-4-6-8, Israel is NOT a Jewish state.” This last chant probably puzzled the Christians, who were mostly silent with a large pro-Palestinian banner and posters speaking for them.


Other anti-Zionist Jewish groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, and individual Jews involved in the protests, are very different than the theologically-driven anti-Zionist Chasidim, but this very visible Jewish presence in the demonstrations reinforces my view that the problem is not antisemitism as such. This is further substantiated by a four-minute segment on NPR (“Columbia cancels in-person classes after some students say they don’t feel safe“) with Prof. Debbie Becher, a sociologist at Barnard. While her full-throated defense of the protesters was unconvincing, I appreciate her upbeat observation that about 75 Jewish student-protesters and a dozen Jewish faculty held a seder with many non-Jewish fellow activists “in a pro-Palestinian space.”

The major problem is “anti-Israelism.”  Most of the demonstrators seem to be against (or at best, indifferent toward) the existence of Israel as a country.  This can be seen as “anti-Zionism,” but questioning the survival of a nation, with its unique identity and cultural heritage, goes beyond opposing an ideology (an “ism”); the latter implies a level of abstraction.

Whatever we call it, totally blaming Israel for a crisis initiated by Hamas’s massive terrorist attack is wrong-headed, to put it mildly. It’s true that the underlying causes of the conflict go way back, with Israel responsible for plenty of wrongdoing. But ignoring the malicious role of Hamas, both recently and since its beginnings, is mind-boggling. Hamas’s founding Covenant in 1988 is a textbook expression of antisemitism; while its 2017 revised version claims to disavow antisemitism, it also rejects any lasting peace with Israel.

Hamas has always acted to undermine the possibility of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. Its two most spectacular “achievements” prior to October 7th: a wave of bloody suicide bombings in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, which made it possible for Netanyahu to come from 20 points behind to defeat Shimon Peres in the 1996 election; and in provoking the first Israel-Gaza war in 2008-09, which paved the way for Netanyahu to return to power a few months later, outmaneuvering Tzipi Livni, the peace candidate who actually won more votes.

Can Demonstrations Foster Dialogue?

As indicated above, this stuff is complicated. Like Irene Mulvey, president of the Association of University Professors (AAUP), I support the academic ideal of free expression, inquiry and discourse, but question her contention that protests can be the right venue. The following is from her statement on the PBS Newshour broadcast of April 23:

… calling in police in riot gear on peaceful protesters protesting outside is a remarkably disproportionate and wrong-ended response to the events we’re seeing on campus, because higher education is founded on listening, learning, discussion, debate, free and open inquiry….

… The institution is required to allow for the most free and open expression, while also ensuring that conversations are civil and dialogue is respectful.

Dr. Mulvey is failing to recognize that these loud, mass events do not foster civil and respectful discussions. They are not environments that cultivate genuine pro-peace dialogue, respecting both Jewish/Israeli rights & concerns and the need for Palestinian lives & rights to be protected.

Instead, consider the observations of Columbia linguistics professor and NY Times columnist John McWhorter in his recent column, “I’m a Columbia Professor. The Protests on My Campus Are Not Justice.“:

Why do so many people think that weekslong campus protests against not just the war in Gaza but Israel’s very existence are nevertheless permissible?

… Pro-Palestinian rallies and events, of which there have been many here over the years, are not in and of themselves hostile to Jewish students, faculty and staff members…. However, the relentless assault of this current protest — daily, loud, louder, into the night and using ever-angrier rhetoric — is beyond what any people should be expected to bear up under….

Social media discussion has been claiming that the protests are peaceful…. But relatively constant are the drumbeats. People will differ on how peaceful that sound can ever be, just as they will differ on the nature of antisemitism….

Replacing Israelis

Micah L. Sifry, a left-liberal journalist and researcher, encountered anti-Israelism in person a few weeks ago. He reported on this experience in a post called “Palestine and the ‘Anti-Imperialism of Fools’,” for his weekly newsletter, “The Connector“:

I attended a workshop on “Building Support for Palestinian Liberation” that was held … as part of the Wespac Foundation’s 2024 Social Forum. The workshop was advertised as being facilitated by three groups—National Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) Westchester, and Palestinian Youth Movement (PYM) NYC….

… I was appalled because these people, as they made clear in their own words, are not seeking peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians. They say, instead, that they are fighting for the liberation of Palestine from Israeli Jews, who they prefer to call Zionists, as a form of moral distancing from the implications of their words. They have as much chance of achieving this as they would demanding that the 8.3 million people of New York City move out and let the descendants of the Lenape tribe and other indigenous inhabitants of the tristate area take over. But that thought never seemed to cross their minds, so sure were they of the righteousness of their cause….