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The New Anti-Antisemitism

You know who has good reason to fear for their safety? People, many of them Jews, getting pummeled by cops and fascists. People getting high-powered rifles aimed at them from rooftops by agents of the state told to be ready to shoot....

Pro-Israel counterprotesters hold Israeli flags on the edges of a pro-Palestine encampment at Northeastern University in Boston, April 26, 2024.,Vincent Ricci/Sopa Images/SIPA USA Via AP // The American Prospect

No matter how much I try to ward it off, a certain curse of my career repeats: Every time protest signs bloom, scribes seek my input for “historical parallels” pieces. Isn’t this just like in Nixonland when …?

My initial response is always the same: Maybe—but there will be time to reflect on that later, and wouldn’t it be better to spend energy figuring out what’s going on now?

I’ve never felt more that way than during these past several weeks. Angry kids setting up tents on university quads, taking over administration buildings, cops dragging them away: The more energy we spend on baby boomer games of compare and contrast, the less we can understand how, this time, the response to students protesting Israel’s war on Gaza has taken shape as a pure product of the interlocking derangements of the Trumpocene. I’m trying desperately here to start that conversation, because what we’re witness to now has the potential to make Kent State on May 4, 1970, seem like a spring picnic.

WANT HISTORICAL PARALLELS? Start with one from just two months ago, when a moral witness set himself on fire in front of the Israeli embassy in Washington, and an officer of the law sought to subdue him with a gun rather than trying to extinguish the fire.

Yes, there was plenty of terrible state violence again Vietnam War–era campus protesters: Kent State; Jackson State; a military helicopter belching tear gas at students kettled into Sproul Plaza and a cop shooting dead a bystander during the “People’s Park” riot at the University of California, Berkeley; and many more. But escalating to a military response nearly immediately, at barely a provocation or no provocation?—in the 1960s, that would have been inconceivable.

You might have already stomached some of the videos of last week’s most harrowing abuses. At the University of Wisconsin, a balding, bespectacled professor face down, two cops pinning his left arm sharply behind his back, and a disabled professor getting her dress torn and suffering internal damage from police strangulation. The 65-year-old former head of Dartmouth’s Jewish studies program who dared scream “What are you doing?” at cops being taken down with a wrestling move that also left her with an arm wrenched behind her back. Then a second cop arriving to keep her pinned as a third looks on blithely, rifle at the ready. (She was suspended by her university for her trouble.) At Washington University in St. Louis, a 65-year-old professor, a Quaker, was told by his doctor he was “lucky to be alive” after absorbing a flying tackle from a very large officer for the sin of filming cops with his cellphone, then being dragged to a nearby patch of grass, writhing, then to a police van, where he fell limp.

If mainstream news organizations would concentrate their formidable resources at how this exact same script played out at diverse institutions large and small, as if their administrators had all attended the same continuing education seminar, instead of editors assigning “they took over Hamilton Hall then, they took over Hamilton Hall now” pieces, that, in my humble opinion, would be a most welcome development.

THE PROVOCATIONS FOR THESE ASSAULTS are so much milder now than they were in the 1960s that an administrator then who could peer 55 years into the future would probably smirk. Students peacefully chanting slogans on a single, specific issue, backed by easily realizable demands? Pshaw.

At 1960s Cornell, the escalation that culminated in Black militants holding the administration building with rifles began when a student from the African American Society (AAS) stormed the university’s president at a lectern as he pleaded that he couldn’t afford to fully meet the African American Society’s demand to build an entire new college where Black students would do hiring and determine the curriculum themselves. The student lifted the president to his toes by the collar. Another kid stood by with a four-foot length of two-by-four, as audience members banged bongos in menacing rhythm. Then, AAS provocateurs burned a cross on the lawn of a Black sorority to “prove” the university was irremediably racist. At Kent State, the National Guard had been called after students burned down the ROTC building, cutting the hoses of the firefighters who arrived to put out the blaze. That had been preceded, three weeks earlier, by a lecture by Jerry Rubin to 1,500 where he declared, “The first part of the Yippie program is to kill your parents. And I meant that quite literally, because until you’re prepared to kill your parents, you’re not ready to change this country.”

