As a new school year begins, many Jewish students will find themselves studying on inhospitable university campuses, facing entrenched opposition to any pro-Israel views. Many will find that, by making arguments about Israel’s democratic character and its emphasis on human rights, they will rouse more opposition amongst their fellow students than those espousing views about how Israel is an “apartheid” state.
Anti-Zionist rhetoric is not a new phenomenon within academia, or in progressive politics. In his 2015 book on the raid at Entebbe, titled Operation Thunderbolt, British historian Saul David looked at the rise of militant anti-Israel forces in Europe during the Cold War. Chronicling groups such as the Baader-Meinof Gang (the Red Army Faction) and the Revolutionary Cells (RC), David maintained that, “The core beliefs of the RC were a mixture of left-wing anti-imperialist liberation doctrine with strong anti-Zionist, anti-patriarchal and anti-racist elements.”
Likewise, foundational members of the Nation of Islam movement, including Malcolm X and Louis Farrakhan, share a strained relationship with Jews and Israel. Malcolm X had adopted a stridently anti-Israel position by the mid-1960s, which was epitomized by an article he wrote in the Egyptian Gazette. In it, he denounced “Zionist logic” as a “new form of colonialism” and claimed that Israeli overtures to African states constituted “Zionist dollarism.”
In the estimation of Pulitzer Prize-winner Manning Marable, Malcolm X came to view Israel as “a neocolonial proxy for U.S. imperialism.” Meanwhile, Farrakhan’s anti-Semitic exploits ranged from allegations that Jews control Hollywood and the media to their supposed responsibility for the slave trade.
Similarly, another revolutionary left-wing paramilitary group, the Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA), deemed Israel an impediment to global progress. As American writer Bryan Burroughs documented in Days of Rage, the SLA proposed bombing a car rental office “for supporting the ‘fascist governments’ of Portugal (and) Israel.”
The strand that has historically connected these political actors was a shared sense of ushering in revolutionary change. To such groups, Israel was regularly included among the global forces of oppression. This perspective united such seemingly disparate elements as black separatists and student activists in the United States, Arab nationalists in Egypt and Japanese Marxists.
The 1972 Lod Airport massacre embodied the global hostility toward Israel that revolutionary left-wing movements fostered. The slaughter was jointly perpetrated by the Japanese Red Army, a “leftist and anti-Zionist militant group,” and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), a Marxist-Leninist revolutionary movement founded by George Hasbash. In a PFLP statement released following the attack, the group asserted that the Japanese Red Army “came from thousands of miles away to join the Palestinian people in their struggle.”
The coalescing of radical left-wing groups around anti-capitalist, anti-Western and anti-imperialist ideas – and their explicit links to anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism – has been prevalent over the past half century.
Today, the foremost practitioners of progressive politics are the chief abusers of Israel. Black Lives Matter’s platform singles out Israel for “genocide” and “apartheid,” while ignoring the worst regimes around the world. And groups like Students for Justice in Palestine frequently partner with other left-wing, and often anti-Israel, groups. So the convergence of left-of-centre politics with Israel bashing that is so abundant on campus should come as no surprise.
It is true that there are those on the right who espouse anti-Israel and anti-Semitic views, as well. But the leading voices of the so-called “alt-right” movement, including Richard Spencer and Alex Jones, are rightly criticized by most mainstream politicians and civil society (the current president of the United States being the glaring exception), while those on the left who espouse anti-Semitic views are becoming more accepted within Western society. Perhaps my own experiences in university over the past six years have tinged my perspective, but I am more concerned by anti-Semitism emanating from the left than the right.
Nonetheless, viewed through the prism of history, the most recent incarnations of anti-Israel activism ought to temper hyperbolic assessments of the influence such movements wield. Like the demise of the hippies, many of their underlying tenets will be unearthed and rendered hollow. It’s just that you might never hear about it until you graduate university and head out into the real world.
Ari Blaff is a second-year master’s student at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto. He served as The CJN’s summer intern this year.