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occupation at Georgetown University, Washington DC

Weaponised “anti-semitism”, real anti-semitism, and the struggle for Palestinian rights

With the spread of campus occupations in solidarity with Palestinians across the US, a distinctly rightwing narrative has taken hold of both political institutions and the mainstream media, putting American university administrations on the defensive. According to this narrative, the protests are fundamentally anti-semitic, and colleges are not doing enough to violently suppress them. Congressman Tom Cotton described protestors as a terrorist mob rampaging through campuses, and urged citizens to engage in vigilante attacks. Congress has demanded testimony from university presidents, some of whom have been forced to resign.

This narrative has roots both in the many sources of US state commitment to Israel – American imperial interests in the region, Christian Zionist lobbying, Israeli government lobbying, corporate lobbying by arms manufacturers and military contractors – and in the current broad rightwing assault on higher education. The mainstream US press has, once again, abandoned its supposed duty to investigate what is actually happening, and either actively or passively played into this narrative.

I recently did a quick re-read of over 100 mainstream press articles covering the growing Palestine solidarity encampments on US campuses. Most came from the Washington Post and the New York Times, with a scattering of other sources. While this was not in any way a scientific survey, a number of points stand out. Only seven articles even mentioned the demands protestors are making (ceasefire, various forms and extents of divestment, an end to occupation and apartheid) – and when they did, it came well down the article and clearly not the central framing topic. None of the articles mentioned the principles that are announced and posted at most encampments, and only one of them mentioned anything that happened prior to to the October 7 Hamas attacks or the structural conditions in Palestine.

Moreover, only three of the articles sought out the views of Jewish students involved in the protest, despite the fact that, at most campuses, groups like Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) and If Not Now have been centrally involved in planning and implementation. Similarly, none mentioned Passover Seders that were held at over dozen encampments, or the many other expressions of inter-religious solidarity. If more of the reports did engage with Jewish students in the protest camps, they would likely hear positions similar to what one of my own students, a member of JVP and core organizer of many DC actions, articulated: “I’ve never in my life felt safer, as a Jew, than among my Palestinian comrades fighting for justice for all.”

Instead, the central framing of almost all coverage has been safety versus free speech. What “safety” means is consistently left vague. We get statements, usually unattributed, that students, often but not always said to be Jewish students, feel unsafe as a result of chants, or slogans, or signs. Very rarely is any incident actually described, and even more rarely does the incident involve any actual danger beyond hearing things one would prefer not to hear. A consistent additional framing is that the tension on campus is between Jewish students and pro-Palestinian students. This framing is almost universal – 90 of the 100 articles mention it in some way, and a majority simply start there. Depending on the point of view of the author (I read both op-eds and news articles) this framing ranges from the assumption that occupiers are anti-semitic, pro-Hamas, terrorist-supporters, etc.,  to the statement that some perceive them that way. Only three of the articles described a verified instance of anti-semitism.

So how should members of the consistently anti-racist left respond to the near-constant hurling of charges of anti-semitism, the majority of which are patently aimed at distracting from the core issues of an apartheid regime and a genocide funded, armed, and politically protected by the US? 

It may be tempting to adopt the attitude of a Jewish comrade and friend, expressed to me during the First Intifada when we were both getting into this work: “Meh, don’t be anti-semitic; as for the rest, ignore the motherfuckers”. But I think this is not adequate. For one, there is also actual anti-semitism in the movement, just as there has been throughout European history. Of course, many of the charges are made up (Tom Cotton) or the result of agent provocateurs (e.g., the Zionist counter-protestor at Northeastern university, caught on video yelling “Death to Jews!” and giving the pretext for police attacks). Moreover, the actual anti-semitic statements come from extremely fringe elements who have tried to attach themselves to the protests – e.g. at Columbia University. Some of these are the usual rightwing anti-semites, and occasionally they are Muslim anti-semites. But for all this, there are also anti-semitic inclinations among some on the left, and these can arise from people we may have considered allies. Given the long and horrible history that such attitudes connect with, we cannot in good conscience ignore them. Further, the very fact that the charge has been so extensively weaponised means that, as a purely tactical matter, we must do everything possible to educate ourselves and distance ourselves from those who want to associate our cause with anti-semitic attitudes.

Over the last 40 years of organizing and activism, I’ve been called many names: “terrorist”; “anti-american scum”; “[slur for minority]-lover”; “race traitor”; “nazi”, “commie”, “anarchist”, … and of course “anti-semite” and “Jew hater”.  Most of these roll off and are best ignored or simply embraced (“race traitor”? “anarchist”?). But there are differences in the current context that call for greater awareness and greater vigilance. This means a few things:

Firstly, we stick to the issues. We are here to end a genocide and to dismantle a situation of apartheid, bringing freedom to everyone in the region. All talking points, chants, signs, etc. should, in my view, be directed toward this. An absolutely crucial point is that the purity of our movement is not relevant to the correctness of our demands. There have been ugly statements and actions in every movement for liberation throughout world history. Even if every member of every encampment were an anti-semite, it would still be true that Israeli war crimes must end and apartheid be dismantled. The debate that matters is not how good we are. Always foreground the oppressed.

Secondly, we should clearly post our principles. Here’s a representative sample from the Yale University encampment: “1. We are committed to Palestinian liberation and fighting for all oppressed people. 2. We are occupying this space to push Yale to disclose, divest, and reinvest in the New Haven community. 3. We are dedicated to taking care of this space. 4. We are dedicated to taking care of one another. We keep us safe. 5. We will not tolerate any forms of discrimination, including anti-semitism, Islamophobia, transphobia, homophobia, or racism”.

Thirdly, we must educate ourselves on the history and, yes, sometimes subtle expressions of anti-semitism. The fact that hermeneutics are weaponised to read our calls for freedom as calls for violence does not mean that all anti-semitism is overt and obvious. We should listen to the leadership of our Jewish comrades on this. Jewish Voice for Peace has held hundreds of trainings, but in the crush of actions, it is hard to organize such discussions. We need more.

Fourthly, we must have organized teams of marshals trained and ready to surround any provocateurs trying to insert messages into our protest in a way that clearly shows that they do not represent what we do.

And finally, we must have people designated to confront those more apparently in our midst if they violate our principles. This is a tricky tactical matter in a context where any confrontation can be used by cops as an excuse to escalate. In some of the most disciplined and best run actions I’ve been a part of over the last 40 years, we have had Palestinian leaders take point on such “message discipline”. But contexts vary. The point is to be prepared.

~ Mark Lance

Mark Lance is (for two more months) Professor of Philosophy and Professor of Justice and Peace at Georgetown University, rowing coach, and political activist. He has worked for over 40 years on a wide range of social justice and anti-war issues.

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