Are Jewish Students in Danger?
with John McWhorter, Daniel Bessner, and Tyler Austin Harper
Imagine it’s October 6, 2023. Imagine you’re a Jewish American college student who believes that Israel is the rightful homeland of the Jewish people and that the State of Israel and the Israeli Defense Force are entities necessary to keep Israel safe for Jews. It hasn’t been an issue that has moved you toward pro-Israel activism. It’s just what you’ve been taught your whole life, and nothing you’ve learned has convinced you it’s wrong. You even sympathize with the plight of the many ordinary Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. Still, the conflict doesn’t loom that large in your day-to-day thoughts.
By the following afternoon, the news will have gotten around: hundreds and hundreds of Jews murdered by Hamas fighters, and scores more taken hostage. Pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protests—there doesn’t seem to be a difference—will have broken out all over campus. Many will have said Israel had it coming. You will have reached out to your Jewish friends to check on them, to ask whether their families are safe, and to seek comfort in your anger, sadness, and confusion. Demonstrations in support of Israel will be planned, and it will soon become clear that what you had considered a common belief, at least among your family and friends, will become, to many of your fellow students, the most important fact about you.
I can well understand why such a student would feel unsafe on their campus. That is not to say they are unsafe or that pro-Palestinian protests are inherently antisemitic, only that the shock of October 7 and its instantaneous emergence as a fault line on college campuses could not help but jar Jewish students, just as I’m sure it jarred many others. The threat of antisemitism is a lesson that Jews learn from an early age, and with good reason. One cannot understand their history without it, and October 7 may well have moved that history into a new phase. Those of us who have questions about the Israeli government’s response in Gaza need not withdraw our sympathies from Jewish young people struggling to find their footing amidst the chaos. We are rightly reminded to distinguish between Hamas and the Palestinian people—we should extend a similar discretion to our Jewish brothers and sisters as well.
This is a clip from the episode that went out to paying subscribers on Monday. To get access to the full episode, as well as an ad-free podcast feed, Q&As, and other exclusive content and benefits, click below.
GLENN LOURY: Let me ask you guys a question. I'm going to be a little bit provocative here. I'm trying to put myself in the position of one of my Jewish students. I just had a wonderful conversation with this young man yesterday. I won't identify him further, but we were just sharing because I had signed a letter here at Brown, an open letter calling for a ceasefire and have been catching no end of flack because of that. And people want to know what side I'm on.
They feel like—I mean, it's a pat retort, but here it is: “Ceasefire benefits Hamas. They started this. There was a ceasefire before October 7th, and they broke it when they attacked those people in southern Israel. It was a slaughter. We got to finish the job, got to root out Hamas. It's necessary. The Americans bombed Hiroshima, they firebombed Dresden, this is war. You got to do what you got to do.” And what I'm trying to get at is that the people are viewing this conflict in existential terms.
Now, Hamas did in fact slaughter, viciously and brutally, in a pogrom-like attack, many, many hundreds. And hundreds have been taken captive. I mean, it was just a horrific thing. For you to get up and give a speech that says, “Go Hamas! Israel is reaping what it has sown!” To say that that's an act of violence is, it seems to me, not far off in terms of creating a fundamental condition of insecurity for people who feel like their lives are back on the line.
You call it “safetyism,” Danny. I'm giving voice to this point of view. This is not necessarily my opinion, but I'm just saying I can hear this kid that I was talking to yesterday saying this.
DANIEL BESSNER: So my response is that the framing is just wrong on almost every empirical sense, and at some point that has to matter. You have to be aware of the history of the 56 years of occupation. You have to be aware that one side is a nuclear-armed power with one of the most advanced militaries in the world. The other side is not. There is not an excuse for any of the brutalities that Hamas committed. But to compare any Palestinian organization to the Japanese Imperial Army or Nazi Germany is on its face absurd.
A pogrom is a thing. It's not just a word that indicates when Jews are killed. It referred to a majoritarian attack on a minoritarian population, mostly in the Pale of Settlement in early-twentieth century Ukraine. And the Israel of 2023—I think this is the real issue when you're talking about Jews. Jews are socialized into a world where Israel is still the relatively the same as the '40s, '50s, '60s, and '70s, when the 1973 Arab-Israeli War was some sort of genuine existential threat to Israel.
That hasn't been the case for literal decades. So at some point you have to understand what is the actual empirical reality on the ground. It's a major force supported by the world empire with basically unlimited money and weapons occupying a very weak population.
When you come to the West Bank, you have the settlement community and the occupation, the building of, for example, highways that Palestinians aren't able to drive on. And in Gaza, you have an over decade-long blockade in an area where fifty percent of the population is under 17. I mean, at some point reality has to matter, right? At some point you have to understand that it's not 1973 any longer. Just like you guys always say, it's not 1965 anymore. It's not 1900 any longer. You have to take reality into account.
So the question as educators is, how do you legitimize someone's felt ... particularly a young college student who's going to Brown, I imagine was socialized in a particularly Jewish community, an American Jewish community that has consciously, for 50 years, equated Jewishness with support of Israel. But you have to ask people to look at reality. Otherwise, what are we doing? Then any emotional response to anything is legitimate, and that's that.
