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The juvenile viciousness of campus anti-Semitism

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Many students who think they’re protesting against Israeli policy are actually engaging in anti-Semitism, spewing hatred in a way that will change them as people and alter their lives.

First, here are four new stories from The Atlantic:

Moral Rot

Many of America’s college campuses are enduring a wave of anti-Semitism. Campus anti-Semitism is not new; this most recent round was spurred by the outbreak of war after Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. But this new eruption of hatred in educational institutions is especially alarming. The students engaging in it are not only poisoning their campuses; they are embracing a moral stain that they will find, in later life, they can never expunge.

I have taught many college students, in multiple institutions and in a variety of settings, over the almost 40 years of my academic career. I know from experience how much they want to be involved in the Big Issues of the Day, a natural extension of living in an environment percolating with ideas and opinions and where they are immersed in learning new things. But I will admit that I never thought much of campus demonstrations, despite having seen many as both a student and a professor; I am by nature distrustful of the emotion that sweeps over mass events, and though I think public actions are essential to democracy, I believe they should be rare, targeted, and powerful. (I worry that campus protests, in particular, invert the relationship between the students and the university, encouraging students to be inexperienced teachers instead of learners. But that’s a subject for another day.)

After so many years on campuses, I am not shocked by protests against Israel. I have seen many; most of the students protesting now are too young to remember the lionizing of Yasser Arafat and demonstrations supporting the Palestine Liberation Organization in an earlier era, for example. The protests in the aftermath of the Hamas attack, however, seem different to me. Many of them are sharply defined by a juvenile viciousness, a paradoxical mixture of childish exuberance and evident—and growing—menace.

The Boston Globe in an editorial last week compiled a list of anti-Semitic incidents at Northeastern University, Cooper Union, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and Tulane, and other campuses across the United States have been subjected to venomous attacks. At the University of Maryland, for example, someone chalked “Holocaust 2.0” on the pavement during a rally organized by the pro-Hamas Students for Justice in Palestine. When confronted by local reporters, one of the organizing members of the University of Maryland’s SJP, who of course wished to remain anonymous, said the “Holocaust 2.0” writing “was likely taken out of context.” “‘It’s referring to what is happening in Gaza,’ he said, adding that it’s not the most accurate parallel and that SJP members came over to cross it out after the picture had been taken,” the local-news report notes.

Not the most accurate parallel. That student has a bright future in public relations.

To understand the kind of rhetoric overtaking some American campuses, this was how the National SJP almost immediately described the October 7 attack.

Today, we witness a historic win for the Palestinian resistance: across land, air, and sea, our people have broken down the artificial barriers of the Zionist entity, taking with it the facade of an impenetrable settler colony and reminding each of us that total return and liberation to Palestine is near. Catching the enemy completely by surprise, the Palestinian resistance has captured over a dozen settlements surrounding Gaza along with many occupation soldiers and military vehicles. This is what it means to Free Palestine: not just slogans and rallies, but armed confrontation with the oppressors.

Other universities have had their concerns about SJP, and understandably so. In the past few weeks, Brandeis has kicked the group off campus and Columbia has suspended it along with another group, Jewish Voice for Peace, but SJP has chapters all across North America.

Meanwhile, at George Washington University, activists projected pro-Hamas slogans on the sides of buildings, including “Free Palestine from the river to the sea,” a call for the eradication of Israel. Spare me the sophistry—most recently plumped by Representative Rashida Tlaib of Michigan—that “From the river to the sea” is merely an anodyne call for freedom and equal rights, or that it somehow can be detached from Hamas’s genocidal meaning. As the University of Illinois international-relations professor Nicholas Grossman wisely observed last week, it’s difficult to square “years of left-wing arguments that society should be hunting for any possible racist implication of words and symbols, even if unintended today, with the claim that ‘from the river to the sea’ must be judged only by what the speaker says is in their heart.”

Good for Harvard’s president, Claudine Gay, for denouncing this slogan (despite immediate campus backlash for doing so); better late than never. Some protesters insist—and many with undeniable honesty—that they are objecting only to Israeli policy. But even the sincerest among them often resort to the backbreaking mental gymnastics required to dismiss the obvious anti-Semitism that is woven into so many of these protests.

The emergence of so much racist, bullying trollery shows how deeply the thrill of self-actualization has tempted young people into a decadent waltz with an ancient and hideous hatred. This behavior is all the more appalling because it comes disproportionately from a privileged class of young men and women who are rationalizing their moral destitution for the sake of a transitory sense of self-satisfaction.

In the short term, I am concerned for the safety of students. (And I mean all students, because there have also been Islamophobic assaults on campuses; these are intolerable racist attacks, even if fewer in number and less organized.) Some students will claim that their behavior is protected by freedom of speech. I agree: I would object to any agency of the United States government stopping these students from speaking their minds, and I defend the right of any American to speak without being subjected to threats of violence from bullies and brutes. But speech, and how we express ourselves, carries deep social (and, one day, professional) consequences. In the long term, I am concerned that students who think they are merely engaging in an energizing campus protest do not realize the damage they are doing to their community—and the moral tumor they are implanting into their developing character.

Anti-Semitism is not a cause that can be dismissed as a youthful indiscretion. It is not some innocent blemish that can be backspaced out of a résumé. Chanting “From the river to the sea” after a terrorist onslaught isn’t something that can be rinsed away later merely by adding “But I meant it in the good way.” Ripping down posters of missing children is a hateful and cowardly act, not some gallant moment of defiance (and not a life lesson any of us should want to impart to our own children). It is no defense to support a terrorist organization that calls for the eradication of the State of Israel while adding that you mean only the state itself, with no harm intended for the Jews who actually live there.

Anti-Semitism, even if adopted stupidly or indirectly, is a moral rot that today’s students will one day have to either recant or endure. Many of them, I wager, will eventually feel shame about what they thought were righteous actions. And I worry that they (like many of today’s extreme right-wing voters and activists in America) will find themselves so far up the tree of rationalizations that they will never be able to climb back down. After enough time serving the insidious impulse to defend the indefensible, they will find themselves changed people.

For years, I waved away student protests mostly as a rite of passage, like the first flunk or the first night in a dorm. Not this time. Students are young adults. They need to know that some actions will damage them forever—even when committed behind the comfortable walls of a college campus.


Today’s News

  1. Israeli tanks have taken position at the gates of Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza City, where thousands are sheltering. The head of the World Health Organization stated yesterday that the hospital is struggling to provide health care after three days without electricity or water.
  2. Los Angeles faces a transportation emergency after a large fire resulted in the indefinite closure of a major freeway over the weekend.
  3. Yesterday, the U.S. retaliated against attacks on its bases with precision air strikes on Iran-backed facilities in Syria, the third round of such strikes since October 26.

More From The Atlantic

Culture Break

Read. The Stanford historian Jennifer Burns’s intriguing biography, Milton Friedman: The Last Conservative, reflects on when the famous economist ran the show.

Watch. Timothée Chalamet’s post-strike SNL-hosting gig (streaming on Peacock) was a celebration that doubled as a return to business as usual for the show.

Play our daily crossword.

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Katherine Hu contributed to this newsletter.

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