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The antisemitic mask is off

This week, for the first time, I heard blatant calls from mainstream Americans for violence against Jews and the elimination of the State of Israel
An 'Intifada' banner hung over Columbia University's Hamilton Hall after anti-Israel students took over the building on April 30, 2024. (Jessica Schwalb)
An 'Intifada' banner hung over Columbia University's Hamilton Hall after anti-Israel students took over the building on April 30, 2024. (Jessica Schwalb)

After four years in the IDF, plus six months in reserves following October 7, I thought I was pretty desensitized to high-stress situations. But attending a pro-Israel vs. anti-Israel rally at UCLA on Sunday, and then watching the rest of the “protests” spiral out of control across Los Angeles and New York, felt like living in a type of war-zone that I’d never experienced before.

I feel like I’ve aged a year since Sunday, when I started the 15-minute walk from the UCLA parking lot to the pro-Israel side of the rally. In order to get to the part of campus that was surrounded by security officers and physical barriers, I had to pass through a sea of anti-Israel protestors, faces covered in masks and kaffiyehs, and I have quite possibly never felt less safe in my life.

You see, during actual wartime in Israel, I’m on a military base in Tel Aviv with a few hundred other soldiers, several bomb shelters, and a handful of armed commanders. Walking across UCLA, I was completely alone, surrounded by people who looked at me (and my “Free Gaza from Hamas” sign) with hate in their eyes because I wasn’t on the same side as they were.

Sunday turned out to be the least stressful part of my week, though. (Don’t worry: after the intimidating walk across campus, the pro-Israel rally itself was overall really fun and meaningful. In the presence of security guards, when an anti-Israel protestor screamed “You’re so ugly and everything you have is stolen” at me through a bullhorn, I burst out laughing.)

Along with probably many of you, I compulsively watched the news as protestors aggressively took over Columbia University’s Hamilton Hall; as NYPD forcibly removed them; as opposing groups of protestors at UCLA got into violent fights; and as LAPD forcibly removed the pro-Gaza encampments too.

I watched all of this from the safety of my couch in Los Angeles (my most-miluim vacation has turned out to be the farthest thing from relaxing), feeling completely helpless as the US devolved into chaos — over the war going on thousands of miles away that most of the protestors, and social media commenters, know absolutely nothing about.

I was optimistic to the point of naïve for the first several days of these US-wide college campus protests. I thought that the vast majority of the student protestors were either righteously standing up for a cause they really believed in — with the way the media is portraying the war in Gaza, who can blame the average American 19-year-old for wanting a ceasefire? — or simply jumping in on the current trendy movement.

I viewed most of these protestors as, at best, fairly well-meaning bleeding-hearts who were tragically misinformed about Israel, plus the crazy extremist outliers. I hoped that if enough people could just be educated about the facts about the war in Gaza, the fact that it’s actually possible to advocate for Palestinians without bashing Israel (like I wrote in my last post), and if the hypocrisy of their movement’s leaders was exposed, things wouldn’t get so bad.

But these protests turned from pro-Palestinian-with-a-side-of-anti-Israel to full-on antisemitic at an almost alarming rate. The April 30th Columbia occupiers hung an “INTIFADA” banner from the top of Hamilton Hall. They chanted: “Israel will fall, brick by brick, wall by wall, Zionism will fall” and “We want all of it! Settlers, settlers, go back home, Palestine is ours alone.”

And absolutely no one (to my knowledge) from “that side” condemned this rhetoric. Absolutely no one from within that movement spoke up and said, “Wait, you guys, calling for an intifada means calling for violent attacks against Jews, that doesn’t help Palestinian people!” or “Our platform should be about Palestinians gaining a state, not removing Jews from Israel and destroying their state.”

Again, maybe I’ve just been naïve all along, but I’ve never heard blatant calls for violence or the elimination of the State of Israel come from mainstream Americans before. I always thought Israel hatred. was a side effect of “pro-Palestinian” brainwashing — not the main goal, the uncensored and proud platform. And honestly? I refused to believe this many people in 2024’s United States are actually, sincerely, bona fide antisemitic.

But the mask is off now, and it feels like there’s no going back. A week ago, I was giving speeches in various synagogues in LA advocating for people to stop calling social media posts that go against our narrative “antisemitic,” because I thought, odds are, the person is misinformed and well-intentioned. This week, I did a “180,” and, as an outlet for my frustration, I made a parody song about the protestors to the tune of Dua Lipa’s “Levitating” called “Israel Hating,” where my chorus goes, “You hate Jews / all types / antisemite.” (If you haven’t watched my video yet, consider this a shameless plug.)

On the one hand, I don’t want the mask to be off. I want to go back to how I felt a week ago, when I saw social media as an opportunity to educate “the other side” about our narrative. When I felt like dialogue was even a remote possibility. When I felt like my biggest concern was Israel’s fight against terrorists who want to destroy us, rather than US Jews fighting against the same thing.

On the other hand, it’s better to know what we’re dealing with.

Now I know.

About the Author
Rachel Lester served in the IDF Spokesperson's Unit for four years, creating videos for the IDF's millions of social media followers and running the international video department as creative director. She was called into reserves on October 7 and stayed for six months. Rachel is an alumna of the University of Southern California and holds a Masters in Government from Reichman University.
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