JOHN MCWHORTER: If it's not a pogrom—and I agree, that's a stretch of how to use it since 1973—and it's not a noble rebellion—I can't quite go for that either when you're talking about 1,200 people—is there a word for it?
DANIEL BESSNER: It was a horrible act of political violence that resulted in the murder of a number of civilians and hostage-taking that is illegal under international law. It is immoral according to liberalism and all of our various thoughts. But it is explicable, is what I would say. What are the conditions that led to this horrible event?
Well, wait a minute, Danny—and I want Tyler to get in. I see he wants to get in. I just want to say it's terrorism, man. Again, I'm just going to continue to channel this thing: “You expect us to live with this on our border? You expect us to accept this as the necessary consequence of fulfilling the ambitions of Theodor Herzl and company? No nation would accept it. Why are you asking us to accept it?”
DANIEL BESSNER: So let me respond very quickly.
And what's wrong with using the word “terrorism,” by the way? You want to stay in touch with reality? Let's stay in touch with reality.
DANIEL BESSNER: Sure. I mean, I would point that person to the work of Lisa Stampnitzky, who has done an analysis of the category of terrorism. It is basically just a way to delegitimize particular forms of political violence. Now, you could either say that's fine, because what you want to do in that instance is delegitimize that form of political violence. That's a political act. That's fine. But empirically, this is what the term does, and I leave it up to you and your God to determine whether you're going to use it.
Is the answer, then, you respond by basically annihilating a population? Also, it's a little bit of an absurd claim, because Benjamin Netanyahu has been funding Hamas for years. This is part of a particular political strategy by the Israeli political government to basically pacify Gaza and focus on settlement in the West Bank as the Israeli government has become more far-right, et cetera.
So, if you're so concerned with Hamas, maybe you shouldn't fund it, but whatever. Even barring that, I think you have to look at the root causes of the actual issue. That's what I would say to that.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: I agree, Glenn. I would call it terrorism. I think that's the appropriate designation. One of my frustrations is the reticence of a certain, I think, comparatively small corner of the left, it should be said, to just outright say it was terrorism.
But at the same time, I think there were material conditions and historical conditions at work which make it explicable. And explicable is not to say excusable, but rather explicable in the sense of an outgrowth of policy decisions and material circumstances that have prevailed for decades, in the same way that 9/11 was explicable in terms of a broader American empire and the decisions we had made over the decades leading up to that.
And that doesn't mean, like all the lunatics on TikTok that have suddenly seemingly discovered Osama bin Laden's letter, that that was an excusable act of terrorism.
TIKTOCKER: So I just read “A Letter to America,” and I will never look at life the same. I will never look at This country the same. I will never. Please read it.
It didn't drop out of the sky. We need to contextualize things in the broader geopolitical ecosystem in which they occur.
JOHN MCWHORTER: Such a fine line. Explicable. Excusable. I would have to say, what isn't explicable? It's just a fine line.
Everybody's got a story.
DANIEL BESSNER It's so fringe to excuse Hamas. I mean, it is just not a mainstream position for most people in the United States to agree with the killing of civilians. To me, it's a chimera to even argue that this is a real position worth arguing with, in my opinion.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: I think the discussion would be different if Hamas had attacked an Israeli military installation. That is not what happened, but I also think it's worth noting that there are a lot of people who are disputing the extent of the crimes of October 7th. And I don't even just mean the sort of debate over whether or not babies were beheaded, but the question of rape and a lot of really true horrors that we have pretty good anecdotal and visual evidence to suggest took place. There is this reticence to even admit any of it happened. I think that's all disturbing. But nonetheless, I tend to agree with Danny that we should contextualize what happened, which is resolutely not to say excuse. But Netanyahu was allowing Hamas to be funded. I think that's not a trivial detail in all this.
And just as a last point, Glenn, you mentioned the safetyism question. One of the reasons I think this has been so conflictory on college campuses is that I think a certain kind of Jewish student who now does feel insecure and unsafe ... and whether that's reasonable or not, let's set that aside. I know Danny might not think so. Maybe you do. But setting aside whether or not that's reasonable, these students for the last half-decade have been told that your experience of feeling insecure is proof that you are, that we need to believe anyone who says they've encountered racism, that feeling like you've encountered racism is proof that a racism happened.
I think it's totally understandable why Jewish students now, with a particular politics, are saying, “Why don't you believe me? I'm saying I feel insecure, and yet it doesn't seem to be garnering the same outpouring of support, the same institutional response that happens when a black student says, ‘I experienced racism, I feel insecure.’” students are just applying the standards that have been applied to other groups for a decade. I would just insist that we should understand these students’ responses, whether we think they're reasonable or not or whether we think fear is overblown or not, as perfectly consonant and an application of principles that have been at work for a decade.
If you don't like the student attitudes, we're supposed to be educating them. And this is a series of institutional failures from universities, but also from legislators who have not done the work of regulating things like TikTok and social media and everything else. And so I guess I have a lot of sympathy for where students are coming from, in the sense of, their response has often been bad, but I think the pump was primed in a certain way through actions that had nothing to do with them.
