• The Racket
  • Posts
  • Americans lose their minds (again) over campus pro-Palestine protests

Americans lose their minds (again) over campus pro-Palestine protests

A little perspective, please

Let’s start with a little context. Mass graves were found this week on the grounds of two Gaza Strip hospitals, from which Israeli troops withdrew earlier this month to prepare for the feared war with Iran (and to reposition for Israel’s still-threatened invasion of Rafah, the last redoubt of half of Gaza’s population). Some of the 392 bodies Gaza health officials say they have dug out of the pits over the last six days showed signs of torture or had their hands tied, suggesting they were victims of field executions. A few still had IVs attached. These bodies included those of children, women, and elderly Palestinians. The larger of the graves, at Nasser Hospital in the city of Khan Younis, was the site of a displaced persons camp as recently as February.

All of those reports still need independent confirmation. But they are sufficiently alarming that the U.S., U.N., and European Union are all calling for thorough and immediate investigations. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan told a White House briefing today that the reports of the mass graves were “deeply disturbing,” and that the Biden administration “want[s] answers” from the Israeli government. (Sullivan stopped short of demanding an independent—that is, non-Israeli—investigation, nor pledging to investigate it himself.)

The Racket depends on the support of readers like you.
To get it delivered and support my work, get
a free or premium subscription today.

I’m noting that context — and the larger context of Israel’s ongoing, U.S.-financed-and-armed mass slaughter and depopulation of Gaza, themselves part of a project that has been ongoing for some 76 years — because so far as I’ve seen it’s been almost wholly missing from the general culture-war freakout over the campus anti-genocide protests that reached critical mass this week across the United States. Nor is there hardly any mention of the 34,000 Palestinians and counting who have been slaughtered in what at a minimum is an egregious act of collective punishment. Nor the fact that some 15,000 of the dead are children or young teenagers, nor that upwards of 7,000 more Palestinians believed by the United Nations to remain trapped under the rubble. Nor the millions in danger of death from further military reprisals, disease, and forced starvation.

In the rare cases that the actual reason for the protests is even gestured toward, it is to muddy the water or mock the claim. The best example of that comes courtesy of Columbia professor John McWhorter, who tried gamely to discredit his own students while burying the issue with one of the worst sentences ever to appear in the New York Times: “Legitimate questions remain about the definition of genocide, about the extent of a nation’s right to defend itself and about the justice of partition (which has not historically been limited to Palestine).” I invite you to look at the footage of the exhumation of the mass graves in Khan Younis and Gaza City, or of children starving in the northern reaches of the strip (content warnings apply, especially for parents of young kids), and read McWhorter’s sentence again. (He’s a linguist, no less.)

This is, of course, the point of the meta-coverage of the raging protest movement: to drown out the protesters’ actual demands — mainly that their universities divest themselves and stop collaboration with the Israeli war machine, a tactic also used to varying effects in the fight against climate change and to end South African apartheid, among others — as well as what is actually happening with U.S. money and materiel in Gaza.

Police arrest a person at a pro-Palestine protest on the campus of the University of Texas in Austin, Texas, on April 24, 2024. (Photo by SUZANNE CORDEIRO/AFP via Getty Images)

We are thus being subjected to a full-blown moral panic, in which students who literally conducted Passover seders inside their protest encampments this week are being labeled as antisemites, whose “nascent pogroms” (in the words of Sen. Tom Cotton) call for a 54th-anniversary reenactment of the raid at Kent State. Other politicians are labeling the students “terrorists.” The Butcher of Gaza himself, Benjamin Netanyahu, compared the student movement to the rise of the Nazis in 1930s Germany. Not to be outdone, we’ve got Donald Trump bellowing today that they are worse than the 2017 Nazi rally in Charlottesville — the one whose participants he infamously praised at the time.

Even President Biden has gotten into the act, condemning “antisemitic protests,” without clarifying which protests he’s talking about.

This is an extension of what you might call the Philosemitism Extended Universe — birthed late last year, when the GOP House caucus, led by the neo-McCarthyite Elise Stefanik, succeeded in making imagined calls for genocide at Harvard and Penn a bigger story than an actual genocide, in Gaza. (A genocide which, not incidentally, includes the real, physical destruction of all of the territory’s universities and the killing of countless students.) It was perhaps inevitable that this would lead to the sequel, in which riot police are storming encampments (only to admit, in the case of the NYPD at Columbia, that the students they arrested were in fact “peaceful”). A sequel in which a Yale undergrad getting poked in the eye with a miniature flag is a bigger story than an Israeli soldier admitting that no one in his unit so much as “batt[ed] an eye” as they wantonly killed innocent civilians in Gaza, including children.

As with any moral panic, there are grains of truth here. There are strains of antisemitism within the pro-Palestine movement. A handful of videos are floating around, mostly of isolated groups of non-student protesters in Harlem, away from the Columbia campus. One has a small group chanting pro-Hamas slogans, including a call to “bomb Tel Aviv.” Another widely seen video has a small group of people wearing keffiyehs shouting “go back to Europe” and “you have no culture” to an unseen group of people, apparently either Israelis or Jews. (It isn’t clear from the video what prompted the confrontation; I also can’t help but note that claims that Palestinians have no culture and don’t really exist as a people are commonplace in Zionist circles.)

But the overall narrative — that violent mobs of antisemites are taking over America’s college campuses — is not only false, it’s dangerous. It’s being used, and will increasingly be used over the coming days, to two ends: One, to justify the use of extreme force to crush peaceful protests and encampments that might further galvanize American public opinion against an unjust and unholy war. And two, as further rhetorical cover for continued U.S. support for Israel, and for the Israeli military itself (hence Netanyahu weighing in) as it moves closer to crushing the last hopes for Palestinian safety in what is left of the Gaza Strip. All are spaces that bear watching.

Join the conversation

or to participate.