I’ve written about the phenomenon more than once, so I didn’t expect to be surprised by anything in the film. But despite knowing about the various incidents described, the sheer volume and intensity of them taken together left me shaken. Yes, shaken, and I’m not easy to shake.
I was an academic for a short time some decades ago, and the combination of ideological intensity and insulation from the real world that characterizes many students and faculty is not entirely unfamiliar to me, but I couldn’t have imagined that it would focus this way, on one group and one target – my people and my country.
Student activism has always centered on freedom, anti-authoritarianism, opposition to oppression of minorities and support for civil rights, especially free speech. What is happening on campuses is that these principles are being twisted so that the outcome, rather than a reduction in oppression and increased human rights, is the intimidation, marginalization, silencing and even persecution of Jewish and (especially) pro-Israel students.
Although only a few incidents of physical violence have been reported, psychological and academic pressure is widespread, and pro-Israel speech by students or invited speakers is disrupted – or restricted due to fear of disruption.
Multiculturalist political correctness has criminalized any speech critical of blacks, women, gender minorities, Muslims and almost every identifiable group – except Jews or Israelis. It is now possible to say absolutely anything about Israel, accuse the IDF, the country or its people of the worst imaginable crimes – child murder, rape, organ theft, forced sterilization of minorities, even genocide – with absolutely zero proof or even evidence. It is possible to claim that Jews control the media and conspire to twist the international financial system to their own benefit, to say that Jews are responsible for black slavery and today’s racism in America, to accuse Israel of teaching American police how to shoot innocent black people. But woe be to one who asks a person with Asian features where she is from or uses the wrong gender pronoun to refer to a transgendered or “queer” individual.
Anti-Zionism and Jew-hatred are closely associated, and the former often slides quickly into the latter. In any event, the distinction is impossible to maintain in the face of the glaring double standard that is applied to Israel, compared to any other nation on earth. Israel is treated like the Jew among nations because it is a nation primarily of Jews.
Much of the anti-Jewish agitation comes from the group Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP), which exists on more than 200 campuses across the nation. SJP is funded by student activities funds, no differently than a student dance group or newspaper, and also receives outside contributions. It is closely tied to groups like the Muslim Students Association, CAIR and others, some of which have documented connections to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas and other terrorist groups.
The membership of SJP includes the hard anti-Israel Left, foreign students (many of them Muslims) who grew up in places where Jews and Israel are demonized, and minority students who have been persuaded that their own struggles for a place in society will be enhanced by an alliance with other “oppressed peoples,” such as Palestinian Arabs. This argument has been very successful, especially with blacks, with the Movement for Black Lives including anti-Israel material in its manifesto. The echo chamber effect soon amplifies extremist ideologies, and mob mentality produces extreme behavior.
Their faculty supporters, steeped in the left-wing ideology that permeates academic life and often wedded to the post-colonial paradigm (by which the world is divided into colonizers and colonized, and the colonized have an unlimited right to “resist” by any means), also encourage extreme expressions of hatred for Israel, and by extension, Jews. Departments of ethnic and gender studies, being political by nature, are particularly active in promoting anti-Israel themes. Middle East Studies departments, often funded by Arab countries or Iran, are pleased to join the party.
University administrators by and large seem to be pathologically afraid of confrontation and do their best to pretend that nothing is going on until forced to take action, and even then often support the “rights” of disruptive students to disrupt. Attacks on Jews and Israel, no matter how false or outrageous, are justified by appeals to free speech or academic freedom; but other forms of bigotry are punished harshly (faculty members may be dismissed and student organizations suspended).
The film makes it clear that the antisemitic movement on campuses – that’s what it is – is well-financed, well-organized and very successful in gaining adherents. It is also becoming more extreme and more explicitly anti-Jewish as time goes by and the window of permissible discourse shifts in the direction that favors anti-Jewish expression. What was beyond the pale yesterday becomes the conventional wisdom today.
Although the film mentions some pro-Israel organizations that are pushing against the trend, they are outnumbered and hampered by being continually on the defensive. Wall Street Journal writer Bret Stephens notes that it is much harder to prove that an atrocity did not happen than to say that it did.
The film does not try to provide a solution. Although there are some campuses with a large percentage of Jews where it should be possible to organize a resistance movement, even there it is difficult, because many Jewish students have internalized the hate-Israel viewpoint. In some cases they are even leaders of the anti-Israel organizations. (The film highlights the particularly obnoxious example of Max Geller, a student at Northeastern University.)
After its New York premiere, “Hate Spaces” will be shown in numerous venues elsewhere. Watching it won’t be a pleasant experience, but definitely an educational one. “Know your enemy” is still good advice.