Liberals Must Resist the New McCarthyism Over Israel Criticism

The hysteria over Palestine protests on campus that is being ginned up to protect US support for Israel’s war is the beginning of a new Red Scare. Liberals must resist it, because it will come for them, too.

Police intervene and arrest students at New York University demonstrating on campus in solidarity with the students at Columbia University and to oppose Israeli attacks on Gaza, in New York, United States on April 22, 2024. (Fatih Aktas / Anadolu via Getty Images)

To understand the smears on today’s pro-Palestine protesters calling them antisemitic, it’s helpful to go back to nearly a decade ago, when socialist Jeremy Corbyn was unexpectedly propelled to the British Labour Party’s leadership. The army of corporate-friendly conservatives who felt the party they had controlled for decades suddenly slipping from their grasp hatched an appalling but ingenious plan to take it back. Corbyn was easy for them to ridicule but hard to demonize.

He had stubbornly held to his humanistic principles even as the party and the politics around him lurched rightward. He was a lonely voice opposing disasters like the Iraq War that the rest of his colleagues giddily marched into and consistently advocated diplomatic solutions over military ones. He actually walked the talk when it came to his anti-racism, organizing against the National Front as its members planned to march down North London and campaigning hard against South African apartheid. He was a nice man who didn’t eat meat and rode his bike to work.

Worse, it wasn’t just him. Corbyn had inspired an entire generation of idealistic, energetic young people aligned with his politics who flooded the Labour Party’s membership rolls and threatened to permanently take it over. How could you beat something like this?

The answer was to team up with Labour’s own ostensible enemies on the Right and a hostile establishment press to launch a relentless, scurrilous smear campaign against first Corbyn himself, and then the movement he inspired, deliberately painting them as the exact thing they were fighting against: racist extremists, specifically of the antisemitic variety. Partly, they jumped on the Labour left’s criticism of Israel for its apartheid policies, but largely the whole thing relied on a stew of smears, innuendo, and outright fabrications.

It didn’t matter that it didn’t make much sense, whether because of Corbyn’s long, documented history of anti-racist activism, the fact that he had fought to save a Jewish cemetery from being paved over (against one of the MPs who now called him “a fucking anti-semite”), or the fact that many of those in his movement being tarred as antisemites were Jewish themselves.

It didn’t matter that the antisemitism complaints in the party concerned an infinitesimal 0.1 percent of the membership, that antisemitic attitudes on the British left and among Labour were lower than on the Right, or that a number of the incidents in question happened long before Corbyn was leader.

Corbyn’s enemies jumped on and blew up every allegation, twisted the words of activists and the meaning of phrases, invented and distorted entire incidents, and simply asserted over and over again that Labour was plunged in an “antisemitism crisis,” even that Corbyn himself was secretly sympathetic to antisemites, if not a virulent antisemite himself. It worked.

After years of what looked like everyone across the political spectrum in both politics and the media incessantly repeating this lie, many people assumed there must be at least some truth to it. After all, what was more likely: that there was some “there” there to the accusations of antisemitism, or that a broad swath of politicians, journalists, and celebrities had been engaged in a yearslong, colossal, brazen fraud entirely motivated by their own political interests?

To this day, the incident remains one of the more frightening demonstrations of the power of the media and politicians to destroy an individual and a movement’s reputation. And we’re now seeing the same strategy playing out in the United States — one that shows signs of spiraling into a full-on Red Scare.

Constructing an Alternate Reality

Just as with UK Labour, the Democratic Party’s dominant, corporate wing — which counts everyone from the president of the United States to hundreds of members of Congress — is currently joining hands with members of the media and the “authoritarian” Republicans it keeps warning about in campaign ads to drum up hysteria about a nonexistent, rampaging antisemitic Left.

Because this is taking place in the United States, this “antisemitism crisis” has a uniquely American spin, mixing with the noxious Islamophobia and “war on terror” that have lingered in the country’s bloodstream since the 2000s to argue that leftists are not just antisemites but literal terrorists in league with Hamas, ISIS, Hezbollah, and Iran.

