columnSchools & Higher Education

The illiberal crusade to defend antisemitic mobs

The strength of America’s commitment not to tolerate hate is being tested by liberals who are supporting pro-Hamas protesters spewing Jew-hatred.

An anti-Israel protester outside the gates of Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
An anti-Israel protester outside the gates of Columbia University, Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Syndi Pilar/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Any doubt about whether Columbia University understood the anger that its toleration of routine Jew-hatred on its campus had generated was removed this week on the day after school officials testified before the U.S. House of Representatives. And what followed represented a rare effort to enforce some consequences against the antisemitic mobs that have become a regular feature of American urban and college life in the last six months. But while the sight of police arresting illegal demonstrators howling bigotry against Jews was a relief to those who worried about the free pass such people seem to have gotten from authorities, the willingness of so many liberal pundits in the corporate press to defend the mobs is a sign of just how dangerous this moment in history has become.

Columbia president Minouche Shafik and two other officials were questioned by the same committee that has been investigating the surge in antisemitism at American universities and that had grilled the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in December.

That trio shocked the country when they told the committee that it depended on “the context” as to whether advocacy for the genocide of Jews was against the rules of their respective institutions. Shafik didn’t commit the same mistake. Still, she had no good answer when asked why she has not only been tolerating a hostile atmosphere for Jews on campus in the aftermath of Hamas’s massacres in southern Israel on Oct. 7 but also refusing to enforce the school’s rules against unauthorized demonstrations. At the time she testified, one such “pro-Palestinian” encampment on the university’s South Lawn in front of the iconic Butler Library remained, despite the fact that those involved were told to remove it. There, the students were—as they have done for months—not only spouting the same lies about Israel committing “genocide” in Gaza but calling for the destruction of the one Jewish state on the planet (“from the river to the sea”) and in favor of terrorism against Jews (“globalize the intifada”).

Calling in the cops

Shafik’s decision to ask the New York City Police Department to enter the campus on Manhattan’s Upper West Side was surprising to many who know the university. Normally, the NYPD does not enter the Morningside Heights campus since it has its own Public Safety Department. Shafik rightly understood that removing the demonstrators was beyond the school’s capacity. So she called in the police to evict the tent dwellers though, as the Times reported the next day, they were soon back in place with no sign of law enforcement following up.

Those who watch the videos of the police action will be struck by both their restraint and professionalism, as well as by the vicious nature of the students, who were angered by the decision of the university to rein them in. The spectacle of entitled Ivy League students—many of whom come from privileged backgrounds—venting their contempt and calling police officers, who generally come from the working class, “pigs,” as well as expressing hatred for America itself, is as shocking as it is illustrative of the divisions in contemporary society.

Other videos from that day’s actions shared on X by witnesses were equally appalling as they recorded for posterity the way Columbia students—many of them wearing masks to conceal their identity for the same reason that members of the Ku Klux Klan wore white hoods—chanted their support for Hamas and their intolerance for the presence of “Zionists” on campus and said that they looked forward to more Oct. 7 massacres of Jews. Indeed, nothing could better illustrate how critical race theory and intersectionality, which falsely label Jews and Israel as “white” oppressors, grant a permission slip for the kind of open hatred that was long thought to be confined to the margins of American life where only right-wing extremists dwell.

As historian Niall Ferguson has written in his seminal Free Press essay, “The Treason of the Intellectuals,” what is happening on American campuses today is a frightening replay of what was going on in European universities in the 1920s and ’30s. Just like a century ago, the intellectual fashion of the day has made the Jews the scapegoats for everything the educated and credentialed classes don’t like.

Scenes like these have been playing out all over the country this week as pre-planned pro-Hamas demonstrations were held on April 15, featuring masked thugs spouting propaganda about Jews committing genocide and shouting their support for Hamas as they blocked key highways, bridges, tunnels and transportation hubs.

Uncivil disobedience

We have come to expect such stunts and other acts of intimidation by left-wing activists in what can only be termed an epidemic of uncivil disobedience. But as the president of Columbia learned, many Americans are sick and tired of seeing public spaces commandeered by extremists engaging in hate speech and want to see authorities take action to see to it that these people are not allowed to engage in this sort of behavior without consequences. Students who transgress their school’s rules about hate speech and who seek to turn their campuses into no-go zones for Jews and supporters of Israel need to be punished, suspended or expelled. Citizens also expect to see city governments similarly protect the public by having such persons not only arrested but charged and prosecuted for violating the law.

