Are the campus protests antisemitic? For many Jewish activists, a difficult debate

The long-running debate on Zionism, Israel and Jewish identity has now become an explosive political issue

Published May 2, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Pro-Israel demonstrator and Pro-Palestinian demonstrator clash with each other on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on April 25, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images)
Pro-Israel demonstrator and Pro-Palestinian demonstrator clash with each other on the campus of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) on April 25, 2024 in Los Angeles, California. (Qian Weizhong/VCG via Getty Images)

A surge of student-led rallies and encampments in protest of Israel's war in Gaza has been met with increasingly violent crackdowns. Nearly 300 people were arrested on Tuesday evening at Columbia University and the City College of New York, and police in riot gear were summoned to the UCLA campus after pro-Israel counter-protesters attempted to storm a pro-Palestine encampment.

Police have broken up protest encampments and made arrests at numerous other schools across the country within the last several days, including Tulane University, the University of North Carolina, Virginia Commonwealth University, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Utah and elsewhere. These law enforcement actions have come with bellicose calls from leading political voices and punishment meted out by university administrators, who often claim that student protests have been poisoned by rampant antisemitism. 

"Antisemitism will not be tolerated in Texas, period," tweeted Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican. At the request of University of Texas officials, Abbott recently sent state troopers onto the school's flagship campus in Austin to drive protesters from the main quad. "Students joining in hate-filled, antisemitic protests at any public college or university in Texas should be expelled," the governor added.

Allegations of antisemitic speech and conduct range from individual reports of hateful behavior — such as overt or implicit support for the Hamas surprise attack last October, in which roughly 1,200 Israelis were killed — to the more ambiguous assumption that some or all criticism of Israel and Zionism, or the Israeli military offensive that has killed 35,000 Palestinians so far, is inherently antisemitic.

"Anti-Zionism is antisemitism," said Jonathan Greenblatt, leader of the Anti-Defamation League. "The anti-Zionist is committed to denying rights to Jews that they afford to everyone else … the argument that Jews don't deserve the rights that everyone else should have.”

That is a controversial assertion, one clearly not shared by all Jewish people in America or around the world. Among the "anti-Zionists" that Greenblatt and others have described are Jewish students who celebrated Passover among the tents on Columbia University's South Lawn and Jewish activists who were arrested while participating in a sit-in at New York's Grand Central Terminal. Many in the pro-Palestine protest movement say they reject antisemitism, and that exaggerated claims of antisemitic speech or behavior have been weaponized to crush peaceful protests and suppress legitimate criticism of Israel, its war in Gaza, and policies that some human rights watchdogs have characterized as apartheid.

Such claims of antisemitism amount to an "easy and convenient way to not confront the reality that there's a war where tens of thousands of civilians have been killed," said Rabbi Shaul Magid, a professor in Jewish studies at Dartmouth College. "The war has really brought to the surface a terminological morass which makes it almost impossible to distinguish between legitimate criticism of a war and illegitimate expression of hatred towards Jews."

Many in the pro-Palestine protest movement say they reject antisemitism, and that exaggerated claims of antisemitic speech or behavior have been weaponized to crush peaceful protests and suppress legitimate criticism of Israel.

The term "anti-Zionism," Magid said, has historically been used by Jewish people as part of a long-running internal debate within the Jewish community regarding Zionism, a nationalist movement with 19th-century roots that ultimately led to the creation of Israel as a Jewish nation-state following the Holocaust and World War II. Many Jewish critics of Israeli policy view the Zionist philosophy as underpinning Israel's treatment of Palestinians. Today's dueling activist movements have obviously spread far beyond exclusively Jewish spaces. Magid said that in that context, opposition to Zionism has frequently been characterized as a "universal expression of antisemitism." He noted that there have long been anti-Zionists within the Jewish community, who believed that the mass settlement of Israel by Jewish migrants and the resulting displacement of indigenous Palestinians was a mistake, and that Judaism should be understood as a global "church" of believers, rather than a separate and unassimilable race.

For many pro-Palestine Jewish activists, uncoupling Jewish identity from Jewish or Israeli nationalism is central to their worldview. They argue that their words and actions are not merely not antisemitic, but a positive expression of Jewish values as they understand them. Focusing on universal principles drawn from the collective Jewish experience, they view the current struggle of the Palestinians as closely akin to the generations of suffering borne by their ancestors.  

"Many of us in the Jewish movement for ceasefire are descendants of people who have survived genocide, pogroms and ethnic cleansing," said Stefanie Fox, executive director of Jewish Voice for Peace. "In our ancestors’ memories, we refuse to be silent and allow our government to fund a genocide against the people of Gaza."

Pro-Israel and Zionist groups and individuals, on the other hand, largely reject the notion that Jewish identity can be separated from Israel, which has now existed as a modern nation-state for 75 years. Doing that, they say, is to deny a safe haven for Jews after centuries of persecution, and also to deny or downplay the historical and spiritual connection between modern Jewish communities and the land of Israel. That worldview lies behind the claim that anti-Zionism and antisemitism are functionally the same thing.

