Many Americans were surprised by the seemingly spontaneous protests on college campuses in support of “Palestine” after the Hamas assault on Israel. After all, how could anyone do anything other than condemn the Hamas pogrom, in which babies, children, and the elderly were massacred, raped, and burned alive? The answer lies in the toxic mix of politics, ignorance, and antisemitism emanating from the failure of American academia, especially the field of Middle East studies. The shocking anti-Israel vitriol on display at protests since October 7 would have been impossible in the 20th century.
Academia Swings Leftward
For decades, large swaths of academia have been as devoted to indoctrination as to education. For most of the 20th century, academics have been largely left-leaning, but the Overton Window has moved dramatically leftward in the 21st century.
In his history of modern terrorism, David C. Rapoport describes the Vietnam War as “the major political event stimulating” leftist ideology in the 1960s and 1970s. The underdog Viet Cong fighting effectively against the massive American war machine became the personification of heroism to campus protestors. “When the Vietnam War ended in 1975,” Rapoport explains, “the PLO replaced the Viet Cong as the heroic model.”
It was only a matter of time until that generation became tenured professors and changed academia forever.
Middle East Studies
Perhaps no field of study was changed more than Middle East studies. In his masterful examination of the topic, Ivory Towers on Sand (2001), Martin Kramer shows that, by the 1980s, “Middle East studies came under a take-no-prisoners assault, which rejected the idea of objective standards, disguised the vice of politicization as the virtue of commitment, and replaced proficiency with ideology.” It also put Israel in the crosshairs.
The field is represented by the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), which last year voted 80-20 percent to authorize an academic boycott of Israel. Middle East studies specialists regularly describe Israel as a colonial-settler Apartheid state, guilty of ethnic cleansing.
Some of the worst offenders when it comes to anti-Israel inculcation are Ivy League schools and other influential universities.Some of the worst offenders when it comes to anti-Israel inculcation are Ivy League schools and other influential universities. My alma mater, New York University, is so “pro-Palestine” and anti-Israel that I call it the Gaza of Greenwich Village.
Harvard University also has a long history of promoting Islamism and normalizing anti-Israel sentiments. In 2005, it accepted a $20 million donation from Saudi Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal. When bin-Talal gave another $20 million to Georgetown University, it quickly renamed its Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding the “Prince Alwaleed bin-Talal Center for Muslim-Christian Understanding.”
In 2020 Brown University endowed America’s first-ever chair in Palestinian studies. It named the chair after Palestinian poet and PLO member Mahmoud Darwish and gave the chair to Beshara Doumani, the Joukowsky Family Distinguished Professor of Modern Middle East History who would go on to launch the “decolonization”-focused New Directions in Palestinian Studies (NDPS) community. One year later, Doumani took a leave of absence to become the president of Birzeit University in Ramallah. I call Brown the Providence Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
The University of Pennsylvania just hosted the first-ever in-person “Palestine Writes Festival,” a gathering of anti-Israel ideologues ranging from unknown poets to former Pink Floyd frontman Roger Waters, who has earned the moniker the Leni Riefenstahl of Rock and Roll.
My colleague at Campus Watch, Andrew Harrod, has documented the social-media reaction of Middle East studies academics who equivocated or played down the Hamas attack by suggesting that Israel does the same thing to Palestinian civilians. The worst offender so far has been Joseph Massad of Columbia University, where the Palestine studies program has transformed the once-prestigious school into Ramallah on the Hudson. Massad was one of the first to show his inner ugliness, celebrating the “astounding,” “striking,” “awesome,” and “innovative” “victories of the resistance” on the day after the attack.
Of course, it’s not only Middle East studies specialists who foment hatred for Israel. Consider Mika Tosca, an associate professor at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, who was inspired by the Hamas attack to write on Instagram that “Israelis are pigs. Savages. Very bad people. Irredeemable excrement. […] May they all rot in hell.”
Marxism suffered a global setback with the fall of the Soviet Union, but it has never gone out of fashion in academia. The latest permutation, called “intersectionality,” divides all humans into camps based on race, ethnicity, and group history and labels them either “oppressors” or “oppressed” peoples. Black and brown skin, homosexuality, and disabilities make some groups oppressed peoples, whereas white skin, heterosexuality, and an absence of disabilities make others oppressors. Israel is intersectionally doomed to be the oppressor. Today’s far left accuses Israel of “white supremacism.”
