columnIsrael at War

Israel-haters aren’t refighting the Vietnam War

Today’s antisemites are modeling their campaign on 1960s protesters, even though the two conflicts are very different. Still, the same toxic ideology influenced radicals of both eras.

Protesters hold a "Queers for Palestine" sign in New York City on Nov. 12, 2023. Credit: Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
Protesters hold a "Queers for Palestine" sign in New York City on Nov. 12, 2023. Credit: Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Many Americans are baffled by the mobs on college campuses and the streets of major U.S. cities chanting for Israel’s destruction and the genocide of its people.

That so many of their fellow citizens—regardless of their age, education, ideology or background—would openly take the side of Hamas, the terror group that started a war on Oct. 7 with the largest mass slaughter of Jews since the Holocaust, remains mind-boggling. So is the fact that those who call themselves “progressives” are now rooting not just for the cessation of suffering for Palestinians but for the survival of a reactionary Islamist terrorist organization that despises their beliefs.

Take, for example, “queers for Palestine,” who practice an alternative lifestyle that would have earned them a brutal execution in pre-Oct. 7 Gaza ruled by Hamas, but who sympathize with the Oct. 7 barbarians and deplore Israel’s efforts to eliminate them. It’s equally true about most others sounding the “from the river to the sea” slogan, whose grasp of the conflict is so flimsy that few can identify either body of water.

The problem transcends such obvious absurdities.

Even their manifest tone-deafness about the way they are trafficking in traditional tropes of antisemitism similarly provides little insight into their motivations. How can anyone demand that Hamas be allowed to emerge triumphant from a war begun by atrocious crimes against humanity, or that the Islamists ultimately be allowed to enact their fantasy of a world without Israel and its 7 million Jewish inhabitants?

Believing in their own righteousness

The answer is simple. They think they are the good guys and that their opponents are intrinsically evil. And that is why the attempts on the part of publications like The New York Times to analogize the anti-Israel protesters to those who demonstrated against the Vietnam War more than a half century ago are worth considering. Such claims are wildly inaccurate since the two conflicts have nothing to do with each other. But in some ways, this evocation of the past provides a telling insight into the psychology and motivations of contemporary left-wing antisemites.

The first thing to understand about such a discussion is that the corporate press is desperate to legitimize protests rooted in Jew-hatred. The Times article is, like similar pieces—such as a Washington Post story that seeks to engender sympathy for “Young U.S. Muslims” marching for Israel’s extinction in even unlikely settings like Huntsville, Ala.—primarily an effort to treat a deplorable campaign as a righteous cause taken up by brave idealists.

The anti-Israel bias of publications like the Times is no longer even open to debate. On the same day that it published its article titled, “In Campus Protests Over Gaza, Echoes of Outcry Over Vietnam,” it also ran a piece on its opinion pages by Yahya R. Sarraj, the Hamas operative who was mayor of Gaza City. The piece, which mentions Oct. 7 only in passing, focuses on the destruction that his organization brought to Gaza by starting a war with savage crimes like rape, torture, beheadings and the murder of entire families.

But it concludes with a passage that is gobsmacking in its disingenuousness: “Why,” he asks, “can’t Palestinians be treated equally, like Israelis and all other peoples in the world? Why can’t we live in peace and have open borders and free trade? Palestinians deserve to be free and have self-determination.”

The answer is so obvious that even a New York Times editor ought to know it, which should have led the passage to be deleted even under the newspaper’s current low standards. Palestinians can’t have peace, open borders and free trade so long as they are led by and overwhelmingly support groups like Sarraj’s Hamas, whose avowed purpose is to destroy Israel and slaughter its people.

The idea that Israelis are simply supposed to sit back and await the next promised, vicious attack from Hamas would be considered ridiculous were it posed to any other nation than the one Jewish state on the planet. But that’s the assumption on the part of all those who are currently marching against Israel.

Vietnam War Protest, DC
Protest against the Vietnam War in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 1, 1971. Credit: Cecil W. Stoughton/U.S. National Park Service Gallery via Wikimedia Commons.

Nothing to do with Vietnam

But what has any of this to do with the Vietnam War?

As even the Times was forced to concede, not much. America’s involvement in Vietnam began under the administration of President John F. Kennedy and escalated during that of Lyndon Johnson before Richard Nixon ended America’s direct involvement. It didn’t conclude until 1975 with the complete military conquest of South Vietnam by the Communist government of North Vietnam. But whatever one’s take on the rights and wrongs of that conflict, it has little in common with the century-old Arab war against Zionism or the events of the last three months.

The Vietnam War was justified as an attempt to prevent the spread of communism around the world. The result of the North Vietnamese victory was the imposition of a brutal totalitarian regime in the South with millions put in “re-education” camps and many more forced to flee as “boat people.” That proved that the pro-war cause was nobler than its critics, who damned it as imperialist oppression of Third World people, understood at the time.

