On the morning of Oct. 7, militants of the terrorist group Hamas invaded Israel from Gaza, ransacking homes in nearby towns and storming the Nova music festival, where over 260 people were slaughtered. As a result of the surprise air, sea and land attack by Hamas, more than 1,400 people were murdered, over 4,200 were wounded and over 200 were taken hostage, mostly civilians. The attack was the deadliest day for Jews since the Holocaust, and deeply shook the global Jewish community. As of Nov. 6, only five hostages have been released or rescued.
As a Jewish student at USC, I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by a vibrant campus Jewish community, which is over 2,000 undergraduates strong, in these difficult times. On Oct. 10, we came together for a vigil to mourn the victims of the attack in a ceremony that included songs, prayers and speeches. Through the tears, we created a beautiful moment of togetherness and solidarity. Yet, as I stood in silent prayer, I could not help but notice the small group that had gathered to “protest” our vigil, holding up Palestinian flags and signs. Seeing other USC students deliberately protest our community’s sorrow was deeply disturbing. It felt as though we had come together to create a sacred space of mourning, and they had come to desecrate it.
In the days since the attack, college campuses across the country have seen a wave of both pro-Israel and pro-Palestine vigils, marches and protests, illustrating the stark divide on the issue among college students. Many in the U.S. Jewish community were disturbed to see that the attack drew apparent praise from campus organization Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) chapters across the country, leading dozens of national Jewish groups, campus organizations and state legislators to sign a letter demanding universities withdraw their schools’ recognition of and funding for SJP.
SJP’s activities, according to the letter, included hailing the terror attacks as a “historic win” and distributing materials with images of paragliders, which were used by Hamas members in an attack on the Nova music festival, on U.S. college campuses. The letter concludes with a demand for “moral accountability and official punishment for SJP and its chapters for their campaign to glorify the Hamas attacks on Israel of October 7.”
SJP was not the only major political organization to seemingly justify the attacks. Black Lives Matter Los Angeles called the events on Oct. 7 an “act of self-defense” in a statement posted on Facebook, even while news emerged of the murder of a number of Black Israelis.
The letter also comes in the wake of several reports of antisemitic incidents, some violent, on college campuses. A Cornell University professor called the Hamas attacks “exhilarating” and “energizing,” while a Yale professor dubbed Israel a “murderous, genocidal settler state.” At Columbia, an Israeli student was assaulted outside the main campus library, and a Jewish student’s door was set on fire at Drexel University in Philadelphia. An NYU student even admitted to ripping down posters of kidnapped Israeli children that were hanging on campus.
Both the attack in Israel and the troubling reaction have deeply impacted the mental health of many young American Jews. Nearly all of the people interviewed for a New York Times article on the topic spoke about a kind of aloneness, and a sense that “a chasm had appeared between their network of Jewish friends and family and the non-Jewish world around them.”
“A lot of Jewish students are really struggling when they see their peers or their classmates celebrating, not just condoning, but celebrating what’s happening as a form of resistance,” says Julia Jassey, a recent college graduate and the CEO of Jewish on Campus, an advocacy group for Jewish and Zionist students.
In an interview with Ted Deutch, former U.S. Representative (D-FL) and current American Jewish Committee (AJC) CEO, CNN Anchor Wolf Blitzer reflected on his sadness regarding the tense situation the American Jewish community has been facing for the past few weeks:
“What is so depressing, when I drive around here in Washington, […] and I drive by a Jewish center or a Jewish synagogue and I see cop cars […] right in front, I say ‘Is this the United States? Do you need cop cars in front of synagogues like this?’ It’s so depressing to see that.”
Moreover, antisemitism resulting from the conflict in the Middle East is impacting far more Jews than just those in the United States and on its college campuses. Around the world, various Jewish institutions have faced attacks.
