Elchanan Poupko

The New Brownshirts 

Students participate in a protest outside the Columbia University campus in November. The banner features, at left, a map showing Israel, the West Bank and Gaza in the colors of the Palestinian flag. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

The Brownshirts have made a big comeback, not on German or Austrian soil, but on American college campuses and on the streets of big cities across the Western world. Like Brownshirts of the SA in Germany who blocked the entrances of public spaces to Jews, stood with signs outside Jewish businesses, and marched through Jewish neighborhoods, today’s Brownshirts don’t need to be outright violent to accomplish what they want. They surround Hillel Houses on college campuses, lock arms to block Jewish students from passing through certain areas in the university, get on the floor shrieking at school board meetings, shut official proceedings calling for a free Palestine, place boycott stickers on Israeli products for sale in supermarkets, and make sure Jews feel unsafe wherever they are. Over the past few days, we have seen these new Brownshirts rise to prominence and social acceptance across U.S. campuses, and it will not end there. This should terrify every single thoughtful person. 


To climb up the social ranks in a healthy society requires achievement, work, merit, and kindness. The wave of hate for Israel in Western capitals and on college campuses has ushered in a new social currency. Suddenly, the ability to be loud, brazen, disruptive, and unabashed is the new social currency of an entire generation. Our Nation’s Ivy Leagues see students rise to prominence by virtue of their willingness to disrupt classes, to lead an angry mob, and to intimidate those they see as the other side. Young Americans get to see those who lead masked protests, who hold bullhorns, and who disregard the basic tenets of decent conduct as the leaders of a generation are most disruptive and abrasive. 

If Israel ceased to exist tomorrow, which is what these protests seek, these vocal voices would not disappear; they would just sharpen their blades to find the next target. Those who are now led by gray violence are not going to give up the power society has handed them voluntarily. They will continue with consequences that will impact each and every member of our society. How do I know? Because that is what happened in Germany. The less-known side of Hitler’s rise to power is his reliance on individuals who were suddenly empowered by a uniform and a cause. Like today’s Kaffiya, bullhorn, and mask, the Brownshirts of Germany were able to command an extraordinary amount of power by putting on that brown shirt and standing with a sign outside a Jewish business. In most cases, the Brownshirts did not need to use violence; their power was in their brazenness. 

From the SS’s Reinhard Heydrich to the SA’s Heinrich Himmler to Hitler himself, Nazi leadership was riddled with individuals whose abject failures in the most basic aspects of life had not stopped them from taking leading roles in German society. Individuals that did not have much going for themselves in life were suddenly empowered by belonging to an increasingly powerful group. Rude and mean-spirited individuals were suddenly emboldened by how society tolerated their bullying behavior. These bullies went on to take Germany on a destructive path that cost the lives of more than fifty million people, about five percent of the world’s population at the time. 

US campuses and large cities are seeing the rise of a new generation of leaders. These leaders gain prominence by the power of the megaphone, by leading masked crowds in chants, vandalizing universities, shutting down graduation ceremonies, vandalizing Starbuckses and harassing baristas, and barricading Ivy League classrooms. You need not have any feelings for Jews or Israel to understand how a movement like this threatens the very fabric of society and brings very bad actors to positions of influence they will use to further erode the fabric of society. 


To those who ask how violent or dangerous the young folks leading the anti-Israel efforts on the streets and on campus are: ask yourself how much violence did German Brownshirts use in most cases? Shifts standing outside Jewish shops in Germany, warning Germans not to buy from Jews, did not have to be violent. Not far from where I live, a group of pro-Palestinian protesters shut down a major Northeastern train station with no violence at all. They locked arms, sat at the entrance, and sang peaceful hymns. In New York, they placed stickers on Israeli products, and at UCLA, they “peacefully” locked arms and didn’t let Jewish students through. They don’t need to be outright violent to be dangerous and extorting. They close down major airports, train stations, streets, and ceremonies. Their path is not violent; it is soft violence, which does not make the same headlines as violence itself. 


Many Jews wonder what we would have done had we lived in Europe during the Holocaust. The true answer is nothing. Even with the knowledge we have today, there is not much that could have been done. It took the combined power of the United States, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and dozens of countries to defeat Hitler’s war machine. A few Jews lightly armed in a hostile environment could not have changed it all. 

Where could we have changed history? By confronting Hitler’s Brownshirts early on. When thugs with signs stood outside Jewish stores and institutions, we should have been much more relentless in confronting them. When they bullied our children out of schools, public spaces, and universities, we should have taken them far more seriously. Once Nazi Brownshirts gained control of Germany’s military and police forces, there was not much we could have done other than leave. 


The rise of modern-day Brownshirts on college campuses and cities throughout the West is an urgent wake-up call for the Jewish people and those who want their societies to survive. Ignore these passionate young students at your own peril because they will not be ignoring you. They have tasted the flavor of power, and their appetite will not be satisfied once this round of fighting with Gaza is over. The time to stop this madness is now. We must take every legal avenue possible to stop the Brownshirts who seek the full destruction of the Jewish people. 

About the Author
Rabbi Elchanan Poupko is a New England based eleventh-generation rabbi, teacher, and author. He has written Sacred Days on the Jewish Holidays, Poupko on the Parsha, and hundreds of articles published in five languages. He is the president of EITAN--The American Israeli Jewish Network.
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