Why They’re Calling Student Protesters Antisemites

Backers of Israel’s war have lost the battle for hearts and minds, so they’ve ginned up a controversy over student protests — they want us talking about anything other than the genocide in Gaza.

Student protesters demonstrate near Columbia University on February 2, 2024 in New York City. (Alexi J. Rosenfeld / Getty Images)

To understand the current headline-dominating furor over the protests taking place on college campuses against the war in Gaza, think about the death toll of each. As of the time of writing, more than thirty-four thousand Palestinians have been killed by the Israeli military in Gaza, almost certainly a massive undercount. On US campuses, that figure is zero.

It’s this cosmically vast discrepancy in terms of “harm” and “safety” that more than anything explains the absurd and ongoing freakout over college students protesting the war on Gaza — one that would be laughable if it weren’t so menacing.

Columbia University administrators have been hauled before Congress and pressured to crack down on faculty and students over their speech. The Anti-Defamation League’s Jonathan Greenblatt has called for the National Guard to be sicced on protesters at Columbia — one of several figures to do so, including several US senators — knowing full well that the last time that happened, at Kent State in 1970, four students were killed. Supporters of Israel’s war, including the Israeli government itself, have hysterically labeled the protests — overwhelmingly comprised of students sitting in place and talking, sometimes dancing, often featuring large numbers of Jewish students — “terrorism,” “pogroms,” “riots,” and “mobs” seeking to destroy the country and that have led Jews to flee its borders.

One particularly histrionic war supporter has claimed in the Times of Israel that what’s happening on campuses “is 1938,” meaning Kristallnacht, when Nazis rampaged through Jewish neighborhoods lynching people and destroying homes, places of worship, and businesses. The result has been a wave of repression on campuses, with universities calling local police to arrest and detain their own students and faculty, many of them Jewish, for the crime of physically being on their own schools’ campuses, ending in-person classes, and barring them from physically returning, to the point of even erecting plywood barricades.

Meanwhile, what has been happening over in Gaza during this same week, as student protesters were being vilified and arrested for trying to make Israel’s military campaign in the territory end?

At Nasser hospital in Khan Younis, Palestinians have uncovered a series of mass graves that have revealed more than three hundred dead Palestinians and counting, some of them with their hands tied, while a different mass grave was dug up at the ruins of Al-Shifa hospital where nearly four hundred bodies were exhumed. At the same time, the famine Israel has deliberately engineered continues to spread as both UN aid workers and the EU’s top foreign policy official report there has been “very little significant change” in terms of humanitarian aid coming in and that its entry is still “being hindered” by Israel.

Earlier this week, an Israeli airstrike killed twenty-two people largely from one extended family as they slept, eighteen of them children. Before that, strikes on two homes killed nine people, including six kids, while a man lost his entire family, including his wife, kids, and grandkids, when Israel bombed his family home before that. And before that, five kids were among the eleven Palestinians killed by a spate of attacks on Rafah, meant to be the “safe zone” that 1.5 million displaced Palestinians have been corralled into.

At one point, fifty-four Palestinians were killed over one twenty-four-hour period, the same one in which Yale University had sixty people on its campus arrested because “the situation was no longer safe.” On the same day that the chair of Columbia’s board of trustees declared there was a “moral crisis on our campus” and called the behavior of protesters “unacceptable,” UNICEF’s spokesperson announced that two-thirds of all houses in Gaza have been damaged or destroyed by the Israeli military.

While the war’s cheerleaders and school administrators register their concern over the menace of students camping — or, even more horrifying, of their students being unable to hear chirping birds while listening to John Cage’s four-and-a-half-minute-long silent composition — UN experts last week warned Gaza may be the victim of “scholasticide,” with 80 percent of the territory’s schools damaged or destroyed. All the while, the “apocalyptic” Israeli plans to invade Rafah, in the words of one refugee agency head — and which even the US state department admits it’s not possible to safely evacuate — are set to happen “very soon,” even as Israeli forces continue bombing and shelling the famine-stricken north.

Keeping in mind this small sampling of the death and destruction going on in Gaza right now, any reasonable person might ask: How on Earth is it possible that anyone could be most concerned about some students sitting around in makeshift camps and occasionally saying some impolite or stupid things in US colleges?

To ask the question is to answer it. Over the past six months, Israel’s response to Hamas’s brutal atrocities in October has been so disproportionate, indiscriminate, and savage that the war and its backers have not only lost any moral high ground they might have had, they’ve lost the US public as a whole.

With the war now deeply unpopular, and only losing more hearts and minds every day as Americans watch the list of Israeli atrocities pile up and up, its supporters have decided their only recourse is to simply gin up a controversy to draw the media and politicians’ attention away from what has been widely declared a genocide in Gaza, while simultaneously making themselves, the supporters of this crime, out to be the real victims.

This is why we’ve now seen several unseemly, often embarrassing attempts by the war’s supporters to manufacture victimhood at the hands of the nonviolent protesters. Columbia  professor Shai Davidai — criticized across the political spectrum for his alarm over watching an Islamic prayer — unsuccessfully tried to force an altercation with the very protesters he said were Nazis who made him fear for his life. One woman filmed herself walking into the middle of an encampment, declaring that she was Jewish and demanding “Doxx me,” only for no one to pay her the slightest attention. Another claimed she had been “stabbed in the eye,” only for video footage to show what had actually happened: a protester waving a Palestinian flag happened to poke her in the eye with the end of a flagstick as he walked past.

And it’s worked. The “stabbed in the eye” story has been uncritically reported far and wide. Outlets like the New York Times and CNN have made the campus protests front-page news, while comparatively burying reporting on the Israeli atrocities mentioned above. The political urgency around conditioning US aid to Israel has evaporated, as US politicians instead call for alarming measures like siccing the National Guard on students (while throwing more military aid to Israel to carry out more atrocities).

As tends to happen when authorities respond heavy-handedly to protests, Columbia and others’ arrests of students is already backfiring, bringing them negative publicity and inspiring similar, larger, and more militant protests to spring up in solidarity and outrage. But as the campus standoffs take up more headlines, don’t forget what this is all really about: trying to get us to talk about something, anything, other than the ongoing mass murder in Gaza that the US government could stop at any moment.