This didn’t come about overnight. This coalition has already attempted several rounds of manufactured antisemitism crises in the years before, aimed mostly at left-wing lawmakers like Ilhan Omar for their criticism of Israel, while right-wing pro-Israel groups, including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), have been waging a low-grade war against the Left since at least 2021, funneling untold amounts of oligarch cash into Democratic primaries to defeat left-wing politicians and punish them for their criticism of Israel — while simultaneously fighting the party’s leftward turn. Crucially, the victims of this big-money onslaught haven’t just been socialist lawmakers, but party-loyal progressives and even establishment-friendly Democrats.

As early as last March, former New York governor Andrew Cuomo — who is not Jewish but has an axe to grind with the Left since his political career was ended in part thanks to a rising left-wing movement in the state — announced he was starting a pressure group aimed at ostracizing Israel critics within the party as antisemites. One right-wing Democratic operative involved in the effort to unseat progressives in Congress giddily described how left-wing lawmakers would have a “scarlet letter” to wear for criticizing Israel after October 7, only to be disappointed when the unprecedented cruelty of Israel’s response turned US public opinion away from unconditional support of the country.

October 7 fell short of serving as the extinction-level event for the Left that this cohort had hoped for (not for lack of trying). But they clearly hope the current controversy over campus protests against the Israeli war will. What sets their efforts now apart from previous years is the breadth and ambition of this fear campaign — targeting not just a few lawmakers, but an entire political movement and generation of Americans — and that it’s now also being paired with a bipartisan, legislative push to use state power to suppress left-wing activists.

To this end, this anti-left, anti-Palestinian coalition has spent the past seven months, and the last few weeks in particular, manufacturing an entire alternate reality where the United States is in the grip of a hate movement akin to Nazi Germany that must be urgently stamped out. This is, incidentally, a talking point and course of action given to them by the far-right Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is currently busy trying to stave off both domestic criminal charges and an arrest warrant for war crimes.

To do this, politicians, the press, and organizations backing Israel’s war like the Anti-Defamation League have taken to baselessly asserting entire words, phrases, and demands that have no actual racist content are violent and antisemitic, whether “intifida” (which is Arabic for “uprising” and has been used, among other things, to refer to nonviolent protests during the Arab Spring) or “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” (which they claim is a call for genocide, unless it’s used by right-wing Zionists, in which case it’s A-OK). This has gone hand in hand with baselessly labeling pro-cease-fire protests antisemitic, which is particularly outrageous since many have been organized and led by Jews.

This already hysterical climate has kicked up another notch in recent weeks, thanks to media headlines and pro-Israel forces turning their attention to campus protests against the war, incidentally at the same time that the Israeli war effort has plumbed new lows in unpopularity and indefensibility. What’s followed the Republican hearings last month that hauled university administrators in front of Congress and accused them of enabling antisemitism has been a concerted campaign to paint colleges as hotbeds of virulent antisemitism and genocidal incitement, directed by terrorist groups, and which are poised to erupt any moment into full-scale pogroms.

Just look at a small sampling of the fantastical claims and unhinged rhetoric of lawmakers in recent weeks. Speaker Mike Johnson claimed that “many in the crowd” were “calling for the extermination of a race of people,” “using Hamas talking points,” and using the “actual imagery that the Nazis used in the 1930s, literally the same symbols and messages.” Senator Tom Cotton has called them “little Gazas” that are “disgusting cesspools of antisemitic hate full of pro-Hamas sympathizers, fanatics and freaks.” (Elsewhere, he called them “nascent pogroms.”)

Senator Marco Rubio called protesters “violent, anti-Israel, antisemitic mobs” who “want to destroy America” and are “out there chanting ‘Death to America’ in the streets of American cities,” charging that they are being directed by Hamas, Hezbollah, and other terror groups as “part of their strategy to intimidate American leaders to support policies that will help destroy Israel.” Another Republican charged they were “the same kind of demonstrations of hate” as he saw against blacks in the Jim Crow South.

If only this talk was limited to Republicans.

House Democratic leader Hakeem Jeffries has said protesters are “intentionally targeting Jews” with “antisemitic rhetoric and intimidation.” “What we’re witnessing at places like Columbia University is the creation of a hostile environment for Jews on college campus,” said Representative Ritchie Torres. “There’s no First Amendment right to hold people hostage and intimidate Jews.” Twenty-one House Democrats signed onto a letter calling on Columbia to disband the “impermissible encampment of anti-Israel, anti-Jewish activists on campus.” One of the signers has said “there is a tremendous amount of antisemitism” on campuses, comparing them to the Charlottesville neo-Nazi march in 2017.

