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Caught between antisemitism and the First Amendment

An American-Israeli, there is a tension that might be impossible to resolve. I embrace the friction. Meanwhile, the war rages on

As an American Jew living in Israel for the past six years, I’m well-practiced in translating American culture to locals: What’s Chick-fil-A and why is it closed on Sundays? What’s the deal with baseball? Why are American cars so big? Typically, these innocent inquiries are a breeze to answer. But over the past few weeks, my dueling identities have been set aflame, and my role as a bridge between American and Israeli cultural norms has been tested.

Like most Jews and Israelis around the world, I’ve been incredibly angered and saddened by the growing wave of rank antisemitism and breathless Israel hatred occupying campus lawns from Upper Manhattan to Los Angeles. Not to mention the protesters’ apparent hatred of their own country. Whether they’re draped in keffiyehs demanding “humanitarian aid,” hounding Jews about their loyalties, or waving Hezbollah flags and parroting Hamas propaganda, this protest movement has made clear that influential segments of American academia hate me and the people that I love. Not a peep about the Israeli hostages, nary a condemnation of Hamas for starting this war and maximizing their own people’s misery. There’s nothing complicated in that.

And then as I discuss these issues with Israeli friends and colleagues, my Americanness begins to peak through. Not in how these protests should be perceived – that’s abundantly clear. The movement’s top ranks and organizers like Students for Justice in Palestine are unabashedly dismissive of the October 7th atrocities and reject outright the Jewish claim to a homeland. There have been countless incidents showing an almost joyful hatred of Jews and Israelis. Unfortunately for the cause some of them claim to support (Palestinian rights, a ceasefire for the war in Gaza), the movement has been corrupted from the roots. 

But how should these protesters be handled? What should university authorities, law enforcement, and politicians do to quell the hate? Many Israelis I know can’t seem to fathom why these kids aren’t simply rounded up, handcuffed, and thrown in prison. “They should at least be expelled, no?” 

I don’t have the answers. I do, however, have a deeply ingrained respect for the First Amendment, an understanding of the limits of presidential power, and an awareness of the complicated legacy of policing in America. It’s this brew that has often pitted me against the understandably straightforward Israeli alarm – this is Nazi Germany in the 1930s, so lock them up and crack down harder before it extends beyond the campus. What these students are doing, as noxious and dangerous as I find much of it, is not strictly against the law. In fact, aside from explicit support of Hamas or Hezbollah, these protests are entirely legal. Campus administrators are not czars in tweed jackets. They cannot bend the law to their will.

“Nor should they!” the American in me proudly proclaims. The First Amendment protects speech, no matter how distasteful and offensive. Anyway, isn’t it better to let these cosplaying jihadis express their unpopular views in public? It’s self-destructive. But one day an Israeli friend sent me a video of students gleefully shouting “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a not-so-subtle call for Israel’s dissolution. Another friend sends me a video of a pack of students unfurling an “Intifada” flag atop a building. 

The Israeli in me awakens. Round these kids up, shut down the protests, and pack up the tents. This is violence, nothing less, First Amendment be damned. And then Republicans begin to weaponize the protests for their political gain. Right-wing media pegs George Soros as a Hamas supporter. Republican of Speaker the House Mike Johnson takes to the Columbia campus to chide the protests, despite years of dead silence when it comes to antisemitism in his party. 

Other Republicans jump at the chance to condemn the protesters as antisemitic and anti-America all while voting against the Antisemitism Awareness Act because it may prevent them from branding Jews as Christ killers. I try explaining these cynical actions to an Israeli friend. “Sure, but they’re speaking up for us,” he says. “Where are the Democrats?” 

My internal conflict continues. None of this is easy – not for Americans, not for Israelis, and not for Jews around the world pocketing their kippot and tucking in their tzitzit fringes due to rising hatred. It’s easy to get mired in the confused, ideologically corrupted world of American academia. So for now, I recognize that as an American living in Israel, there is a tension that might be impossible to resolve. I embrace the friction. Meanwhile, the war rages on. Israelis and Gazans don’t have the luxury to pitch tents on a perfectly manicured lawn and navel gaze.

About the Author
Alec has a dual identity as a classic American Jew (everything bagels, Larry David, kvetching) and a modern-day wannabe Zionist pioneer that lives with his beautiful sabra partner and dog in Ramat Gan, lamenting Israel's lack of bagels.
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