A radical core of the anti-Vietnam movement led by the far-left may have seen it as part of an ideological war against the West, in which Communist oppressors were to be lauded because they were fighting imperialists. But most Americans who opposed the war had a different perspective.

The protests gained widespread support primarily because many believed that there was no good reason for a generation of young Americans to die in a civil war in Southeast Asia that wouldn’t ultimately impact the outcome of the Cold War with the Soviet Union. The large-scale anti-war movement was a response not so much to an unsympathetic South Vietnamese ally. Nor was it really about the war’s mismanagement by Johnson and the Kennedy appointees that LBJ kept in place and allowed to drive the nation further into a war they were unwilling and unable to win.

The real reason for the protests was self-interest. It was a response to the draft, due to which young men who couldn’t get out of being conscripted through various exemptions (primarily a function of their economic status) were forced to serve. As soon as Nixon stopped sending draftees to Vietnam and then ended the draft entirely, the antiwar movement evaporated. By the time the war ended, few Americans cared then or since about its consequences for the Vietnamese people.

So, the notion that the alleged idealism of the groovy ’60s is making a comeback among the “from the river to the sea” crowd is pure bunk. Nobody is drafting American kids to go fight Hamas. That’s the obligation that young Israelis have willingly taken up to defend their homes and families. And if American protesters really are that concerned by the impact of war in Third World venues, there are plenty of opportunities to vent their concerns about other conflicts around the globe in which far more people have been killed.

Marxism’s comeback with DEI

Still, it’s not entirely wrong to see the roots of today’s anti-Israel protests in those radicals, who were the most violent elements of the protests against the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Unlike most Americans, the Marxists of the misnamed Students for a Democratic Society—veterans of which were featured in the Times article—wanted the Communists to win in much the same way those who compose the mobs tying up traffic, breaking up Christmas celebrations and intimidating Jewish students on campuses want Hamas to defeat Israel.

Unlike most of the Americans who were against the war in the 1960s without expressing hatred for their own country, the motivations of the large numbers of young people and Muslims who have swelled the numbers of the anti-Israel movement are ideological in nature. They are the product of a generation of education in which leftists—many of them former ’60s radicals—believe in the myths of intersectionality that falsely analogize the Palestinian war against Israel to the struggle for civil rights in the United States. They’ve been indoctrinated in the toxic catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI), as well as critical race theory, which divides the world into two immutable groups: victims of racism and racist oppressors.

This is a neo-Marxist dialectic not unrelated to the ideas of the so-called New Left that spawned SDS and the radical Weatherman terrorist movement that tried to blow up the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the State Department and dozens of other targets during their campaign in what might well have been termed a real “insurrection.”

And that is what blinds them to the fact that they are devoting their energy and passion to supporting a cause that is fundamentally evil. The ideological prism through which they view the world mandates that the side that is designated by leftist doctrine as “white” and colonial (Israel) must be wrong and the one labeled as the cause of the oppressed “people of color” (the Palestinians) must be right.

They are insensible to obvious truths about a complex conflict that isn’t racial and that has always been driven by Arab refusal to share the land with the Jews. Their acceptance of the idea that Jews, who are the indigenous people of their ancient homeland, are colonizers in Israel much as Americans were depicted in Vietnam is as egregious as it is false.

But that doesn’t matter to the protesters because they see the facts as irrelevant. Nor do they care about the horrors perpetrated by Hamas on Oct. 7 or even against their own people as they continue to sacrifice them on the altar of their never-ending war against the Jews.

Mainstreaming antisemitism

It’s true that Hamas’s useful idiots are using some of the same tactics pioneered by the anti-Vietnam movement. But what those seeking to lionize today’s demonstrators want to obfuscate in their alleged idealism about helping Gazans is given the lie by the antisemitism they are spreading. The arguments about Vietnam were not predicated on the horrible notion that wiping the only Jewish state off the map—an objective that could only be achieved by the genocide of the Jews—is a righteous cause. And even at their worst, the Vietnam protests didn’t target Jewish students, Jewish businesses or seek to drive Jews from the public square as these mobs seek to do.

There’s no denying that the same core ideology driving the movement to destroy Israel is linked to the war on the West and the principles of American freedom that were championed by the Marxists of the ’60s New Left. Yet what is so damaging about demonstrators right now is not just their unabashed antisemitism. It’s the fact that their lies are being bought not by just a radical fringe but by a broad cross-section of young Americans who have been educated to believe that a genocidal, Jew-hating terrorist movement is the underdog deserving of support. This is the greatest tragedy of the post-Oct. 7 protests. And it is ultimately one that not just threatens Israel or the Jews, but the future of the United States as a free country.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him: @jonathans_tobin.

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