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Rising Antisemitism Corresponds With a Depressing Amount of Broader Ignorance
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Rising Antisemitism Corresponds With a Depressing Amount of Broader Ignorance

How students end up shouting ‘Palestine will be free’ without knowing from which river or to which sea.

Protesters gather outside of City Hall and march to protest Israeli attacks on Gaza, in San Francisco on November 24, 2023. (Photo by Tayfun Coskun/Anadolu/Getty Images)

The good news is the bad news is wrong. The bad news? A Harvard-Harris poll found that 67 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds believe that “Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors.”

One piece of good news: The poll is pretty lousy, as Ilya Somin, author of Democracy and Political Ignorance, explained  for Reason magazine. The poll combines two questions in one, asking people to agree to both the description of “Jews as a class” and how they should be treated, and it uses terms like “oppressor” that are fairly unfamiliar to people not plugged into campus-speak.

Even better news: The poll is an outlier. Surveys from respected outfits like the Pew Research Center find that American attitudes toward Jews are pretty favorable.

But this is where the supply of good news runs dry. Because even if Harvard’s findings exaggerate the problem, the problem still exists. Actually, there are several problems: rising antisemitism in the U.S., particularly among young people and—not unrelatedly—a depressing amount of both general ignorance and highly cultivated ignorance.

Given the horrific headlines since the Hamas attack, it’s not worth rehashing the evidence of antisemitism’s resurgence, both on college campuses and off. In October, FBI Director Christopher Wray testified that antisemitism was reaching historic levels, with fully 60 percent of religious hate crimes being committed against 2.4 percent of the population.

As for general ignorance, an Economist/YouGov poll finds that 1 in 5 18- to 29-year-olds believe the Holocaust is a myth. Another 30 percent said they don’t know if it is. One way to look at this is to just throw this on the pile with other depressing findings of widespread ignorance about things that have nothing to do with Jews. Half of Americans cannot name the three branches of the U.S. government.

Social media surely plays a big role. While it’s true that bad actors, at home and abroad, have been pumping antisemitic sewage onto kids’ screens for a while now, it’s worth keeping in mind that digital iconoclasm—tearing down any established truths—and conspiratorialism are rampant on the internet. (A quarter of Europeans, and twice as many Russians, think the moon landing was faked. Nearly a fifth of young Americans agree.)

Still, The Economist found that most older Americans know the Holocaust happened. In other words, young people are a particular problem.

Which brings us to the cultivated ignorance, i.e. the deliberate encouragement of anti-Jewish bigotry by various institutions and “influencers.”

The right has a well-publicized antisemitism problem. The GOP frontrunner famously dined with antisemites Kanye West and Nick Fuentes. Various New Right and alt-right gargoyles indulge anti-Jewish and anti-Israel rhetoric from their internet perches.

That’s all grotesque, but those gargoyles don’t control the commanding heights of the culture the way the left does. The power of  left-aligned academics and activists shouldn’t be underestimated. While groups like the Anti-Defamation League and the Southern Poverty Law Center and the elite media outlets that rely on them as authoritative sources have covered right-wing antisemitism zealously, they have allowed the intellectual poison  of anti-colonial and anti-oppressor ideology to go unchecked. This ideology takes it as a given that Jews, Zionists, Israelis—pick your label—are indeed “oppressors.” This framing is seductive to young people who want to belong to a righteous, rebellious  cause more than master basic facts.

For instance, UC-Berkeley political scientist Ron Hassner recently conducted a small survey of college students on issues related to Israel. Most students (86 percent) supported the popular chant, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” But nearly half (47 percent) couldn’t name the river (Jordan) or the sea (Mediterranean) in the chant. Some guessed that the river was the Nile or Euphrates and that the sea was the Atlantic or Caribbean. Ten percent thought Yasser Arafat was the first prime minister of Israel.

It’s fine to condemn both sides (I do!). But the shock of decent liberals and progressives at the explosion of antisemitism in the wake of the Hamas attack is testament to the delinquency of the left-wing elites running academic and cultural institutions. When professors and students celebrate a pogrom and administrators find themselves tongue-tied about condemning murder or the harassment of Jews on their own campuses, the complacency becomes obvious.

One last piece of good news: When Hassner’s researchers explained basic facts to the students who enthusiastically embraced “from the river to the sea,” many of them changed their views. Yes, this survey illustrates the failures of the center-left. It also shows they can remedy them—if they want to.

Jonah Goldberg is editor-in-chief and co-founder of The Dispatch, based in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, enormous lizards roamed the Earth. More immediately prior to that, Jonah spent two decades at National Review, where he was a senior editor, among other things. He is also a bestselling author, longtime columnist for the Los Angeles Times, commentator for CNN, and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. When he is not writing the G-File or hosting The Remnant podcast, he finds real joy in family time, attending to his dogs and cat, and blaming Steve Hayes for various things.