Connections between oppressed Palestinians and oppressed African-Americans were first made in the Ferguson, Missouri, riots following the police shooting of Michael Brown in 2014. “From Ferguson to Palestine” was the mantra.
Joined with the post-George Floyd academic obsession with anti-racism, attendant calls for “de-centering whiteness,” and attacks on “systemic racism” and white supremacism, the Israel-Palestinian conflict was framed as one more white-on-brown struggle. Therefore, in the mind of an anti-racist ideologue, attacks on Israelis by Palestinians are justifiable.
At a “pro-Palestine” rally on October 15, Cornell University history professor Russell Rickford told the crowd that he felt “exhilarated” by the Hamas attack. He invoked George Floyd by saying that the Hamas attackers and their Gaza supporters “were able to breathe. They were able to breathe for the first time in years.”
In short, academia is stacked against Israel and in favor of the Palestinians. Facts be damned. History be damned. They have chosen sides.
If academia has failed to educate students about Israel, so, too, has most of the media. They generate the news stories that end up in the social-media feeds of today’s college students, shaping their knowledge of history and opinions on world events, but they seldom offer any historical context about the place they call “Palestine.” Many simply repeat the academic-PLO-Hamas narrative that Jews are settler-colonialists who have no connection to the land of “Palestine.”
One should never underestimate the desire to be “cool” as a motivating force on campus.Internationally, aside from Palestinian media itself, Al Jazeera is the biggest offender in this regard. In America, NBC (and its products, MSNBC and Peacock), CNN, the New York Times and Washington Post, the BBC, NPR, the AP, and Reuters are also guilty. According to a report in Semafor, after the Hamas attack on October 7, NBC quietly removed from the air its three biggest offenders—Mehdi Hasan, Ayman Mohyeldin, and Ali Velshi—all former Al Jazeera employees bringing their unique pro-Hamas, anti-Israel, Qatari brand of journalism to the U.S. market.
The Desire to be “Cool”
While ignorance and the fear of being insufficiently “anti-racist” likely nudged some students to participate in the protests and sign their names to declarations blaming Israel entirely for the Hamas attacks, one should never underestimate the desire to be “cool” as a motivating force. Protesting the Vietnam War, through the eyes of many young adults, likely seems the coolest thing one could have done at the time. Even the protest music was great: rebellious, in-your-face, principled. Today’s college students long for such an experience, especially after having their high-school years stolen from them by the pandemic. Many were likely too young to have taken part in the violent protests of 2020, and those who did are surely looking for that self-righteous dopamine rush again.
The schools with the most belligerently anti-Israel clubs and organizations are where the most egregious pro-Hamas protests have been occurring. Students who chant “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” and “Zionism is genocide” and “Resistance is justified when people are occupied” learned their rhetoric from campus clubs like the Students for Justice in Palestine, the Jewish Voice for Peace, and the Democratic Socialists of America. While some protestors make their own signs (some were captured by Stuart Meissner menacingly waving swastika images on their phones), other Marxist groups, like the Party for Socialism and Liberation, Within Our Life, and the A.N.S.W.E.R. Coalition, print and distribute signage for protestors to carry and wave at the media. Colleges and universities without these campus groups and socialist organizations have not experienced massive, ugly protests.
What Comes Next?
A recent poll of U.S. college students shows that only 50 percent of Democratic students and 73 percent of Republican students blame Hamas for the assault on Israeli civilians. We should expect more protests to come as media outlets continue to present Gaza (i.e., Hamas) sources as reliable and factual, and as college professors actively promote Palestinian narratives.
The Hamas assault on October 7 may mark a new dividing line for the left. Just as revelations in the 1950s about Stalin’s gulags and purges shocked many leftists out of their Utopian reveries, so too may Hamas have shocked many of today’s leftists away from the fringes of their own party, at least in terms of their views on Israel. Those leftists who double down on their vision will continue to attend “pro-Palestine” rallies, sign their names to declarations blaming Israel for Hamas violence, and traffic in antisemitism. With no relief in sight from academia or the media, expect more such depravity to come.
A.J. Caschetta is a principal lecturer at the Rochester Institute of Technology, a fellow at Campus Watch (a project of the Middle East Forum, where he is also a Ginsburg/Milstein fellow), and a senior fellow at the Investigative Project on Terrorism.