On Oct. 18, two hooded men threw molotov cocktails at a central Berlin synagogue. In Tunisia, hundreds of rioters were filmed setting fire to and heavily damaging a historic synagogue, which is an important pilgrimage site that houses the grave of a prominent 16th-century rabbi. In Australia, a pro-Palestine rally devolved into chants of “Gas the Jews.”
If anti-Israel sentiment is truly only about protesting the Israeli government’s policies in Gaza, why are Jews around the world under attack?
Social media, and the ease with which people can repost thoughts, tweets and infographics, can largely contribute to the feelings of fear, frustration and isolation that many in the Jewish community have been experiencing.
In recent weeks, I have seen a barrage of posting and reposting of unverified information disguised as fact on my own social media feed, influencing the opinions of numerous followers on various platforms. One example that I observed was the reaction to the Oct. 17 Al-Ahli Arab hospital explosion in Gaza. While the explosion was without doubt a horrific tragedy, many were quick to express outrage by reposting unverified reports that an Israeli missile had been the cause of the devastation. As the U.S. intelligence community and other experts assessed the situation and determined that Israel “was not responsible” for the blast and it was most likely a rocket fired from Gaza, not only did the incessant outrage disappear into thin air, but few bothered to apologize and correct themselves after spreading dangerous misinformation.
Pro-Palestinian Protests, Antisemitism and Zionism
I stand unconditionally in favor of the freedom of speech and protest. At the same time, I feel it is my duty to call out misconceptions and speech that directly threatens my community.
Let me be clear: Not all pro-Palestine protest is antisemitic. Standing against Israeli government policies in the West Bank and Gaza and calling for improved humanitarian conditions for Palestinians is perfectly legitimate. Yet, some common slogans being chanted at recent protests around the country must be both properly contextualized and called out for what they are: calls for violence against Israel and the Jewish people.
The commonly heard chant “From the River to the Sea, Palestine will be free” advocates for a Palestinian state that stretches from the Jordan River in the east to the Mediterranean Sea in the west. The establishment of such a state would mean the complete eradication of Israel, a UN member state, and the ethnic cleansing of the over 7 million Jews that call Israel home. The chant denies the Jewish connection to Israel and labels Israel’s entire Jewish population as “occupiers” or “settlers,” therefore legitimizing them as targets for violence. It also immediately shuts down any discussion of a two-state solution to the conflict. One can imagine the outcry that would occur if a protest publicly called for the destruction of any other UN member state and the elimination of the majority of its population. Yet, in the case of Israel, slogans like these are seen as a legitimate form of protest.
Another frequently heard message is a call to “Globalize the Intifada.” To many in the Jewish community, the chant threatens a new wave of violence against Jewish people, business and places of worship around the world, and triggers painful memories of a series of attacks in Israel including bus explosions and cafe bombings during the First Intifada (early 1980s) and the Second Intifada (2000-2005).
Similar to “From the River to the Sea,” another common protest chant, “There is only one solution,” also identifies the elimination of Israel as the only solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Not only does that statement shut down any productive discourse for finding a peaceful resolution to the conflict, it also apparently makes terrifying allusions to Hitler’s “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” during the Holocaust.
The normalization of chants like these as legitimate protest and appropriate language stems from a widespread misunderstanding of important concepts related to Israel’s history and existence, as well as the conflict as a whole. Calling for the destruction of the state of Israel and thus denying the Jewish people the right to self-determination, also known as antizionism, is antisemitism.
In 2016, the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) developed a working definition of antisemitism, a definition constructed by experts in the IHRA’s Committee on Antisemitism and Holocaust Denial and based on international consensus. The IHRA definition is seen as the “gold standard” definition of the term, and Jewish organizations in the United States and around the globe have worked tirelessly to persuade both governments and the private sector to adopt it as official policy.
According to the definition, the following constitute antisemitism:
- “Denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor.”
- “Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.”
- “Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.”
- “Holding Jews collectively responsible for actions of the state of Israel.”
