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From Colombia to Columbia, an unceasing war on Israel

The world’s authoritarians are delighting in the opportunity to wield the language of human rights in the faces of gullible Westerners.

The presidential inauguration of Gustavo Petro in Bogotá, Colombia, on Aug. 7, 2022. Credit: Casa Rosada, Presidencia of Argentina/Wikimedia Commons.
The presidential inauguration of Gustavo Petro in Bogotá, Colombia, on Aug. 7, 2022. Credit: Casa Rosada, Presidencia of Argentina/Wikimedia Commons.
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen
Ben Cohen, a senior analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, writes a weekly column for JNS on Jewish affairs and Middle Eastern politics.

In times of adversity, Jews respond in many ways, perhaps the most precious of which is humor. When the Soviet Union was effectively a prison for its Jewish citizens, the jokes were legion and biting, laced with melancholy and hilarity at the same time. There’s the one about the Red Army officer who asks a Jewish boy to name his father (“the Soviet Union”) and his mother (“the Communist Party”) before inquiring what he wants to be when he grows up (“an orphan.”) Or the one about the KGB arriving at the home of a Jewish man to arrest him unless he agrees to give up something that he treasures. “Esther, my darling,” the man calls to his wife, “the KGB are here for you!” I’d love to go on, but you get the idea.

In the months since the Oct. 7 Hamas pogrom in Israel, Jews have frequently turned to humor as a means of processing the trauma brought about by the worst act of antisemitic violence since the Holocaust. There are far too many examples to cite, but many readers will be familiar with “Rabbi Linda Goldstein,” a spoof account on X/Twitter operated by the anti-Zionist “Chief Rabbi of Gaza,” which beautifully juxtaposes the left’s obsession with the micro-details of identity politics with the unabashed homophobia and misogyny of its Hamas allies. And often, as many commenters point out, there is no need for parody because reality is parody; in this case, I’m thinking of the plea from a Columbia University Ph.D. student for “humanitarian aid” to be allowed into Hamilton Hall, occupied last week by a pro-Hamas mob, that was accompanied by her resentful claim that anyone opposed to such action obviously wants students “to die of starvation and dehydration.”

The humor is easy to come by, for two reasons. Firstly, antisemitism is essentially a form of idiocy, and idiocy—as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Steve Martin and Ricky Gervais have all proven over the years—is funny. Secondly, there is the bizarre alliance of hardened and brutal, yet authentic revolutionaries, in the Middle East, Latin America and elsewhere with the keffiyeh-clad, gluten-avoiding faux revolutionaries on American university campuses. And that, too, is most amusing.

Such levity is particularly helpful in dealing with otherwise intolerable situations—and make no mistake, this present situation is intolerable.

When the movement to target Israel with a campaign of boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) emerged 20 years ago, its ultimate goal was to turn the Jewish state into the kind of pariah that apartheid South Africa was throughout the 1970s and 1980s. A necessary condition of achieving that was the passage of the core message of BDS—that Israel is a racist entity with no right to a sovereign existence—into mainstream awareness. To a great extent, that has now happened. Over the last week, I’ve seen images of a Delta Airlines check-in counter attendant at a U.S. airport and a bus driver in the English city of Manchester wearing Palestinian flag pins while at work; read the news that the main Jewish newspaper in the Netherlands is now mailing its print edition to subscribers in plain envelopes so as not to out them as Jews; and observed signs at elite American university campuses urging Israel’s Jewish population, the majority of whom are Mizrahim, to “return” to Europe.

One of the more radical slogans that emerged during the struggle against South African apartheid was “one settler, one bullet.” Exactly that message is now being delivered—verbally and through actions—to Israelis and Jewish communities around the world.

Last Thursday, Colombia’s far-left president, Gustavo Petro, announced that he was cutting diplomatic ties with Israel—a move warmly lauded by Hamas, the Palestinian Authority and the Islamist regime in Iran. In a speech delivered at a May Day rally, Petro perfectly captured the left’s Palestinian fetish, along with the fervent belief that the defeat of “Zionism” will usher in a new era of people power. “Today the world could be summed up in a single word, which vindicates the need for life, rebellion, the raised flag and resistance,” Petro declared. “That word is ‘Gaza,’ it is ‘Palestine,’ they are the boys and girls who have died dismembered by the bombs.” Petro, who was elected in 2022, is a genuine revolutionary with the life experience of one, having joined the M-19 terrorist organization while still a teenager and having been tortured at the hands of Colombian military officers. Nonetheless, his words resonated deeply at the other Columbia—the Ivy League university in New York City—where pro-Hamas demonstrators playing at revolution while their parents pay exorbitant fees set up an illegal tent encampment.

They resonated as well in Tehran, where Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi lauded “the uprising of Western students, professors and elites in support of the oppressed people of Gaza,” while foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanaani expressed satisfaction with “the awakening of global society … regarding the Palestinian issue and the depth of public hatred toward the crimes of the usurping Zionist regime and the genocide supported by America and some European governments.” Again, these are exactly the same sentiments being articulated at Columbia, at UCLA, at George Washington University, and at the other American campuses turned upside down by the wave of solidarity with Hamas.

To many Jews, all this will seem like a colossal failure—a failure of Holocaust education, which Jewish communities have been deeply invested in for several decades; a failure to accurately convey the true nature of Israeli society beyond the “settler-colonial” caricature pushed by much of the left and some far-right influencers; a failure to maintain constructive relationships with those other minorities where sympathy for Hamas and its atrocities is rife, particularly American Muslims, many of whom originate from non-Arab countries, and African-Americans. Perhaps the toughest aspect of all is the realization that debate and argument are fruitless, not least because refusal to communicate with “Zionists” has become an article of faith at the pro-Hamas rallies and demonstrations.

Still, at the same time, we need to shake off the myth that these demonstrations are an expression of “civil society”—individuals and volunteer groups mobilizing for Gaza out of desperation at the bloody scenes in that territory. From Moscow to Bogota to Ankara to Tehran, the world’s authoritarians are delighting in the opportunity to wield the language of human rights in the faces of gullible Westerners. Rather than persuading, we should be focused on defeating at the source. That means, in Colombia’s case, lobbying U.S. legislators to impose trade restrictions and other sanctions on its government for as long as it demonizes Israel, a democracy and a stalwart American ally, as a rogue state. Doing so will anger and alienate the left even more, but we have no choice. All we can do is act. And, from time to time, laugh.

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