America: Land of the Free…Where are the Brave?

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If you consider me a friend, respect my opinion, or at the very least consider me a human being deserving of a voice, please read: I’ve mostly stopped posting about Israel/Palestine because I am in active treatment for stage 4 breast cancer, arguing with people online in my DMs isn’t great for my mental health, and it wasn’t effective. This has become a domestic issue so I feel compelled to try again.

I am anti-war, anti-death, anti-oppression, pro-peace, pro-freedom. I want the hostages returned, Hamas disbanded, and a permanent ceasefire. I want long-lasting peace, fundamentally based on Israeli and Palestinian coexistence and cooperation. I want all humans to respect one another, live with dignity and be allowed the opportunity for self-determination. I do not see a distinction between being “pro-Israel” and “pro-Palestine” because to me, these movements CAN NEVER be mutually exclusive if one truly values human life. The fact that I event have to say that out loud or “qualify” my statement to others because I believe that Israel has a right to exist is dehumanizing, but here we are.

As some of you know, or if you’ve ever met my father, he would have told you, my parents and brother came to the US in 1988 as Jewish Refugees from the Soviet Union. They came here to escape an authoritarian, “communist”, anti-Jewish society that repressed most forms of self-expression and personal freedoms. Despite a lineage of parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents born in Russia/the USSR, their passports listed their nationality/ethnicity not as “Russian” but as Jewish, even though neither my mother nor father’s family was particularly religious. They were told they are not white, they did not belong, and that they held an inferior Jewish status in a “socialist” society meant to create equality among all people. This wasn’t 1917 or 1945; it was 1988. When I used to debate my father on the potential merits of communism as a form of political ideology, he would say that all political frameworks are deeply flawed, but democracy is the lesser of all evils because it gives voice to the many rather than the few. It took me a while to get there, but given his personal lived experience, I trust him. My family bravely left the only home they had ever known and came to the US for freedom. Despite how flawed our society is, they are still proud to be Free Americans.

In light and in spite of that origin story, I am a VEHEMENT supporter of free speech, even when at times that it is detrimental and hurtful to my identity, whether that be my gender, ethnicity, political views, or religion. To say that anti-Jewish rhetoric doesn’t bother me to my core would be a lie, but I understand that it falls under our state-given right of freedom of expression. That is the paradoxical nature of democracy that makes our society, all western society, and political framework fundamentally work; democracy gives space to all voices, even those that speak out against it.

Antisemitism, or discrimination against Jews, isn’t a new phenomenon. It’s one of the oldest forms of hatred and despite what you may think, it didn’t end when the Shoah (Holocaust) ended, or when the state of Israel was established by the UN, or when the Soviet Union fell, or with the first or second Intifada, or with the Abraham accords; it’s been present in history since before history was even written down. It’s something that has and likely will always be present in our society, and I’ve already accepted that it is an evil I will always have to live with.

With all that said, the pro-Palestine protests mostly don’t bother me. Personally, I don’t think setting up a tent on your college campus, cosplaying victimhood, and appropriating Palestinian struggle does anything to help “free Palestine.” (maybe the millions used for tents and supplies would be better spent, I don’t know… by sending actual supplies to Palestinian civilians?) It’s not for me to decide how these protesters use their Western privileged voice. I’m happy to see that people are capable of recognizing suffering and speaking out for it. I was once a college student and understand the desire to be a part of positive change and using one’s right of self-expression.

The distinction I want to make is that what I have been seeing in these encampments is no longer “anti-war”, and “ceasefire” is no longer the primary message being shouted. The signage may occasionally display the word and sentiment, but I fear the audio no longer matches the subtitles. Instead, chants for ceasefire have been replaced by “resistance by any means necessary” while displaying signs with swastikas and medieval-era blood libel. In case you weren’t sure, “any means necessary” is a callback and justification to what happened on October 7th, where 1400+ Israelis were murdered in cold blood or taken hostage. I have not seen a single encampment call for the release of the 130 hostages/bodies taken over 7 months ago. You know what’s crazy? There are American citizens being held and these protestors don’t care. During my summer in Israel in 2014, I went to concerts and festivals like the Nova Festival—if I was in Israel that weekend, who’s to say I wouldn’t have gone? It could’ve been me. These are innocent people, mostly civilians like the ones being bombed in Gaza, completely discounted for the mere fact that they were born or living in the state of Israel. The quickest way to end the war would be for Hamas to release every single person they unjustly captured, yet that demand is glaringly absent from this movement.

What I’ve seen instead are calls for violence, anarchy, and chaos. In America, you lose the right of free speech when it turns into incitement of violence, extortion, or actual literal violence. Brandenburg v. Ohio (1969) Virginia v. Black (2003) Giboney v. Empire Storage & Ice Co. (1949)

At these encampments, there are chants for a globalized Intifada (violent uprising) on US soil, signs pointing to Jewish protesters to be eliminated by Hamas, screams of from the river to the sea, Palestine will be Arab. They claim all Israelis are justified targets while shouting of “death to Israel, death to America.” There have been physical fights, screams of “there is only one solution, intifada revolution,” (I remember another ‘final’ solution…) students being segregated and discriminated against, and organizers extorting universities by coopting lawn and buildings to meet their demands.

