Pro-Israel students gather on Oct. 25 in New York City’s Washington Square Park to counterprotest a New York University student walkout to demonstrate against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

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Never Again Is Now

A call for a mass rally in Washington in support of Jewish students and Israel

Natan Sharansky
November 01, 2023
Pro-Israel students gather on Oct. 25 in New York City's Washington Square Park to counterprotest a New York University student walkout to demonstrate against the Israeli bombardment of Gaza.

Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images

This article is part of Hamas’ War on Israel.
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Twenty years ago, upon returning to Israel from a trip to American university campuses as the minister in charge of combating antisemitism, I reported my opinion to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that U.S. colleges had become the beachhead of the battle for the next generation of American Jewry. For the first time, in an atmosphere of growing political opposition to the state of Israel, more and more Jewish students at leading universities—Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, and others—told me in private conversations that they were afraid to voice their sympathy with the Jewish state, out of concern that doing so would damage their academic success and future careers.

At the time, I was startled and deeply concerned to see such self-censorship—not in the Moscow of my youth, but in the most powerful country in the free world. I was also surprised then that few Jewish organizations felt a responsibility to get involved in the life of students on campuses.

Much has changed since then. Today, practically every serious American Jewish organization runs programs designed to prepare Jewish students for campus life, including giving them the tools to fight against antisemitism, and to strengthen their connection to Jewish identity and Israel while they are there. In addition, Israeli shlichim, or fellows, have been added to strengthen Hillel teams at almost a hundred universities across the country.

Nevertheless, anti-Zionism—the new antisemitism—is a permanent feature of daily life at American colleges. What is more, Israel’s opponents are equipped with new intellectual weapons: postcolonialist and other “critical” theories, wokeness, microaggressions, and various other ways of conveying the simplistic neo-Marxist idea of a permanent struggle between oppressors and oppressed, in which the oppressed are always right and oppressors wrong, and should be silenced and attacked by any means possible. In this narrative, “white colonial” Israel is always the oppressor, while the Palestinians are always oppressed.

There were many efforts over the past two decades to fight the expressions of this pernicious narrative at universities. They included opposition to the constant flow of resolutions supporting BDS and a push to recognize the connection between anti-Zionism and antisemitism. There were ups and downs, successes and failures, but the struggle continued.

Despite these long-standing realities, however, no one was truly prepared for the reaction of leading American universities to the horrific events of Oct. 7, when Hamas sent its jihadi terrorists into Israeli territory to kill some 1,400 people, mostly civilians, and take over 230 more hostage. Just as Israelis were shocked by the failure of our intelligence and political leadership to anticipate and prevent such a catastrophe, American Jews and their allies have been shocked by the failure of university leaders to unequivocally condemn the rape, torture, mutilation, and brutal murder of innocent children, families, and elderly people by an organization that has made no secret of its genocidal intentions against the Jewish people.

Instead of unanimous condemnation, what we have heard from college campuses is the full justification of this pogrom—the worst in modern memory—in statements by campus organizations and in demonstrations celebrating Hamas. According to the worldview that guides these deplorable responses, voiced repeatedly by students and their professors, Israel must be blamed for everything because fighting against the Zionist oppressor is how the worldwide struggle against colonialism begins.

With this, the parallel between these contemporary critical theories and the Marxism-Leninism of my Soviet youth has received new proof. Recall that the major pogroms in Eastern Europe started in 1881, when Tsar Alexander II was killed and his murder blamed on Jews. The organization behind the murder, Narodnaya Volya (the People’s Will), was a predecessor of the Communist Party, with both an extremist wing responsible for the killing and a more moderate wing that spread propaganda to the people. When the awful pogroms started, the latter tried to defend these aggressions by explaining that this was how the social movement of the masses—and with it the worldwide revolution—would begin. They argued that their target was not the Jews per se, but an entire oppressive system, which their movement sought to overthrow in the name of justice and liberation.

The rationalization of today’s Hamas sympathizers on campus are remarkably similar to these. And if the connection seemed largely theoretical before, today it is practical, articulated and even acted upon not by extremists but in the heart of the academy. While Jewish organizations were busy fighting tactical battles against BDS and other localized affronts, we failed to see that terrorism received an intellectual rehabilitation in the most prestigious segments of American society. Consider the words of prominent feminist scholar Judith Butler, who in 2006 proclaimed at the University of California, Berkeley, that “understanding Hamas [and] Hezbollah as social movements that are progressive, that are on the left, that are part of a global left, is extremely important.”

The struggle for campuses is a struggle for America and its values—for an America that is liberal, that supports free speech and human rights, and that protects all of its citizens, regardless of race or creed, from vicious, lawless assault.

Even the presidents of leading universities—unlike the president of the United States—have refused to denounce Hamas’s evil, speaking instead about violence on both sides. Those who protest microaggressions are unable or unwilling to differentiate between the most awful forms of pogrom and the legitimate self-defense of the attacked.

As a result, if 20 years ago to be openly and proudly pro-Israel was bad for students’ careers, today it is a threat to their physical safety. The number of antisemitic events, including physical assaults, has skyrocketed since Oct. 7, and campuses are now flooded with the slogan “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free.” For those unfamiliar with geography, this means that there is no place for a Jewish state on the world map.

Israel is currently fighting a war for its survival. We realize that Hamas crossed a red line on Oct. 7 and that for the state to continue to exist, we have to win. In fact, we know that we are fighting not only for ourselves but for the future of the free world, to preserve the values of democracy and freedom in the face of an organization that would destroy them completely.

In a different way, the United States is also fighting a war for its survival. American universities crossed a red line in the aftermath of Oct. 7. The struggle for campuses is therefore a struggle for America and its values—for an America that is liberal, that supports free speech and human rights, and that protects all of its citizens, regardless of race or creed, from vicious, lawless assault.

In 2015, following the terrorist attacks on the Charlie Hebdo newspaper and on Jewish targets in Paris, I asked the French philosopher Alain Finkielkraut whether he thought there was a future for Jews in Europe. He responded that he could not answer my question directly, since he was not part of the organized Jewish community, but that he worried there may not be a future for Europe in Europe—that is, for a Europe that cherishes liberal values and is willing to defend them in the face of barbaric assault.

If there is to be a future for America in America, it is time to step up in defense of its core values, and in this American Jews can play an important role. Let us start with a March of One Million: students, parents, Jewish organizations, and allies coming together in support of academic freedom and against a primitive ideology that silences truth and justifies murderous rampages as a form of liberation.

We have done this before: In 1987, hundreds of thousands of Jews marched to Washington, D.C., to support their brethren in the Soviet Union, chanting the slogan “Let my people go.” In 2002, thousands rallied in front of the U.S. Capitol in opposition to terrorism and support for the Jewish state.

Only this time we will be fighting not only for our own people, but for America as well—for the values it represents and for its continued role as a beacon of light around the world.

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Natan Sharansky is a former political prisoner in the Soviet Union, former minister in Israeli governments, former Chairman of the Executive of the Jewish Agency for Israel, and Chair of the Advisory Board of ISGAP (Institute for the Study of Global Antisemitism and Policy) and CAM (Combat Antisemitism Movement), and founder and Chair of the Adelson Shlihut Institute of the Jewish Agency.