Sen. Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) spoke for many when he posted on X that he believed that citizens who are being obstructed by pro-Hamas demonstrators should “take matters into your own hands to get them out of the way.” He then added another post with a video of someone roughly hauling leftists out of a street where they had laid down to halt traffic to show their sympathy for “Palestine.”

Cotton was attacked by the left for a 2020 New York Times oped demanding that the National Guard be called out to halt the “mostly peaceful” Black Lives Matter riots that were tearing America’s cities in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police. That essay prompted a revolt in the Times newsroom by woke staffers who didn’t believe that the paper should publish anything that contradicted their ideological orthodoxies, which led the newspaper to purge the editors that had approved its publication.

This time, Sen. Cotton was again widely lambasted for what his critics said was advocating violence, though that seems pretty rich when you consider that the demonstrators are there to show their support for the survival of a genocidal terrorist movement. A better suggestion would be for the police to do the job rather than for ordinary citizens to take matters into their own hands. But the police aren’t always able to cope with this problem. Departments are short of personnel after years of “defund the police” activism from BLM advocates and their liberal fellow travelers. Many urban prosecutors—elected as part of billionaire George Soros’s campaign to make America’s criminal justice system more criminal-friendly—are also refusing to charge those who break the law in this manner even when violence is involved.

As a result, the public is often held hostage by leftist antisemitic thugs.

Defending hate

Just as troubling is the willingness of many in the chattering classes to defend the protesters and pretend that expressions of antisemitism are a matter of free speech rather than hate. The Guardian’s Moira Donegan attacked Shafik in a column for what she described as “colluding with the far right” by calling in the police to enforce the university’s rules. She treated the entire idea that antisemitism was present as a right-wing talking point rather than an awful reality for Jewish students, whose plight interested her not at all.

The Times’ Michelle Goldberg sounded a similar theme in her denunciation of both the House committee investigating antisemitism and Shafik.

Both quoted comments by Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.), a committee member whose questions were aimed at denying the antisemitic nature of the mobs that had transformed Columbia into a hotbed of Jew-hatred. That someone who has been censured by the House for her own repeated antisemitic rhetoric should sit on such a committee (or in Congress itself) is an irony completely lost on leftists. Both Donegan and Goldberg thought it was an outrage that Omar’s daughter—a junior at Barnard College—was among those participating in the pro-Hamas demonstration and rightly suspended from the school, though that piece of information was not generally known when Omar was trying to sabotage the hearing.

As with the rest of the debate about whether the antisemitism being vented on college campuses in the six months since Oct. 7 should be protected free speech, most of the arguments in defense of these mobs are disingenuous. The notion that the pro-Hamas activists are defending free speech is risible considering that most of their efforts are focused on silencing defenders of Israel and the Jews. These are not idealists acting out their sympathy for Palestinian victims but, rather, ideologues who have embraced the cause of a terrorist war to destroy the Jewish state.

What must also be acknowledged is that the crusade on the part of much of the liberal commentariat to defend or rationalize this epidemic of antisemitism is profoundly illiberal. This applies to those who, like the Times’ foreign-policy columnist Nicholas Kristof, have sought to mainstream blood libels against Israel. Their goal is to change the conversation about the war against Hamas from a necessary campaign to eradicate terrorists to an effort to legitimize a genocidal movement and its Western apologists.

The saddest aspect of this debate is the way it has been politicized by the left to make it appear that the fight against antisemitism is a Republican issue. It is deeply unfortunate that much of the liberal activist base of the Democratic Party that has been captured by advocates for critical race theory and intersectionality has taken sides against Israel in the war against Hamas. It’s also true that—as the daily drumbeat of incitement against Israel and its Jewish supporters in the Times, The Washington Post and MSNBC show—left-wing journalists are doing their utmost to legitimize anti-Jewish hate.

The effort to curb the surge of antisemitism in this country should not be conducted along party lines. Democrats and Republicans, liberals as well as conservatives, should be lining up against Omar and her cheering section. These antisemitic mobs are self-entitled hate-mongers, not principled idealists. All decent Americans should—if not agreeing with Cotton about roughly preventing illegal protesters from taking over our public squares—be actively seeking to treat these antisemitic agitators with the disdain and punishment they deserve. If the defenders of the mobs prevail, the alternative is a nation where antisemitism is mainstreamed and Jewish safety a thing of the past.

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

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