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Historically, our social justice champions were prepared to face the consequences of their spiritually pure, yet technically illegal action. In many cases, an arrest and trial was a badge of honor; it was the way for them to enact policy change by fighting bad laws all the way up to the supreme court. This is not Civil Rights or Vietnam—those protesters were proud Americans using their voices and faces to advocate on behalf of other disenfranchised humans.

These protestors hide their faces behind masks—literally and metaphorically. They wear masks while their leaders, proudly and unabashedly declare, “Zionist don’t deserved to live.” Nazi symbolism is displayed proudly while purporting to only be targeting at the “Zionist Jews” in spaces where the majority of Jews identify as Zionists. They obfuscate their messages with euphemisms and in other languages not understood by the common college student as if chanting “min al-nahr ila al-bahr / Filastin Arabieh” or “from the river to the sea Palestine will be Arab” is not a call to displace or destroy the Israelis currently living there. They ignore calls FROM Palestinians INSIDE of Gaza, risking their literal lives for speaking out against the ruling class, calls to STOP glorifying Hamas—a terrorist organization/government that just last year violently quashed Palestinian protestors who just “want to live.” screenshot of protests at MIT in Cambridge, MA via @emilykschrader screenshot of protests at MIT in Cambridge, MA via @emilykschrader

What we are seeing on college campuses is not civil rights. It’s not anti-war. They yell anti-Jewish slogans, replacing the word “Jew” with Zionist. I won’t get too deep into why the “bUt iM aN aNtIZiOnIsT argument” is ludicrous unless you believe the same for all nation-states. After the establishment of Israel, Zionism as a belief in an ideology should’ve died in 1948 because there was no longer a need to believe in something that was actualized. To be anti-Zionist is to believe in the destruction of an entire country and sovereign nation-state. Before, during, and post WW2, a couple of infamous men did the very same with words like “communist” and “capitalist” to distort their disdain for Jews. Hell, Stalin, after voting in favor of the establishment of the state of Israel because he thought it would become a communist state and Soviet ally in the Cold War, popularized antizionism to disguise his antisemitism and contempt that Israel chose democracy as its framework, much to his chagrin. Like I said, this isn’t something new. Your fellow citizens, other Americans, are being threatened because of their beliefs and identities, told they do not deserve to live simply because of their belief that the state of Israel should not be destroyed. What’s more, the people who attempt to use their First Amendment right, their right to counter-protest, are being physically prevented from doing so in those very same spaces, their voices silenced, and their persons intimidated and violated. Requests for dialogue and discussion ignored and attempts for mutual understanding rebuffed. How is that democracy? Where did the spirit of debate and dialogue go?

I don’t want to draw a comparison to a historical time we were instructed as children to “Never Forget” because at this point the trope is so over- and misused that it’s lost its meaning to the masses. I will tell you as a first-generation Jewish American, a child of refugees, and a great-grandchild of a Holocaust survivor, the unshakable safety I once felt in America is being tested.

These protests ARE making a protected class of people feel deeply unsafe and discarded. If this were happening to another class of people, whether that be Black, Asian, or queer, telling you that they feel extremely unsafe and uncomfortable, would your opinion on the protests change? If they changed their attire from Hamas headbands, kaffiyehs and masks to white hoods, khaki military uniforms, or red swastikas, would you even care?

In 2020, I learned that when someone tells you something is prejudiced toward them, you believe them, and you speak up for them, whether or not you understand them; that is what it means to be a good human, a good liberal in the classic sense of the word, it means that you listen to the disenfranchised and you improve.

My problem is not with the protesters, per se— yes they have turned illegal in nature and most of the participants are either proud antisemites or grossly misinformed. If you hate Jews, there isn’t much I can say to change your mind and, frankly, you’re not my target audience. My gripe is with the rest of you who are silent in the face of injustice, complicit with your apathy, and, at worst, enabling it with your support. I know you do not agree with antisemitism, I know you think it is wrong,  that discrimination is vile, and violence is illegal. Why can’t you be brave and speak up against it? Have you not heard our cries?

Well, Hineni—here I am—a Jew, telling you, crying out to you,  that these protests have left the realm of antisemitic free speech and entered the arena of calls for anti-Jewish, anti-American violent action. They are hateful and unsafe. They have caused harm to Jews. They are not anti-war, and they are NOT pro-Palestinian, even if some participants intend them to be. (what happened to intent vs. consequence?)  They evoke images from pre-World War II Germany. They incite violent action. They cause me and many, many other Jews emotional and mental trauma at the least and physical trauma at the worst. They make sad that people so easily forget. They make me frustrated that history is so easily forgotten. They make me angry that people take democracy for granted. They make me question my place in this society in a way nothing has before.

Are you listening? Are you learning? Are you speaking up?

America, land of the free, where are the brave?

About the Author
Dena Ofengeim is a first generation American, daughter of Jewish Refugee Parent who escaped the Soviet Union to come to America in 1988. She Graduated from Trinity College in 2015 with a degree in Political Science and a minor in Jewish Studies
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