Israel’s Politics of Protest

Last Saturday night, a few days after protesters against the war in Gaza occupied a building at Columbia University, a reporter for Israel’s Channel 12 interviewed Eric Adams, the Mayor of New York. “What is your response to the antisemitism and to the barricading of the students in the building?” the reporter began. Her framing of the protests as antisemitic riots dominated the interview, as she pressed the Mayor on “the calls that are being made on campus against Jewish students, against Zionism, against Israel.” Adams embraced the premise without apparent reservation. “I’ve never witnessed, during my time, this type of protests, where you saw such a high level of normalizing antisemitism, celebrating a terrorist organization like Hamas—that is not who we are,” he said.

For weeks, as protesters have gathered in encampments at American colleges, the Israeli media has routinely described the demonstrators as “pro-Hamas,” as “antisemitic,” and as “rioters.” (A leading news site for the ultra-Orthodox, not content to pick one adjective, recently reported the arrest of “twenty pro-Palestinian, Hamas supporting, anti-Semitic protesters.”) The tone is often both outraged and strangely mocking; the protesters are portrayed as dangerous Hamas apologists and also as yoga-loving, easily triggered Gen Z-ers who couldn’t find Palestine on a map. An article in the financial newspaper Globes dismissed the unrest as manufactured, declaring, “The anti-Semitic demonstrations on U.S. campuses, which include violence against Jewish students, incitement to genocide, justification of rape, and severe harassment, are not a spontaneous protest.” The popular news site Ynet began a report on the occupied hall at Columbia with a litany of threats: “Hammers, knives, gas masks, ropes.”

This Sunday, on the eve of Israel’s Holocaust Remembrance Day, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to compare the pro-Palestinian protests to Kristallnacht—the hideous night in 1938 when antisemitic mobs set upon Jews across the German Reich. It is no surprise to hear Netanyahu deploy this kind of inflamed rhetoric; it serves his political interests to turn the world’s attention away from his policies and toward the protesters. It is more surprising that moderate Israelis have adopted this view of the protests. “What’s happening on American college campuses is unforgivable,” Yair Lapid, Israel’s opposition leader, wrote on X two weeks ago, as the protests intensified. “It is antisemitism, it is support for terrorism, it is support for Hamas which murders LGBT people and oppresses women.” This kind of binary view is perilous. It fails to acknowledge an essential problem: Israel’s leadership, the most extreme right-wing government in the country’s history, is prosecuting an unwinnable war that has overwhelmingly claimed the lives of women and children, while laying waste to their land.

To be sure, some of the protesters do use antisemitic language. Columbia recently barred Khymani James, a leader of the pro-Palestine movement, from campus after reports came out that he had told administrators to “be grateful that I’m not just going out and murdering Zionists.” Videos show demonstrators at Columbia forming a human chain to drive out people whom they referred to as Zionists. And some members of the movement openly support Hamas. (Near the university, one was caught yelling “We are Hamas!” at a young man who was draped in an Israeli flag and wearing a yarmulke.) Some protest leaders have refused to condemn Hamas for the atrocities of October 7th, when it killed roughly twelve hundred Israelis and took about two hundred and fifty hostages, in the deadliest massacre of Jews since the Holocaust. In the immediate aftermath of the attacks, more than thirty student groups at Harvard endorsed a statement that held Israel “entirely responsible for all the unfolding violence.” The Columbia chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine, along with the activist group Columbia Jewish Voice for Peace, praised Hamas gunmen for a “counter-offensive against their settler-colonial oppressor.”

Yet these abhorrent statements should not distract from the campus protesters’ basic moral assertion. Since October 7th, Israeli forces in Gaza have killed more than thirty-four thousand people. On Tuesday, Israel sent tanks into the southern city of Rafah, where more than a million displaced Gazans have been sheltering, and ordered a hundred thousand of them to evacuate. The protesters are calling for a ceasefire and for an end to the killing of innocents. Their rhetoric can be alarming, as when they suggest that the founding of Israel was inherently sinful and that Israelis should therefore—what, exactly? Vanish? But protests are designed to provoke, to shock bystanders out of complacency. It is self-defeating to suggest that the only way to engage with them is by force.

Photograph by Scott Olson / Getty

Already, the schism between young American Jews and Israel is widening. When the Israeli media paint all campus protesters, some of whom are Jewish, as Hamas apologists, it risks making this gap insurmountable. The students are demanding that their universities divest from investments tied to Israel—placing it alongside apartheid-era South Africa and Darfur, two other places from which American universities have divested. Even if administrators decline to accept these demands, Israeli academics are already facing an unprecedented boycott, while the country’s cultural institutions are being shunned overseas.

Israel, then, is at risk of losing crucial strategic alliances. President Biden, far more than other world leaders, has maintained steadfast support for Israel, but there are signs that even that is beginning to fray. Last week, he halted a shipment of more than three thousand bombs to Israel amid growing concerns over its conduct in the war. Unless Israel replaces its government and reverses course, it may become a global pariah.

But Israel’s politicians, and its mainstream media, are not reckoning with these shifts. Every aspect of civic life, including the economy, is subordinated to the war. On Tuesday, there were reports that Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, had repeatedly refused to meet with Netanyahu to discuss how to bring down soaring prices in the country. Smotrich reportedly explained that he was trying to force Netanyahu to expand the military’s advance in Gaza: “First, we need to enter Rafah and then take care of fuel prices.” (Smotrich denied the reports.) Israel launched its incursion into Rafah later that day.

Israeli newscasts now have a customary slogan emblazoned at the top of the screen: “Together We Will Win.” The media are full of stories reëxamining the October 7th attacks: the attackers’ brutality; the defiance and displacement in their wake; the survivors, the uprooted, the widows and orphans. Bearing witness to the attacks is urgently necessary. So is depicting, honestly and transparently, the acts of Israeli forces in Gaza and of Jewish settlers in the West Bank—to “look the occupation in the eyes,” as a motto of the peace movement has it. No Israeli leader has yet spoken out persuasively about the trauma of Palestinians or voiced genuine concern for their lives. The answer to the images of babies being pulled from the rubble in Gaza, their hair gray with dust and their eyes wild with fear, cannot be “What about October 7th?”

When the war is shown on Israeli news, it is often from the point of view of Israeli soldiers—at times literally, in the form of combat footage from their helmet-mounted cameras. (Haaretz, which, along with +972 Magazine, has produced admirable reporting on the Palestinian side of the conflict, is often called treasonous by the government’s supporters.) Or else it is folded into stories about how Israel is, in the words of Donald Trump, “losing the P.R. war.” The common gripe in Israel is that we have a failure of hasbara, or media relations. It is as if the vast number of Gazan casualties, the famine spreading in the northern Strip, and the government’s refusal to discuss an exit strategy were a mere inconvenience, a situation that would resolve itself if only we Israelis were given a platform to explain ourselves.

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