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But to repeat: What is happening now, I believe, might be far more dangerous.


CONTRASTING SCENES from recent days:

  • Students at the protest encampment at the University of Chicago enjoyed a gorgeous twilight “Mimouna,” a rite celebrated by the Maghrebi Jews of North Africa during Passover. Some wore kippahs, others keffiyehs, some both. Muslim and Jewish prayer services are a regular feature at this “Popular University for Gaza” where a thousand or so people are reported to be milling about, which features 24-hour food service, lots of art, film screenings—a vibe like a jam band festival camping area, only with more eight-syllable words.
  • Two thousand miles away in Boston, the administration at Northeastern University said they had no choice but to flood in the campus police to take down an encampment because it “was infiltrated by professional organizers with no affiliation to Northeastern,” and it had descended into “virulent antisemitic slurs, including ‘Kill the Jews.’” Then, however, the student newspaper reviewed footage demonstrating it was the pro-Israel counter-demonstrators who trollingly chanted that, to the pro-Palestinian side’s angry boos. Similarly, at UCLA, it was pro-Israel ultranationalists who came onto campus one night last week to attack the protesters’ encampment and the protesters themselves, a story that the Los Angeles Times got right, but that the East Coast press managed to garble completely by misstating who attacked whom.

Concerns for the “safety” of Jewish students has become a rhetorical commonplace in elite discussions of campus politics these days: “Jewish students of all political beliefs,” Theo Baker, son of New York Times superstar Peter Baker, tells us in The Atlantic in “The War at Stanford,” “have been given good reason to fear for their safety. They’ve been followed, harassed, and called derogatory racial epithets.”

It makes me feel like I’m losing my mind. You know who has good reason to fear for their safety? People, many of them Jews, getting pummeled by cops and fascists. People getting high-powered rifles aimed at them from rooftops by agents of the state who surely have been told by the people giving them orders to be ready to shoot because of all the “dangerous” things that are going on amid those protesters’ tents.

Sure, offensive things have happened to protesters. And that’s awful. But when I told some Chicago neighbors about all the Judaism going on down in Hyde Park, they were frankly shocked to hear it: They watch Morning Joe, from which they got the impression that Jew-hate was the overwhelming leitmotif of this whole protest thing.

It suggests one of those Talmudic puzzlements, or perhaps the setup for a dad joke: How many Jews have to pray peacefully in a pro-peace encampment (or alternatively, to cite a scene witnessed outside the 116th Street gate of Columbia University, how many black-hatted ultra-Orthodox Jews have to chant, “Anti-Zionism is not antisemitism”) for them to stop being an antisemitic mob?

IT MIGHT HAVE BEEN ONE OF THE GOP’S most shameless political bunco artists who set this particular jank into motion. But by now it’s one of those allegedly noble “bipartisan” convergences, like the Iraq War authorization in 2002, or the writing of checks to criminal investment banks in 2008-2009. “President Biden has stood against repugnant, antisemitic smears and violent rhetoric his entire life … protests must be peaceful and lawful,” ran a White House statement; it is “unacceptable when Jewish students are targeted for being Jewish,” said Chuck Schumer. “For many of Jewish descent, they do not feel safe, and that is a real issue,” contributed the third-most powerful House Democrat Pete Aguilar. And here is Wisconsin’s Republican Assembly Speaker Robin Vos: “Thank you @uwchancellor for doing the right thing by enforcing campus policies and standing up to the unruly mob.”

In Madison, of course, the unruliest mob was the cops tackling senior-citizen scholars. That is another of the oh-so-of-the-moment qualities of this whole business: how easy it is to inject truth-dissolving poison into public rhetoric, or get away with plain old gaslighting—without which all this state violence could never have maintained its political sanction.

