Last week, there was a solemn vigil hosted by Penn Hillel in memory of the civilians kidnapped and murdered by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7. Feeling the strength, compassion, and unity among Penn’s Jewish community was truly something to behold. It was powerful to listen to the testimony of campus activists, who told stories of family and friends in Israel, and to hear my peers sing the Israeli national anthem in Hebrew.
What was startling to me, however, was the number of my Jewish friends and acquaintances who thanked me for being there. The same has been true of any time I have posted on social media bringing awareness to antisemitism or checked on any of the Jewish people in my life. But why should they be thanking me? Speaking out against acts of terror and widespread, explicit hatred seems like common sense. A tragedy should not have to be “directly related to me,” as one of my best friends put it, for me to be alarmed and outspoken in my response.
Upon further reflection, I realized that their desire to thank me was rooted in the fact that they felt they were standing alone. How could that be the case? Our generation has been characterized by its activism, and outgroup members often defend and support their peers following violent events. Where was the outpouring of fear and outrage for the Jewish people in the wake of the greatest loss of Jewish life in one day since the Holocaust? It seemed as though the “silence is violence” rhetoric that is often championed by left-wing activists was interestingly absent as the Jewish community was under attack.
Many other such college activists didn’t just fail to condemn the attacks or the antisemitism motivating them but explicitly endorsed them. Harvard University students released a widely criticized statement of support for Hamas’ attack against Israeli civilians. This was also true of the Penn Against the Occupation of Palestine's statement which asserted that “Palestinian resistance efforts” were a response to Israel’s “colonialism.”
At the recent protest on campus, Palestinian supporters chanted, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” which is a rallying cry, appropriated by Hamas, that writer Kenan Malik explains as “a call for the driving out of all Jews from the region; at best, a demand for ethnic cleansing, at worst for genocide.” Even Marc Lamont Hill, a speaker at the Palestine Writes Literature Festival, apologized for using this slogan in the past due to its violent implications.
The response on college campuses, however, does not even begin to scratch the surface of the actions taken in larger public spheres. During a protest in Philadelphia last week, one attendee with a microphone said, “I salute Hamas. A job well done,” applauding the attacks on Israeli civilians. Anti-Zionist protestors in New York City and Irvine, Calif. held up swastikas in their condemnation of Israel. The Chicago Black Lives Matter chapter posted a graphic with a Hamas paraglider, like those who killed the Israeli victims, supporting the attack. At a pro-Palestine protest in Sydney, those in attendance chanted “gas the Jews” while firing flares. The antisemitism in these protests is unsurprising given the explicit calls to kill Jews in the Hamas Covenant and the incitement of a Day of Jihad this past Friday.
If all of these examples are not already deeply troubling to you, they certainly should be. Most concerning is how they are being championed in the name of academic notions of “decolonization” and “liberation.” Activism is now being used as a tool to aid and abet antisemitism. While today’s advocates may shirk off accusations of their prejudice as the “bias of the Western media,” similar arguments about power structures, ownership of capital, and politics were used to justify antisemitism in Nazi Germany. The silence of those outside the Jewish community was the first of many blind eyes turned to one of the worst genocides the world has ever seen.
While all of this may be shocking and concerning, it certainly did not arise out of nowhere. Antisemitism is often propagated by figures on both the right and the left and selectively critiqued when it is convenient for a respective political agenda, often in an effort to label one side or the other as extremist. Celebrities who employ their platforms to be antisemitic or remain silent on these issues also normalize this rhetoric. Absorbing the likes of Roger Waters into advocacy groups or events is not without its consequences. Once blatant antisemitism becomes shrouded in theatrics or pseudo-academic jargon, it becomes very easy for any acts of violence to be justified.
John Stuart Mill, a philosopher of free speech describes what is referred to as the “harm principle” in his piece “On Liberty.” The principle essentially argues that people are free to do as they please until their actions harm someone else. This sentiment is often invoked by advocates against hate speech, many of whom seem to be the same people platforming antisemitic ideas.
Activists need to examine their own hypocrisy and take a hard look at how and why many of them have chosen to make the Jewish people the exception, once again, to their rules about providing a voice to all marginalized minorities. The schism on the left over these issues is obvious and becoming more present by the day.
According to the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression's 2024 free speech rankings, students who belonged to homogeneous left-leaning college campuses found themselves self-censoring about the Israel-Palestine conflict more than any other public political issue. Thankfully, some people seem to be seeing the problematic implications of these pro-Hamas and antisemitic stances, with the Biden administration openly denouncing these positions within the Democratic party.
The consequences of wide-sweeping claims that target entire groups of people for larger geopolitical conflicts are devastating and indiscriminate. The horrific killing of Palestinian American child Wadea Al Fayoum is a very clear example of this. We should be critical of all derogatory rhetoric that is underscoring conversations about this conflict. Many activists may be well-intentioned in making criticisms of Israel or Zionism without trying to be antisemitic, but in order to make that distinction, it is absolutely critical that protestors and professors alike on all sides understand the gravity of their language and arguments.
Sadly, the hypocrisy among activists will likely only continue to become more emboldened as this conflict escalates. It therefore becomes the responsibility of non-Jews to become increasingly vocal about the dangers of antisemitism. Our Jewish friends should not have to thank us when we speak on behalf of them. “Never again” starts and ends with those who refuse to be bystanders to antisemitism.
Editor’s Note: The wording of this op-ed has been updated to address the different interpretations of a chant heard at recent on-campus gatherings. As discussed in Daily Pennsylvanian coverage, "some critics argue that “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” insinuates a desire to eliminate Israel and its people, while proponents say that the line asserts the boundaries for the creation of an independent Palestinian state."
LEXI BOCCUZZI is a College senior studying philosophy, politics, and economics from Stamford, Conn. Her email is email@example.com.