It goes all the way up to the president, who has, both personally and through his office, issued sometimes lengthy denunciations of what he has called “tragic and dangerous hate speech” and violence on campus — except for the one time it actually happened, at the hands of pro-Israel counterprotesters, in which case the White House will issue a hurried, generic denunciation of “any form of violence.”

And it’s come through much of the same media that considers itself a “resistance” to fascism. That includes not only partisan programs like MSNBC’s Morning Joe, which spent the days leading up to the raid of Columbia beating the drum for a violent crackdown of protests, but also outlets considered middle of the road like CNN. After a night of state violence against largely Jewish protesters across US campuses earlier this week, the network ran a rampantly dishonest segment by anchor Dana Bash that became an instant classic of authoritarian agitprop.

To call these claims of rampant antisemitism a mischaracterization doesn’t go far enough. It is a disturbing fantasy, a collective fever dream cooked up with the flimsiest of evidence.

Witness the parade of provocateurs marching down to campuses desperate for some kind of altercation, only to be disappointed (or even start bawling) when protesters simply ignore or won’t talk to them; the scenes of Passover being celebrated in the middle of encampments; the testimony of the Jewish students leading the protests themselves, strenuously denying this onslaught of misinformation.

So devoid of violence and bigotry have these campus protests been, that the pro-Israel side has had to resort to publicizing a series of frauds: a pro-Israel counterprotester who wailed she’d been “stabbed in the eye,” only for video footage to reveal the claim as a blatant lie; a protester yelling “Kill the Jews” who turned out in reality to be from the pro-Israel side; a Columbia student protester with an antisemitic sign who (besides being a prominent crank local antisemite) was neither a student nor on the Columbia campus; and an “outside agitator” married to a convicted terrorist among the protesters barricaded in Hamilton Hall, who wasn’t actually there, hadn’t been at the campus for a week, and whose husband was no such thing.

But just as with the Labour Right’s campaign against Corbyn, the fact that this fear campaign bears no resemblance to realty isn’t an obstacle to it working. A plurality of 47 percent of Americans now back banning pro-Palestinian protests from campuses.

Internal Dissent

This should deeply worry anyone concerned with protecting basic democratic rights like freedom of speech. We are already starting to see the beginnings of what looks like a new McCarthyite Red Scare as a result of this ginned-up frenzy.

Two days ago, the House overwhelmingly passed a flagrantly unconstitutional bill effectively outlawing a variety of criticisms of Israel on campus, which the Senate’s top Democrat, Chuck Schumer, is promising to “look for the best way to move forward” on. Republicans are launching a sprawling Congressional probe into pro-Palestinian activism at colleges. This is on top of the staggering, disproportionate police violence that is being exclusively trained on peaceful antiwar activists — not on the pro-Israel counterprotesters who are the only ones that have engaged in documented violence.

Decent, reasonable people within the Democratic coalition and in the media see very clearly what is going on. Former education secretary Arne Duncan, who served with Biden, has expressed horror at the police crackdown and called for “deescalation please.” So has the president of the Center for American Progress, another ex-Obama official, who has called his own party out for its hypocritical celebration of African-American civil disobedience while cheering this on. The College Democrats of America have likewise criticized Biden over his statements on the protests and his policy toward the Israeli war. This is alongside the mountain of unprecedented dissent over Biden’s policy coming from other former Obama staffers and even those in the current White House and other parts of Biden’s administration.

They are only the tip of the iceberg here, and all have a duty to speak up, reject this dangerous fearmongering, and push back on this wave of right-wing repression, even if it means criticizing Biden and the Democrats in an election year. They have the duty to do this, not just because it’s the right thing to do, or because they’ll eventually have to look at themselves in the mirror, or because they’ll have to have something to say when their kids one day ask them what they did during this crazy, shameful time.

They should do it because like every Red Scare in the country’s history, the bounds of this witch hunt won’t stop at the far edges of the Left, but will creep further and further toward the center until it ends up enveloping them, too.