OpinionSchools & Higher Education

Wrapping George Washington in a keffiyeh

The general and first U.S. president must be rolling over in his grave at the thought of antisemites using him as a symbol of their cause.

The interior of the U.S. Capitol rotunda from behind a statue of founding father and first president George Washington. The image captures a portion of Constantino Brumidi's “Frieze of American History” starting from “Pizarro Going to Peru” to the beginning of “Landing of the Pilgrims.” Credit: Matt Wade Photography via Wikimedia Commons.
The interior of the U.S. Capitol rotunda from behind a statue of founding father and first president George Washington. The image captures a portion of Constantino Brumidi's “Frieze of American History” starting from “Pizarro Going to Peru” to the beginning of “Landing of the Pilgrims.” Credit: Matt Wade Photography via Wikimedia Commons.
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard
Mitchell Bard is a foreign-policy analyst and an authority on U.S.-Israel relations who has written and edited 22 books, including The Arab Lobby, Death to the Infidels: Radical Islam’s War Against the Jews and After Anatevka: Tevye in Palestine.

Do you ever wonder how much better media coverage of Israel would be if journalists knew anything about history?

A good example was a story in The Washington Post about Israel destroying greenhouses in the Gaza Strip. In what has become a never-ending series of stories about the suffering of Palestinians without reference to Hamas as the cause, the Post said nothing about the fact that Jews living in Gaza built the original greenhouses and employed some 4,000 Palestinians. To help the Palestinian economy, Israel reached an agreement with the Palestinians to leave them intact when it evacuated all Jewish settlements from Gaza in the 2005 disengagement. Those greenhouses were used to grow herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and flowers, and offered the Palestinian Authority—then in control of Gaza—a ready-made $75 million annual export business.

Do the article’s authors know what happened next?

Thousands of Palestinians stormed the former settlements and looted dozens of the more than 4,000 hothouses. Jeffrey Goldberg wrote in The Atlantic that this was “a perfect metaphor for Gaza’s wasted opportunity.”

Another example of journalistic ignorance at the Post was the article, “Washington’s makeover for GWU protest,” by the paper’s art and architecture critic, Philip Kennicott. He describes a statue of George Washington in University Yard at George Washington University “in a classical and aristocratic pose, one leg slightly bent, his posture erect. His cape is draped next to him, he holds a cane lightly in his right hand, and he is staring into the distance.”

That is how it usually looks, but protesters obscured his face with a keffiyeh, placed a Palestinian flag over his uniform and painted “genocidal war-mongering on the statue’s base, along with stickers that say things like “Look Up ‘Nakba,” which Kennicott says refers to the “ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.”

Admiringly, Kennicott says the statue wasn’t torn down but has been repurposed. “Anyone inclined to dismiss these protests as the irrational exuberance of privileged students with an incoherent ideology should stand back and consider the iconography,” he wrote. “When national symbols are incorporated into a group’s identity rather than rejected, something significant is happening. The students may be making inconvenient or even irrational requests of the institution and the country at large, but they are framing those demands as part of a continuum of American values.”

Veering outside his critic’s lane into politics, Kennicott referred to Israel’s “brutal war” with the usual criticism of the death toll and alleged famine, which has created “an urgency that requires rethinking all of the old assumptions about the alliance between the United States and Israel.” He adds that “the statue of Washington is already doing that work.”

Pro-Hamas Protests on U.S. Campuses
An anti-Israel protestor at George Washington University in the nation’s capital holds a sign calling for the Final Solution against Israel, similar to the Nazi’s Final Solution for Jews. Protesters at other universities displayed flags, marched with posters and wore clothes of different terrorist organizations. Credit: Courtesy.

According to Kennicott, “the heroic defense of a nascent Israel against overwhelming odds and military power, the communal and collective aspirations of the kibbutzim, the daring and bravado of Israeli commandos defending Israeli civilians around the world—belong to a generation that is passing from political relevance.” Now, he says, Israel will be seen as “a military colossus with American weapons attacking the World Central Kitchen aid workers, firing at the first car, then the second and then the third, until seven people were dead.”

He knows next to nothing about Middle Eastern history, which may be expected of an art critic. However, there is no excuse for his ignorance of American history. He knows the rudimentary fact that Washington was “an enslaver and plantation owner”; however, he omitted the more salient fact for his story—that Washington was the first leader of the United States to espouse the principle of tolerance and the unacceptability of discrimination.

In 1790, Moses Seixas, representing the Hebrew Congregation of Newport, R.I., wrote a letter welcoming Washington on his visit to the city. In his response, the president wrote that the government of the United States “gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Making clear that this included the treatment of Jews, he added: “May the Children of the Stock of Abraham, who dwell in this land, continue to merit and enjoy the good will of the other Inhabitants; while every one shall sit under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.”

As a general who defended this nation, Washington would have understood Israel’s need to protect itself. He would have recognized the difference between fighting soldiers in uniform as he did and terrorists using civilians as shields. And, as a soldier, would know that innocents are unfortunate casualties of war. Washington would have found the protesters’ intolerance abhorrent and university administrators cowards for cutting deals with the keffiyeh Klansmen and failing to protect Jewish students.

Washington must be rolling over in his grave at the thought of antisemites using him as a symbol of their cause—and being applauded for doing so by a Pulitzer-prize-winning journalist.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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