Weaponizing Antisemitism Fuels Dishonest Repression of Students Protesting Israel’s Vicious Gaza War

Interview with Arun Kundnani, author of "The End of Tolerance," conducted by Scott Harris

Despite the arrests of over 1,000 students protesting Israel’s vicious war in Gaza, occupations and demonstrations on college campuses across the U.S have continued to grow.  Students, calling for a ceasefire in Israel’s air and ground assault in Gaza that has killed more than 34,000 Palestinians, are also demanding universities divest their holdings in companies supplying weapons to Israel.

Many university administrators have responded to the overwhelmingly peaceful protests at dozens of campuses across the country, with attempts to suppress students’ right of free speech with suspensions and police raids resulting in mass arrests — and in some cases a show of armed force — such as occurred at Ohio State University and Indiana University, where snipers were deployed on campus rooftops.

While protesting anti-war students hold a wide a range of views on Israel and include many Jewish students active in groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace, antisemitic signs and chants are rare — and usually not associated with students. But many politicians and pro-Israel activists have broadly denounced the students and their message as both antisemitic and pro-Hamas.  While this is clearly false, that charge has been used by some college administrators and state governments to brutally crackdown on students for merely expressing normal human empathy with Palestinians in Gaza. Between The Lines’ Scott Harris spoke with Arun Kundnani, author of “The End of Tolerance,” who examines how the weaponizing of antisemitism has fueled dishonest attacks and repression of students protesting Israel’s vicious war in Gaza.

ARUN KUNDNANI: What’s happened is that the presidents and the administrators of the universities were held before Congress and accused of being over tolerant of anti-Semitism with no evidence. And the evidence was that students were chanting from the “River to the Sea, Palestine will be Free,” which is not an anti-Semitic slogan, but a slogan that says wherever Palestinians live, whether they live in the occupied territories or wherever they live in Israel itself, they have the right to freedom.

If you disagree with that slogan, then you’re saying you disagree that Palestinians have the right to freedom just like anyone else. So it’s not an anti-Semitic slogan per se, but that has been presented as an anti-Semitic slogan. Wearing a keffiyeh, the Palestinian scarf has been presented as some kind of statement of anti-Semitic hatred. And these are all lies. But these were presented in Congress as if these were factual claims.

University administrators and presidents accepted that as the terms of debate and said that they would repress these students who are taking the stand. The Democrats, unfortunately went along with this. It was essentially a Republican strategy to discredit the movement in universities for racial equality, essentially, which they’ve long opposed. The Democrats went along with it.

And as a result, now you have a situation where wherever these encampments have been set up, in many cases, universities have called in the police to pretty much beat up students and faculty members who were engaged in peaceful protest. These students aren’t even disrupting university. They’re not even disrupting the normal day-to-day business of universities, which is what you would expect to see in a civil disobedience kind of campaign that we have a long history of in the United States.

They’re not even doing that. They’re simply registering their presence and registering their voice by taking up a little bit of space in these courtyards. By any definition, this is peaceful protest. There have been attempts to smear these these protests as anti-Semitic, but the examples that are given always incredibly minor or nonexistent or not have any credibility. They’ve been attempts to provoke these students into anti-Semitism that haven’t worked.

And so they’ve sent in the cops, and we’ve seen violence and what’s remarkable is that in the face of this attempt at violent suppression, more and more students have joined these encampments, and more and more universities are doing it around the country. Around the world, even.

So, I think we we need to salute the bravery of these students. We need to give them our support. They are expressing, as you say, a very basic, decent human sentiment that when there is suffering in the world and we are all implicated, we all have an obligation to do something about it. And that obligation is more intense if our own government, as in the case of the United States, is sending billions of dollars every year to support this mass violence, this attempt to eliminate a population of Palestinians that Israel is carrying out.

And I think that the universities have underestimated the power of what they’re up against. They’re hoping, I think, that this thing will fizzle out, but it’s not going to. The students leading it are changing public opinion across the whole of U.S. society on this question.

SCOTT HARRIS: Thank you Arun. One other frightening aspect of what’s going on right now is you’ve got right-wing Missouri Republican Sen. Josh Hawley and Arkansas Republican Sen. Tom Cotton calling for President Biden to deploy the National Guard on college campuses to “protect Jewish students.” We’ve seen brutal tactics being used by the state police, in some cases on university campuses, when they’re called in to clear out these encampments.

You’ve also got snipers on the roof of Ohio State University, in the same state where the Kent State massacre occurred on May 4th, 1970, where four students were killed in anti-Vietnam War protests. It seems like there is a design to provoke violence here on these mostly — and I would say 99 percent — peaceful protests that are occurring on dozens of campuses all around the country.

ARUN KUNDNANI: Yeah. And these developments are very scary because, you know, even if it’s just political posturing and even if the real desire in the beginning of this process is not to actually have shots fired on campuses, once you deploy armed men, whether it’s the National Guard or the NYPD or whoever onto campus situations and when you’ve sent the message that, well, these students are basically Hamas supporters, they’re terrifying, they’re hateful.

Once you set that all up, it’s not hard to see how you create the danger that someone will get very seriously hurt, if not killed, if the police escalate it.

The students are very committed to maintaining a kind of peaceful protest. The extremism of the repressive measures tells us that they’ve lost the argument. You don’t need to use this level of violence against a political opponent if you have a compelling argument that is winning.

But they’re losing the argument. They’re losing public opinion. So all that they have on their side is the power of donors to impose policies on the institutions like universities and the power of violence to suppress, to repress dissent. And that’s what we’re seeing at the moment. And even with those efforts in place, they’re still losing.

For more information, visit Arun Kundnani’s website at www.kundnani.org. Follow him on Twitter/X at @ArunKundnani.

Listen to Scott Harris’ in-depth interview with Arun Kundnani (32:12). More articles and opinion pieces are found in the Related Links section of this page.

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