Gaslighting like New York Mayor Eric Adams saying, “It is despicable that schools would allow another country’s flag to fly in our country,” referring to the Palestinian one. (Apparently, it happens all the time at his City Hall.)

Gaslighting like Sen. Mitt Romney intoning that if “some wonder why there was such overwhelming support for us to shut down potentially TikTok,” just “look at the postings on TikTok and the number of mentions of Palestine relative to other social media sites.” (Relative to other social media platforms—platforms, Senator, we call them platforms—TikTok is used by young people, who are far less likely to be IDF fans.)

Gaslighting like Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s. The thuggish response of riot police to the protesters at the University of Texas was supposedly because of all the rocks and guns they confiscated—except that, according to one student, the rocks were there to hold down the posters, and, well, no surprise: UT is a “concealed-carry campus, so we were within our legal rights.” Then, after that came Abbott’s executive order revising Texas public universities’ “free speech codes”—naming specific words and phrases speakers would not be allowed to say.

Not to slight, amid this Orwellian catalog, those who are just plain lying. As press critic and higher-education historian Will Bunch points out, on the campus of Ohio State in Columbus, one of several schools that let snipers aim rifles at students, the administration first said there weren’t any snipers. “When presented with evidence, they admitted the truth.”

ANY HISTORICAL ACCOUNT OF HOW this madness presently comes to pass might start, not in the 1960s, but with a pattern so ancient it’s practically more archaeological than historical: the claim of outside agitators.

Administrators say their bucolic campus had been “infiltrated by professional organizers with no affiliate to Northeastern.” Mayor Adams’s people emit a now-infamous series of gaffes about fearsome chains like ones the Sharks and Jets might fight with in West Side Story, or vague insinuations that a retired fourth grade teacher from Florida ducking in to Columbia’s encampment for an hour was a Hezbollah cat’s-paw, or the inexplicable presence at a university of … a textbook. David Axelrod insinuated, “It will be interesting to learn how many of those arrested in Hamilton Hall at Columbia are actually students.” As I co-wrote with fellow historian Richard Kreitner during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, the insistence that all would be copacetic but for irritations introduced by “outside agitators” is a favorite alibi of stompers on the aspirations of the weak and vulnerable in all times and places. It is how they explain away the responses to injustices native to their own institutions.

Our thumbnail analysis might move next, not to the Age of Aquarius, but to that of Harry S. Truman.

William F. Buckley’s argument in God and Man at Yale: The Superstitions of “Academic Freedom” (1951) was that commie pagan professors shouldn’t decide how universities teach; that should be up to the conservative boards of trustees. This exemplified the conservative movement’s later wars of attrition against all manner of institutions comprising the institutional base of liberalism itself. It’s been working particularly well at Indiana University, where trustees hired a president who has proven so compliant to right-wing demands on things like previous protest policies and graduate student organization that 93 percent of faculty voted that they didn’t want her to be president any more.

Then came the Gaza protest, and a welcome opportunity to show those commies who was boss: President Pamela Whitten cracked down on a fledgling protest by invoking a rule passed practically in secret only moments before the protest began—a rule that authorized officers “with sniper capabilities” to deploy on the university’s rooftops.

And now this. Buckley’s spiritual children are nothing if not opportunistic:

WASHINGTON (AP) — House Republicans on Tuesday announced an investigation into the federal funding for universities where students have protested the Israel-Hamas war … Several House committees will be tasked with a wide probe that ultimately threatens to withhold federal research grants and other government support to the universities, placing another pressure point on campus administrators who are struggling to manage pro-Palestinian encampments, allegations of discrimination against Jewish students and questions of how they are integrating free speech and campus safety.”