However, the IHRA definition emphasizes “criticism of Israel similar to that leveled against any other country cannot be regarded as antisemitic.” Similar to IHRA, other definitions of antisemitism, such as the Nexus Definition, also agree that “opposition to Israel’s policies, or nonviolent political action directed at the state of Israel and/or its policies should not, as such, be deemed antisemitic.” Thus, legitimate criticism of the Israeli government and its policies is both possible and common.
Zionism is another concept that has been misunderstood and demonized. Zionism is the movement for self-determination and statehood for the Jewish people in their ancestral homeland, Israel. For many, it is an integral aspect of practicing the Jewish religion and identity.
Contrary to common misconceptions, Zionism as a concept originated far before the Zionist Congresses of late 19th century Europe, an assertion made by those who falsely argue that Zionism is a settler colonial, racist movement. The yearning to return to Zion, the biblical term for Israel and Jerusalem, has been a cornerstone of Jewish life since the Roman Empire colonized the land, sending Jews into exile in 70 CE. For 2,000 years, Jews have prayed in the direction of Jerusalem, wished “next year in Jerusalem” during holidays like Passover, and made pilgrimages to ancient sites in the area.
In the mid-19th century, Modern Zionism emerged, modeled after the other widespread national liberation movements of the time across Europe. It was in response to a long history of intense hatred, persecution and discrimination in countries across Europe, the Middle East and North Africa where Jews lived. The early Modern Zionists believed that a modern Jewish state would provide a safe haven from the bigotry and endangerment suffered as a marginalized minority.
It is important to note that the definition of Zionism does not involve Palestinians nor the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Equally important, Zionism and identifying as a Zionist does not preclude support for Palestinian self-determination and statehood.
Zionism has often been described as a “settler colonialist” ideology. The term “settler colonialism” conjures historical memories of exploitative white European empires militarily invading lands in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, implanting their citizens in colonies through the use of force, subjugating the native and indigenous populations and stealing their natural resources. But using the term “settler colonialism” to describe events since the late 19th century paints an incomplete and inaccurate picture. It fails to acknowledge that both Jews and Palestinians are native and indigenous to the land.
The Europeans who settled in colonies in the Middle East and North Africa were not indigenous or native to the land, nor held any religious and cultural connection to it in any way. The return of large numbers of Jews to Israel also resulted in the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. No true colonialists came to a homeland and revived the ancient tongue they had spoken there. Unlike British, French and other European colonialists, there is no “motherland” to which the Jewish population in Israel may otherwise go back to. Many Jews in Israel, including many who fled persecution, have no other country to go to.
According to the “settler colonialism” narrative, Israel was established by oppressed white European Jews who in turn became oppressors of people of color, the Palestinians. Israel would then be an extension of privileged and powerful white Europe in a non-white Middle East.
The problem with this narrative is that it does not reflect the reality on the ground. Over 21% of Israel’s population are non-Jewish Arabs. Among the 73.6% that are Jewish, Mizrahis, Jews of Middle Eastern and North African descent, are the majority. Only about 30% of Israeli Jews are Ashkenazi, or the descendants of European Jews. Thus, the “settler colonialism” narrative erases the stories of the descendants of the over 850,000 Middle Eastern and North African Jews that were forced to flee their homes due to antisemitism in Muslim-majority countries and settled in Israel, and also those of the over 160,000 descendants of Ethiopian Jews who were threatened by political destabilization in the early 1990s and airlifted to Israel.
As the current conflict drags on, I continue to hope and pray that all the hostages that were taken by Hamas are returned safely and the ongoing violence and civilian loss of life on both sides comes to an end.
As college students, independently of what you stand for, I urge you to acknowledge the complexity and historical roots of this conflict, and to verify the sources of the information you receive, especially when reposting on social media. Even unintentionally spreading misinformation promotes hatred and isolation and endangers the lives of both Jews and Muslims around the world. Diversity of opinion should always be welcomed on our college campuses, but hatred and defamation should not.
The views expressed in opinion pieces do not represent the views of Glimpse from the Globe or its editorial team.