JOHN MCWHORTER: And I think I would add to that that they, a generation of Jewish students, are going to be imprinted by the fact that they feel persecuted and they can point to episodes of stark resistance, physical violence, near physical violence, naked slurs, hollered at them by people in real time. All of that on campuses is becoming regular. And there's a whole contingent of supposedly educated people telling them to shut up. Whereas, let's face it, racism on college campuses exists, but frankly, I can confidently say, essentially no black student for 50 years has encountered anything that stark. You have to work to find the “microaggressions,” et cetera.
And yet, any time a black student claims racism, then we have to pretend that college campuses are hotbeds of bigotry. That's not fair. And Jewish students are watching this, and they're disgusted. And I would have to say, that's explicable. I understand their disgust about that.
DANEIL BESSNER: But they're getting the support of the administration. I mean, who is getting that support? Jewish students. I mean, it's SJP and JVP that are being thrown off campus. There's all this silencing of protesters ...
So which Jewish students? Because here at Brown, 50 Jewish students sat in at the administration building and were arrested and carted away by the gendarme for occupying, and they were demanding a ceasefire. That's why they were there.
DANIEL BESSNER: This is the big thing in the American Jewish community. If you're under forty, you're basically critical of Israel, and if you're over forty, you're not. This is why AIPAC and the ADL are really pushing Christian Zionism. I mean, basically both Israel and the American Jewish institutions recognize that the next generation of Jews, who are basically third or fourth-generation Jews at this point, who have become part of the elite—not totally, but to a large degree—and accept liberal values and don't like seeing a state oppress a population that are not going to be as pro-Israel. Even though I think, in the long term, it's not pro-Israel. But that's a different conversation, what they define as “pro-Israel.” And so they're moving toward Christian Zionism.
But wait a minute, wait a minute. If I'm one of these Jewish students, and like Tyler was just referring to, I see people saying, “Well, Hamas really didn't do what you all said they did,” and start splitting hairs with me—“There were no beheaded babies, nobody was actually set on fire. Where's your proof that whatever”—and you've got all of this, as Tyler remarked, evidence, circumstantial and some of it more than circumstantial, that a horrific thing happened there, what am I to think about the person who's saying to me, with their arms folded across their chest, “How many people really died? How many people really died?” I think they're Jew-haters, is what I think.
I mean, flip the script. Suppose somebody said to you, “Not that many people died during slavery.” So why isn't a Jewish student sympathetic to Israel entitled to feel—you know, this is at the tail end of boycott, divest, and sanction. This fight about the moral status of the state of Israel has been going on for a long time. So Jewish students friendly to Israel are already feeling embattled, and now something horrific like this happens, and they get the Norman Finkelstein treatment from people: “You're overplaying your hand, you Zionist.” So why shouldn't they feel threatened?
DANIEL BESSNER: I mean, it probably doesn't feel great in the moment. But if you have racism against you, does it totally change your existential view of life, your entire weltanshauung? Again, that's between everyone and their God. I mean, this is the issue: anti-Zionism is not antisemitism. The state of Israel for 50 years has said, “Yes, it is.” American Jewish institutions have said, “Yes, it is.” I would say it's a bit more complicated than that in the year 2023.
Now, the fact that a Jewish student totally identifies with Israel due to various processes of socialization, I would understand it probably feels pretty terrible for people to deny what I consider to be an obvious truth, that there was atrocities committed against civilians and there was various war crimes committed by a Palestinian political group against civilians. To me, that seems undeniable. But it raises more interesting questions than how you feel in the moment, young person. Is college just a never-ending series of emotional reactions to things, or are we supposed to get at a deeper thing? And the fact is, no, we're actually not, because it's just for consumers, and they're all going into debt now, so who gives a shit? But in an ideal world, we would actually be educating them.
TYLER AUSTIN HARPER: This is really where I come down. I totally agree with Danny. Like I said, I think if I were a pro-Israel Jewish student, I had watched the last ten years and particularly watched the unfolding since 2020 and seeing that the playbook is that if you say you've experienced racism, it's racism, and you say you've experienced discomfort, then it's whatever, I would feel like my institutions have been slow to react.
And one of the things that I think is a piece of evidence that tells the story is that most of these elite institutions are not rolling out their diversity, equity, and inclusion offices. They're starting parallel antisemitism task forces and committees and whatever, which goes to show that something about the DEI offices in that particular ideological constellation was inadequate to confronting antisemitism.
If these institutions were prepared to tackle these thorny questions, then there would have been a DEI response, and there was not. They've had to create parallel institutions, and they're not at all reckoning with the tension between the sort of diversity, equity, inclusion mantras of settler colonialism and antiracism and whatever else and the pillorying of whiteness and then what is going on on campus.
They're just creating parallel institutions that are dealing with these problems separately and not reconciling any of the tension. But to Danny's point, colleges have become luxury resorts with bad hotel rooms for students to do drugs and have sex in and then go become consultants. But in a perfect world where that was not the case, I think we would be trying to educate them about these difficult conversations.