THE ACTUAL EXAMPLES OF ALLEGED JEW-HATRED that have been adduced are so threadbare. A protest leader arrays the bodies of protesters as a human shield against those who’ve shown up to oppose their protest. One cries—at a protest leader who, for all we know, just as well might be Jewish—“We didn’t say a word! My friend had a Jewish star necklace! All the sudden we’re surrounded, they’ve been circling us, they’re threatening us.”

I mean, think about it: Do we complain when strikers who put up a picket don’t let anti-union activists join the line of march?

Surely, one can find worse examples of actual bigotry and abuse. But as I pointed out recently to The New York Times, “When you’re talking about college students, you are talking about people who are barely out of childhood.” Here, the wisdom of John Lennon concerning the idiocies of his own time remains imperishable: If you go carrying pictures of Chairman Mao (or Hassan Nasrallah, I suppose), you ain’t gonna make it with anyone anyhow.

But giving offense is not enough to send police to aim rifles at them from roofs. Which is, alas, Orwellian in an even more frightening way.

For by now, the broad coalition led by our president’s opposition to “repugnant, antisemitic smears and violent rhetoric” has come to include actual outside agitators, brandishing American and Israeli flags, shouting, “I hope they rape you” and “Let’s rape the women!” at Palestinians.

That was at UCLA, where, not to put too fine a point on it, taking advantage of a rare absence of police presence or any sort of security except for the flimsy plywood boards demonstrators deployed as shields to protect their perimeter, fashy thugs crying things like “No place in the world for you!” started going after them with flying karate kicks, sticks, and tear gas. Quite the thing, listening to the BBC, and hearing an incredulous reporter who couldn’t quite believe the tear gas canisters hadn’t been opened by cops.

But there were no cops; not for more than two hours, according to this report. Until, eventually, a company of police arrived to break up the encampment, in the requisite riot gear, brandishing machine guns.

Arrived, that is to say, on the side of the fascists, doing what the fascists had hoped to do themselves.

The chancellor said the encampment was a “provocation” to violence. Southern sheriffs used to say the same thing about civil rights demonstrations. Which now seems somewhat the position of the leadership class of the Democratic Party, too. In order to “protect Jews.” In effect, discouraging political speech against a war enacted by a veritable fascist government thousands of miles away, and doing so in a way that serially humiliates the president of the United States.

So sure, worry about the kids; I believe the children are our future and all that. But worry about the grown-ups more.

And only connect.

Last week, I noted a creepy viral right-wing blog post about how “the Democrats have crossed the bridge into unabashed Nazism.” I promised to follow up with more detail. So how have the Democrats, according to this, turned into Nazis? By making “certain that behind the scenes the Biden Administration does not waiver in taking all steps necessary to prevent Israel from permanently destroying Hamas.”

The sort of people who wrap themselves in flags and bust up protests think you are the Nazi, fellow Democrat. Even if you think the IDF has no choice but to do what they are doing: Trumpies don’t make distinctions like that among the “enemy.” So the war will go on yet more viciously, no matter what Joe Biden says; many more people, lots of them Jews, very, very anguished, will protest lots more.

It’s right easy to start a moral panic in America, and few among any class of people are immune to panic’s charms. Some of the panicked are dangerous lunatics. Others are allegedly responsible people, acting under the color of law.

You want a historical parallel? Here is the only one I’ve got. Moral panics, and their attendant derangement of truth—say, when force of arms is deployed to protect one side from those who supposedly say they want to kill them, even though it’s actually the side that supposedly needs the protection who said it—have started very bad outbreaks of violence throughout history. I have a hard time seeing how this one, backed as it is by so many powerful institutions of so many different descriptions, uniting so many alleged ideological differences—folding in so many weapons and ill tempers, with so few voices talking sense—ends peacefully.

[Rick Perlstein is the author of a four-volume series on the history of America’s political and cultural divisions, and the rise of conservatism, from the 1950s to the election of Ronald Reagan. He lives in Chicago.]

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