Time to unmask the pro-Hamas thugs

The revival of anti-masking laws is necessary to curb the post-Oct. 7 surge in antisemitism. But will Democratic-controlled legislatures pass them?

Students at the University of Texas students, many of them masked, rally for Hamas and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, and against Israel, April 25, 2024. Credit: Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock.
Students at the University of Texas students, many of them masked, rally for Hamas and Palestinians in the Gaza Strip in the wake of the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks, and against Israel, April 25, 2024. Credit: Vic Hinterlang/Shutterstock.
Jonathan S. Tobin. Photo by Tzipora Lifchitz.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Americans have seen this movie before. Politically motivated masked thugs who gather to intimidate, silence and sometimes inflict violence on the objects of their hate are nothing new in this country. Yet the ubiquitous use of masks—whether in the form of bandannas or Palestinian-style keffiyehs worn by supporters of the Hamas terrorist group to conceal their identity—has become a disturbing staple of contemporary American life.

Secure in the notion that they can’t be easily identified, groups of masked demonstrators have occupied public spaces and college campuses, engaging in activities designed to frighten Jews and supporters of Israel. Many of those who participated were engaged in other radical causes, such as extreme environmentalism, before support for the mass murderers, rapists and kidnappers of Oct. 7 became the cause du jour on the left. Since then, support for “Palestine,” the eradication of Israel and the revival of the old Soviet Marxist talking point about Zionism—the national liberation movement of the Jews—being a form of racism has become the intellectual fashion of the moment.

Far from limiting their efforts to criticisms of Israel’s war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip or even supporting the murderous aspirations of the Palestinians, who are the supposed objects of their solicitude, the point of the exercise isn’t mere advocacy. By concealing their identity while engaged in scrawling antisemitic graffiti and vandalism, chanting slogans of Jew-hatred or even demanding that subway riders declare aloud whether or not they are “Zionists,” their goal is to create an atmosphere in which members of the Jewish community are made to feel as if they are targeted and unwanted. Even as they dare authorities to stop them, the masked defenders of Hamas seek a public square where their views won’t just predominate and proliferate. They seek to make a space where support for Israel or the normal conduct of Jewish life is made impossible or requires so much courage as to marginalize it outright.

Anti-masking legislation

In such an environment, antisemitism, including violence, is bound to thrive. And that is exactly what is happening as overt acts of Jew-hatred have skyrocketed in the last eight months.

Can anything be done about this?

One suggestion is the passage of laws to ban the use of masks by groups of people whose purpose is to conceal their identity in public places with the exception of their use in specific celebrations such as Halloween or masquerade parties.

Responding to public anger over the surge in Jew-hatred in a city built in part on Jewish labor, commerce and intellectualism, New York Gov. Kathy Hochul, a Democrat, has said she is considering calling for the reinstitution of a mask ban, which was the law until the legislature repealed it at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in May 2020. But as a subsequent article in The New York Times pointed out, Hochul was merely posturing. Since the Albany legislature has already adjourned for the year, such a law can’t even be considered until 2025. And in its current configuration, where Democrats not only have super-majorities in both the Assembly and Senate but caucuses dominated by left-wingers, the chances of passing any such law are minimal. Indeed, as one member of the Democratic leadership made clear to the Times, the proposal would be dead on arrival.

Deep-blue New York—the site of the lion’s share of antisemitic outrages, but by no means the only place in the country where these masked thugs have made their presence felt—won’t take action. Other states, however, can either pass anti-masking laws or enforce those already on the books. Indeed, 15 states already have them with most being in the South, where the legislation was intended to prevent the Ku Klux Klan from operating with impunity.

In the antebellum South during the Reconstruction era and then again in the first decades of the 20th century, the Ku Klux Klan wore white hoods when they were in public committing acts of racist violence against African-Americans and other minorities like Catholics and Jews they wished to either subjugate or drive out of their communities.

The response to the initial period of KKK activity in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War was primarily military as the U.S. Army, which still occupied areas of former rebellious states, put down what was in many instances a genuine insurrection rather than a protest movement. But in the 20th century, when the Klan became a national phenomenon that played an outsize role in influencing the Democratic Party during the 1910s and ’20s, defeating it became a matter of public consensus as well as police action. The marginalization of the Klan—once able to assemble large numbers of individuals to show up at marches in Washington, much like today’s “pro-Palestine” demonstrations—was a function of legislation, police work, and, most of all, political will on the part of the sane majority of Americans.

Toxic ideas at the heart of the matter

Today, mustering the will not to tolerate pro-Hamas thuggery should be the priority.

