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Gaslighting in Defense of Bigotry
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Gaslighting in Defense of Bigotry

Columbia’s protesters said the quiet part out loud. Why isn’t the left listening?

The ”Gaza Solidarity Encampment" at Columbia University in New York on April 23, 2024. (Photo by Selcuk Acar/Anadolu/Getty Images)

“Go back to Poland!”

I’m trying to practice what I preach. I tell people that we shouldn’t nutpick: Don’t take the worst examples of one side and claim they’re representative of everybody you disagree with. Don’t let the trolls manipulate you. And my advice doesn’t end there. I often say you shouldn’t let frustration with the media overwhelm you. Also, don’t catastrophize, and don’t let recency bias lead you to think everything is worse than ever. Don’t let your anger get the better of you.   

But when I hear pro-terrorist radicals shout “Go back to Poland!” and see so many shrug it off,  it is difficult for me to follow my own advice. So I’m going to try to work calmly through all of the reasons I find it so difficult to maintain my composure. 

Let’s start with “Go back to Poland.”

Of all the insults hurled at Jews lately, this might seem a weird one to be triggered by. But I find it more infuriating than the other stuff, including even the endorsements of October 7 and the calls for more mass rape and slaughter. Which is not to say I don’t find those incitements infuriating, too. 

But “Go back to Poland!” combines, in just four words, an ocean of evil and hypocrisy. I don’t know if the masked bigot in the video linked from that quote is a student or an “outside agitator,” but he is, judging from his accent, an immigrant. I suppose he could be a tourist, but I assume not. The “idea” behind “Go back to Poland” is no Jew is indigenous to Israel. They are all East European Jews that, in the wake of World War II, became settler-colonizers of “Palestinian” land—and therefore they should go back to where they came from. In the context of Israel, it’s a common trope. Helen Thomas, the bitter, wildly biased, Israel-hating, former “dean of the White House press corps” infamously said that Israelis should all go back to Poland and Germany. Now, I reviled Helen Thomas and make no apologies for it, but in her defense, she was at least referring to Israelis she believed had stolen “Palestine” from Arabs. This guy is yelling at American Jews to go back to Poland (and, oddly, Tel Aviv). In other words, he wants America (or New York or Columbia) to be Judenrein

Think about that. An immigrant to the United States thinks Jews have no place in a country where Jews have lived since before its founding. I have all sorts of problems with nativists, but there’s something particularly appalling about a newcomer shouting, in effect, “Go back to where you came from.” I mean, given how much “death to America” talk is swirling out there as well, I’m going to take a flier and say this guy is not making an “America: Love it or Leave it” argument either. 

Then there’s the specific issue of Poland. It’s true that Poland was once a relative safe haven for Jews. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was hailed as Paradisus Judaeorum—paradise or heaven for Jews because it was one of the few places in Europe where Jews were safe and free. Jews were chased out of their communities by Christians or Muslims and, later, out of Russia starting with the reign of Catherine the Great. 

Even by then Poland had started to become less hospitable. Persecution of Polish Jews started with the religious upheavals of the Reformation. But things got worse in the 20th century. Ninety percent of Polish Jews—some 3 million men, women, and children—were murdered in the Holocaust (most of the remaining Jews were effectively pushed out during the anti-Zionist campaign of 1968-1969). Declaring “go back to ground zero of the Holocaust” is, to speak plainly, evil. 

Now, it’s fair to say that making too much of one isolated incident is precisely the kind of nutpicking or argument-by-anecdote I normally decry. And if that was all that was going on here, I’d agree. But in the broader context, I think it’s more significant. 

For starters, it’s not isolated. I’m open to the idea that it’s less representative than critics claim. But much of the media coverage and reaction from the progressive base of the Democratic Party often sounds like it’s either completely unrepresentative or flat-out isn’t happening. Some significant fraction of these protesters is obviously antisemitic, and attempts to deny that obvious truth amounts to gaslighting—gaslighting in defense of bigotry. 

And this gets me to the issue of hypocrisy. I have written dozens of columns criticizing the logic of critical race theory, anti-racism, structural racism, sexism, etc. But by the logic of the people pushing such ideas, a much larger portion of the protesters are objectively antisemitic, even if unintentionally so. 

Until recently, the standard for “hate speech” was profoundly subjective. The intent of the speaker was a secondary consideration to the feelings of the offended. If someone felt “hurt” or “aggressed”  by a statement, that was enough to declare the statement offensive. That’s why higher education and the diversity industry have spent so much time and effort coming up with speech codes and replacement euphemisms for offensive words. Yale replaced the term “master” with “head of college” because the word “master” conjures associations with slavery, even though no one intended any such connotation. Realtors have moved away from “master bedroom” for the same reason. The examples are endless and not just from the fringe. Joe Biden recently got in trouble for using the word “illegal” to describe an immigrant who was here illegally. Obviously, I could give you dozens more examples. 

But the point is that vile and intentionally offensive language about Jews is considered fair or defensible comment on free speech grounds. Obviously, I think the free speech argument has merit. But you cannot invoke it in good faith if in the past you defended linguistic legerdemain and bureaucratic and journalistic enforcement of newspeak on the grounds that the eye of the beholder or the ear of the offended is what determines hate speech or offensive language. If writing “blind study” is harmful speech, holding a sign saying that Jewish Columbia students are Hamas’ “next target” for rape and murder has to qualify as harmful speech. You can retreat to the claim that anti-Zionist speech isn’t the same as antisemitic speech, and sometimes that’s true, but not when any Jew on campus who doesn’t join the mob is deemed to be a Zionist. And not when the standard is supposed to be the feelings of the target of the speech. 

