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Are US campus protests antisemitic? Jewish students weigh in | Panel

Theo Goldstine: ‘I didn’t join the protests because of slogans’

I was in California for Passover when the encampment first came up. I was excited because I want to see an end to what Human Rights Watch calls a system of apartheid, which refers to the fact that there are over 65 laws discriminating against Palestinian citizens of Israel, roads in the West Bank are segregated, Israelis have civil law while Palestinians have military law, water allotment is unequal and so much more.

I was hopeful because we urgently need a ceasefire, an end to crimes against humanity such as mass starvation in Gaza and to bring the hostages home. I assumed I would hear chants of “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” Even though I prefer a confederation so that both people can maintain national sovereignty while having their core interests met, that slogan is not a dealbreaker for me as long as it means one-person one-vote in an equal binational arrangement, which would end Israel as a Jewish state.

However, at NYU and across the country, protestors regularly chanted “From the water to the water, Palestine is Arab” in Arabic. There were chants of “Settlers, settlers [referring to all Israeli Jews] go back home, Palestine is ours alone.” They were justifying and normalizing the egregious crimes Hamas committed against civilians on October 7 and glorifying Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis under the banner of “by any means necessary.”

The protesters’ dream of a liberated Palestine looked a lot like pure revenge, rather than justice. I understand the desire for revenge, particularly for those between the River and the Sea. But I hold my peers – privileged US-based college students disconnected from the violence and existential antes — to a different standard. I support justice, freedom, liberty for the Palestinian people, but I could not and would not stand by a message filled with so much hate so I never joined the protests.

However, I kept sticking around on the outside of the encampment because I did agree with a fair amount of what protesters were saying and wanted to see what was going on. I witnessed and heard many awful things said by both Pro-Palestine protesters and Pro-Israel counterprotesters. But then, something magical happened. I started having conversations with others at the protests where I realized how much we have in common.

I realized that a sizable number of people did not in fact want the expulsion, subjugation, or death of Israeli Jews. Most important, these were conversations with Palestinians! In fact, I found the people I had common ground with the most were Palestinians.

While eliminationist rhetoric divides us, I believe it is possible for the non-extremists on all sides to unite behind two goals: ending the war and bringing justice, freedom, and equality to Palestinians not at the expense of or dehumanization of Israelis. I believe that this vision could change the face of the earth. I will continue to do whatever small thing I can to make it reality.

  • Theo Goldstine is an undergraduate at New York University studying international politics and computer science

Benjamin Kersten: ‘It’s not antisemitic to criticize Israel’

As a Jewish student who participated in the UCLA Palestine solidarity encampment, I find the charge that the encampments are antisemitic to not only be misleading but dangerous. All were welcome in the encampment who abided by the community agreements and engaged in good faith with its demands, including for the university to divest from weapons manufacturers and companies profiting from Israeli violence against Palestinians and to stop repressing pro-Palestinian advocacy on campus.

For me, the encampments offered opportunities for Jewish learning and community building. We organized a Passover Seder and observed Shabbat and Havdalah, and we were part of a multicultural, interfaith space – a glimpse of the world we hope to build. Inside the encampment, students learned, imagined, disagreed and recommitted. We recommitted to the values of justice, equality and dignity for all without exception. The world we built was torn apart by outside agitators wielding two-by-fours, by police in riot gear and by UCLA administrators who opted to remain invested in genocide and violently suppress free speech rather than take seriously our calls for freedom for all. It was the administrators, counter-protesters and police that created an unsafe environment – not those protesting for an end to genocide.

It is not antisemitic to criticize the state of Israel or to reject Jewish supremacy. The pervasive misidentification of antisemitism hinders our ability to understand and dismantle real antisemitism, which is expressed most violently by an increasingly empowered right wing. As we strive to end all forms of oppression, we must not look away from Gaza. Israel’s devastating assault on Palestine has killed tens of thousands, displaced millions, and left homes, hospitals and universities destroyed. I advocate for Palestinian freedom because Palestinians, like everyone, deserve to be free, and because our safety and liberation are intertwined.

  • Benjamin Kersten is a PhD candidate in art history at UCLA, a fellow at the Leve Center for Jewish Studies and a member of Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) at UCLA

Maya Ilany: ‘By casting out hateful ideas, the protestors can keep the focus on their demands’

Student protesters I spoke to at Harvard’s encampment are obviously motivated by an ambition to halt the death and destruction in Gaza, not by antisemitism. But to deliver on that crucial goal, the movement must improve at rejecting hateful and unjust ideas it has played host to on some US campuses.

There have been expressions of archetypal antisemitism: like a cartoon of a hand with a Star of David and a dollar sign holding a noose around the neck of two men. Calls for violence against Israelis or “Zionists” have been similarly concerning. It was no less than the leader of Columbia’s student protest who explained why Zionists “don’t deserve to live”.

It serves no one to flatly deny these incidents, or to ignore the impact they have on Jewish students and faculty, including many that share the protesters’ views about the war, Israel’s far-right government and the wrongs of the occupation. This denial masquerades as solidarity with Palestinians, but undermines the movement and its aims.

By casting out these hateful ideas, the protesters can keep the focus on their just demands. As a longtime campaigner for a two-state solution, I believe some of their demands are not just the wrong ones, but are unjust, unethical and unworkable. Though these calls are protected free speech, I absolutely reject demands that amount to more violence (“globalize the intifada”), the end of a state of Israel (“from water to water, Palestine will be Arab”) or a “repatriation” of Israeli citizens (“go back to Europe”). But while these conversations may be uncomfortable, I am ready to argue for a just resolution to the conflict that allows millions of Israelis and Palestinians to live in dignity.

  • Maya Ilany is a graduate student in the MPA program at the Harvard Kennedy School and a research fellow at Molad: the Center for the Renewal of Israeli Democracy

Matan Berg: ‘I will continue to advocate for a just peace’

Before leaving for the summer, I visited the encampment on “the Diag” in the heart of the University of Michigan’s campus. I brought a banner proudly displaying the flags of both Israel and Palestine. This was my way of expressing support for a negotiated ceasefire and hostage release deal, an end to the cycle of violence, a fight against antisemitism and Islamophobia, a future of mutual self-determination and equality enshrined in a two-state solution, and peace and justice for all Palestinians and Israelis.

The reactions I received (a combination of friendly conversations mixed with extreme opposition to dialogue), as well as the general conduct and rhetoric of the encampment, helped me to realize two things. First, I believe this movement is counterproductive and does perpetuate antisemitic tropes. In my view, the messaging at these encampments often justifies and glorifies the attacks of 7 October with chants like “resistance is justified under occupation” and “free Gaza by any means necessary”. Their activism glorifies the actions of terrorists through “teach-ins.” They have even gone as far as to retweet an official statement signed by Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine that thanked Michigan students. All of this is morally reprehensible and antithetical to any rational strategy that can end the plight of the Palestinian people.

However, a second thing is also true: it is neither helpful nor right to chastise these encampments and the larger movement they represent as antisemitic. Many of the protestors I interacted with agreed with my goals, even though they often had different beliefs for how to achieve them. Moreover, rebuking a group of people pleading for an end to the deaths of innocent civilians in Gaza by calling every single one of them antisemitic is grossly uncharitable and severely lacks the empathy that we desperately need.

I will continue to advocate for a just peace, and I will continue to insist that, as hard as it may seem, this moment is not “us v them”, but rather “all of us – together”.

  • Matan Berg is an undergraduate at the University of Michigan and the chair of its chapter of J Street U

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