Authorities must not, as is often the case on campuses or even in the streets, stand down in the face of these mobs, as they did earlier this month when an enraged, masked throng ringed the White House and vandalized Washington’s Lafayette Park while proclaiming the Capitol to be unsafe for Zionists.

We are only just beginning to understand the scope of the failure of academic institutions to protect their Jewish students. One of the main problems is toxic ideas like critical race theory and intersectionality, which falsely label Israel a colonialist/settler and apartheid state populated by “white” oppressors, motivate these demonstrations and cause many people to view those seeking to intimidate Jews as merely loud idealists rather than the modern incarnation of the Klan. However, the tolerance for public acts of intimidation against Jews in the public square is a problem that transcends concern about the radical takeover of American education.

As long as this ideology—most often expressed in the woke catechism of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI)—remains the new orthodox faith for academia, the mainstream corporate media and the left wing of the Democratic Party, that political will is likely to be lacking.

Still, those who understand that acting to stop the scourge of antisemitism is imperative should continue to press for the adoption of masking statutes wherever they can be passed or enforced. The Manhattan Institute think tank has published model legislation that should be a useful guide for politicians who want to do more than wring their hands over the problem.

Freedom of speech concerns

One obstacle to the passage of such laws is the concern that banning masks would infringe on the freedom of speech of demonstrators. Yet as the courts ruled in upholding anti-Klan masking laws, anonymity in the public square is not a prerequisite for a lively debate on the issues. In the 1950s, a declining Klan sued on the basis that concealing their identity was the only way to protect their members from retaliation for holding unpopular views. That didn’t prevail because where the masks are clearly intended to provide impunity for those who engage in unlawful behavior, the First Amendment arguments collapse, whether it concerns the Klan or latter-day left-wing violent groups like Antifa or the various incarnations of pro-Hamas activism.

Another argument against anti-masking laws and one that the Times was particularly insistent about raising is that banning masks, specifically in the subway, as New York City Mayor Eric Adams has suggested in the wake of some egregious acts of antisemitism there, in the age of COVID and other infectious diseases is untenable.

Unfortunately, during the pandemic, wearing masks became a matter of political symbolism. It came to be seen as virtue-signaling by people who believed doing so indicated that they took the virus seriously, just like taking vaccines as a public health measure. That is why support for them remains especially high on the political left and was low on the more libertarian right.

That and the sense of security this form of COVID theater gave a scared population, which still fears the persistence of the virus even after the worst of the problem is long past, are why one can still see them being worn. Some people walking around in the fresh air continue to use them, where it made no sense even when the situation was at its worst.

For those so convinced by fear or the misinformation that was accepted as “science,” rational arguments about the issue are of no avail. It does no good to point out that the most serious clinical studies conducted by the universally respected Cochrane Library about their use have concluded that mask-wearing—whether the flimsy blue-cloth coverings that were once ubiquitous or the more serious N-95 masks—did little to halt the spread of the virus or protect those wear them. At this point, for many people, mask-wearing is better understood as a form of superstition and not, as we were falsely assured by supposedly trusted national health authorities in 2020 and 2021, a sensible or even necessary precaution.

Even if you are still desperate to believe that masks will protect you from COVID, that ought not to prevent passage of anti-masking laws. Those afraid of contagion—whether because they are immuno-compromised and in genuine peril, or merely because they are members of a generation where germaphobia has been normalized—have no business congregating in numbers in public places for the purpose of spewing hate against Jews and Israel, as well as expressing support for a genocidal terrorist organization.

The lessons of history

Most Americans may not know a lot of history. But knowledge of what happens when a violent movement of masked people determined to enforce their political will on the public square are allowed to act with impunity should not be forgotten. It isn’t just, as Adams correctly pointed out, that masked pro-Hamas thugs are “cowards.” Nor is the goal being able to, as some rightly seek to do, publicize the names of those who engage in hate speech and acts of violent antisemitic intimidation so they can’t escape the consequences of their behavior.

The real problem is that a society that tolerates masked violent demonstrators bent on intimidating and silencing opponents is not one that can pretend to be a bastion of free speech or democracy. Most people understand that was the case during the “Jim Crow” era in which the Klan flourished. Today, the peril comes from a different direction. The ideological leftist assault on Western civilization takes many forms, including the trashing of the U.S. education system and a willingness to kowtow to supporters of Islamist terror by those who think that doing so will benefit them politically.

No matter which brand of violent thug is hiding their identity, a public square that can be dominated by hate-mongers who cover their identities is a menace to all of our freedoms. It is also a problem that, as history teaches us, can be addressed by sensible legislation. Anti-masking laws must be passed and enforced if we are to survive this latest threat to American liberty as well as to Jewish security.

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

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