"The belief that the Jews, alone among the people of the world, do not have a right to self-determination, or that the Jewish people’s religious and historical connection to Israel is invalid, is inherently bigoted," says the American Jewish Committee. "When Jews are verbally or physically harassed or Jewish institutions and houses of worship are vandalized in response to actions of the State of Israel, it is antisemitism."

Reports of antisemitic incidents and antisemitic hate speech have fueled calls to crack down on the pro-Palestine protests. Though some such incidents appear to have been taken out of context, caused by provocateurs or revealed as outright fabrications, others have not been disputed, fueling a debate about whether expressions of anti-Jewish hatred have become normalized within the pro-Palestine protest movement. "It's unfortunate that antisemitic actors are using this as an opportunity to attach themselves to a larger movement and make a particular kind of case for themselves," said Magid.

Jim Sleeper, a veteran journalist and author who has covered campus free-speech issues for years, witnessed the Vietnam War and civil rights protests of the 1960s and the Iraq war protests of the 2000s. The current wave of activism, he observes, is not so different from its antecedents. "There were always people who were really egregious, over-the-top and counterproductive," he said. "So far, I have not really sensed that the anti-Israel protesters are doing anything that bad, other than a few individuals. What's almost inevitable is that there are some opportunistic people who jump on the bandwagon because it's exciting for them."

Some alleged antisemitic incidents appear to have been taken out of context or caused by provocateurs, but others have not been disputed, fueling a debate about whether anti-Jewish hatred has become normalized within the pro-Palestine protest movement.

When it comes to broader criticism of Israel or support for Palestine, there is little agreement as to where the line between legitimate grievance and antisemitism is drawn. Pro-Palestine protesters have generally called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, the suspension of U.S. military aid to Israel and, especially at campus protests, for universities to divest from companies that are linked to Israel and, they claim, "profit from Israeli apartheid, genocide and occupation in Palestine." Opponents warn that such a course of action would delegitimize Israel and weaken it militarily. Many protesters would say that's exactly the point.

A pro-Israel activist, citing the protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, told Salon that while criticizing Israeli government policies is not de facto antisemitism, that's not what the current pro-Palestine protests are doing. "They are protesting against the very existence of Israel, and at times the Jewish people globally," said Mikael Rochman, vice president of Students Supporting Israel at Columbia University. "They only use Palestinian suffering when they can weaponize it to attack the legitimacy of Israel and the Jewish people."

"I do not believe there is anything wrong with supporting Palestinians, as I do myself," Rochman continued, "but with the way in which they do it, which only supports continued conflict and leads to antisemitic acts."

One flashpoint that has raised repeated accusations of antisemitism is the frequent use of the phrase, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free," in chants and on protest signs. Critics view that phrase as a call for the elimination of Israel and the genocidal extermination of Israeli Jews; defenders say it's a call for ending apartheid against Palestinians and replacing the current Israeli regime with a democratic "one-state" solution. Perhaps ironically, Netanyahu's Likud party, which leads the current government coalition in Israel, uses a strikingly similar phrase in its Founding Statement, which declares Jewish sovereignty over the entire territory from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean.

Broader denunciations of the state of Israel are misinterpreted, some protesters say, and fail to distinguish between Israel as it currently exists and its future possibilities. "At this moment, the call is for ceasefire and more. ... [T]he question of whether Israel can survive as a Jewish-supremacist ethnostate is more complicated," wrote Jen Brody and Jim Recht, two members of Harvard Faculty and Staff for Justice in Palestine, in a letter. "We reject the zero-sum notion that one people’s freedom requires the unfreedom of other people. Our liberation as Jews is inextricably bound up with the liberation of Palestinians." (Recht is Jewish, while Brody has Jewish ancestry.)

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Jewish pro-Palestine activists have acknowledged that some Jewish people may feel offended or uncomfortable in having their deeply-held beliefs called into question. That's not the same as being threatened or persecuted, they say, especially since pro-Palestine Jewish activists are themselves called heretical or self-hating. "It is exhausting and heartbreaking to have politicians, the mainstream media and even our own families question our identities and our commitment to Judaism," said Fox, who pointed out that many politicians like Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York, a right-wing Republican who is not Jewish, posture as opponents of antisemitism while promoting versions of the racist "great replacement" theory.

"When politicians and the media erase anti-Zionist Jews and suggest that all Jews support the Israeli military’s genocide," Fox continued, "this makes Jewish people less safe by suggesting we all support the destruction of Palestinians."

For many anti-Zionist Jews, their community's global safety cannot be bound to an Israeli state whose behavior has drawn worldwide condemnation. They would rather find solidarity not only across Jewish communities around the world, but also, in the words of a member of Rabbis for Ceasefire, with non-Jewish people also "made in b'tzelem elohim, in God's image."

By Nicholas Liu

Nicholas (Nick) Liu is a News Fellow at Salon. He grew up in Hong Kong, earned a B.A. in History at the University of Chicago, and began writing for local publications like the Santa Barbara Independent and Straus News Manhattan.

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Antisemitism Campus Protests Columbia University Gaza Israel Jewish People Jews Palestinians Reporting Ucla Zionism