Also, just to be clear. There is absolutely nothing offensive about being a Zionist. I know a lot of people have committed a lot of man-hours—sorry, person hours—to the claim that Zionism is racist, Nazi, etc. I think being a communist is terrible. Communists killed exponentially more innocent people than Israel is even alleged to have killed. But the Columbia faculty members marching in solidarity with the students and the journalists fawning over them would be the first to void their bowels and bladders in terror and outrage over the “McCarthyism” and “fascism” of mobs chanting the need to purge and harass communists wherever you find them.  

Second, as I argued earlier this week on CNN, the debate over what constitutes antisemitism is increasingly a distraction from a more salient point. When you wave a Hezbollah flag, praise Hamas, and say things like, “Never forget the 7th of October,” and, “That will happen not one more time, not five more times, not 10 more times, not 100 more times, not 1,000 more times, but 10,000 times!” the question of whether you’re an antisemite distracts from the plain fact of logic that you are an open supporter of terrorism. Protesters are shouting “Globalize the Intifada!” What does that mean if not “take the fight to Jews, everywhere”? The National Students for Justice in Palestine openly declares that campus protests are exercises in solidarity with the terrorists who murdered, raped, tortured, and kidnapped civilians in Israel and that, “We as Palestinian students in exile are PART of this movement, not in solidarity with this movement.” They go on:

Liberation is not an abstract concept. It is not a moment circumscribed to a revolutionary past as it is often characterized. Rather, liberating colonized land is a real process that requires confrontation by any means necessary. In essence, decolonization is a call to action, a commitment to the restoration of Indigenous sovereignty. It calls upon us to engage in meaningful actions that go beyond symbolism and rhetoric. Resistance comes in all forms — armed struggle, general strikes, and popular demonstrations. All of it is legitimate, and all of it is necessary.

Condemning terrorism is supposed to be the easy part. For years, anti-Israel activists at least did that much. Now, the mask is off. And even the most “enlightened” of them feel compelled to say they “condemn terrorism, but …”

As accurate as I think it would be to describe the sloganeers and chanters as pro-terrorism, that’s obviously too much to ask of the mainstream media, which is not merely biased in favor of the protesters and their cause but is biased toward left-wing protesters generally. So I can live with describing the protesters as “pro-Palestinian” even though I think what animates many of them is better described as “anti-Israel.” 

But the common label “anti-war” is propaganda. They are pro-war

Openly declaring, in chant form or otherwise, that Israel must be Judenrein by any means necessary, is an open call for war, not peace. Because the only way to “liberate” Israel from the river to the sea is war. Pretending that “from the river to the sea” is a call for a two-state solution is a lie. That’s not the position of Hamas, Hezbollah, Iran, SJP, and pretending otherwise is to volunteer as a media praetorian for people who plainly declare they are pro-genocide. And since Israelis are opposed to the genocide of the Jews, they will wage war to prevent it, as they must. 

Whether on campus or off, if you cheer “Iran, you make us proud!” when Iran opens a new front in the war on Israel, you are not anti-war. When you defend Hamas’ slaughter but denounce Israel’s response as genocide—even before Israel responds—you aren’t for a ceasefire, you’re against Israel firing back. When you cheer the Houthis for attacking Israel, you are not anti-war. Nor are you pro-American. The official slogan Houthi slogan is ”God Is Great, Death to America, Death to Israel, Curse on the Jews, Victory to Islam.” That is about as succinct a summation of a pro-war, pro-terrorism, antisemitic, anti-American, and theocratically totalitarian worldview as can be crafted. I write often about how I’m a both-sides-er in my contempt for the fringes of both parties. But I’m not a both-sides-er on this. One side is wrong and one side is right. Anything else is gaslighting in defense of evil—and in defense of America’s terrorist enemies. 

I have openly condemned and denounced bigotry on the right because it’s the morally necessary thing to do. But that obscures the fact that it is politically and culturally necessary for conservatives and Republicans to do so. Republican politicians are constantly asked to denounce racist or antisemitic rhetoric from the right. Where is a similar demand on the left? To be clear, it does happen. On Monday, Biden was asked to do so. And he did. “I condemn the antisemitic protests,” Biden said. “That’s why I’ve set up a program to deal with that. I also condemn those who don’t understand what’s going on with the Palestinians.”

That program was set up explicitly to deal with the antisemitism of the sort seen in Charlottesville. Here’s the first paragraph of the White House’s National Strategy to Counter Anti-Semitism:

Six years ago, Neo-Nazis marched from the shadows through Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us.” With torches in hand, they spewed the same antisemitic bile and hate that were heard across Europe in the 1930s. What happened in Charlottesville—the horror of that moment, the violence that followed, and the threat it represented for American democracy— drove me to run for President. The very soul of our Nation was hanging in the balance. It still is today.

This idea that the antisemitism, allegedly encouraged and condoned by Donald Trump, threatened the “very soul of our nation” was Biden’s stated reason for running for president in 2020 in the first place. The antisemitism in Charlottesville was abhorrent and grotesque. So is the antisemitism of Hamas and its domestic defenders. But I don’t hear a lot of talk about the “soul of the nation” being threatened. I hear a lot more talk about how the election results in Michigan hangs in the balance. 

It’s fine to discuss the political reality the president faces. Heck, that’s a big part of what I do for a living. But as with the college presidents eager to demonstrate their moral clarity and courage when it aligns with their institutional interests, but who opt to vomit a sludge of false equivalences and euphemisms when moral clarity and courage are inconvenient, this American president is happy to show spinal steel condemning a bunch of bigoted chuds with tiki torches, but is desperate to show spinal flexibility when it comes to far more numerous bigots in his own coalition. 

And much of the media is only too eager to help him.

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.