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Yossi Klein Halevi
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The war against the Jewish story 

The ease with which anti-Zionists have managed to portray the Jewish state as genocidal marks a historic failure of Holocaust education
A student protester waves a Palestinian flag above Hamilton Hall on the campus of Columbia University, Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in New York. (Pool Photo/Mary Altaffer)
A student protester waves a Palestinian flag above Hamilton Hall on the campus of Columbia University, Tuesday, April 30, 2024, in New York. (Pool Photo/Mary Altaffer)

How has it come to this? How is it possible that Israel, rather than radical Islamism, would become the villain on liberal campuses? That thousands of students would be chanting “from the river to the sea” even as the Hamas massacre revealed that slogan’s genocidal implications? That the most passionate outbreak of student activism since the 1960s would be devoted to delegitimizing the Jewish people’s story of triumph over annihilation? 

This moment didn’t happen in a vacuum. The anti-Zionist forces in academia have been preparing the ground for decades, systematically dismantling the moral basis of each stage of Zionist and Israeli history. 

The attack began on the very origins of Zionism, which was transformed from a story of a dispossessed people re-indigenizing in its ancient homeland into one more sordid expression of European colonialism. (Europe’s post-Holocaust gift to the Jews: leaving us with the bill for its sins.) 

Next, the birth of Israel in 1948 was reduced to the Nakba, or catastrophe, a Palestinian narrative of total innocence that ignores the ethnic cleansing of Jews from every place where Arab armies were victorious and the subsequent uprooting of the entire Jewish population of the Muslim world. Post-1967 Israel was cast as an apartheid state – turning Zionism, a multi-faceted movement representing Jews across the political and religious spectrum into a racist ideology and reducing an agonizingly complex national conflict into a medieval passion play about Jewish perfidy. 

And now, with the Gaza War, we have come to the genocide canard, the endpoint in the process of delegitimization.

To turn Israel into the world’s arch-criminal requires three forms of erasure. The first is of the connection between the land of Israel and the people of Israel. In the anti-Zionist telling of the conflict, a 4,000-year connection that has been the heart of Jewish identity and faith is irrelevant, if not contrived outright by Zionists.

The second is the erasure of the relentless war against Israel, placing its actions under a microscope while downplaying or entirely ignoring the aggression of its enemies. There is never any context to Israel’s actions. Only by erasing Hamas’s atrocities can Israel be turned into the villain of this war. 

In focusing on Israel’s actions and dismissing those of Hamas, campus protesters are providing cover for October 7 denialism. This is a new version of the Holocaust denialism prevalent in parts of the Muslim world: The atrocities didn’t happen, you deserved them and we’re going to do it again (and again). 

On a recent trip to New York, walking along Broadway on the Upper West Side, I saw dozens of defaced posters of kidnapped Israelis. Rather than tear down the posters, the vandals had blacked out the Israeli faces – a literal defacement. And a useful metaphor for the anti-Zionist assault on our being.

The third form of erasure is dismissing the history of peace offers presented or accepted by Israel and uniformly rejected by the Palestinian side. No offer – an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, the re-division of Jerusalem, the uprooting of dozens of settlements – was ever sufficient. It is hard to think of another national movement representing a stateless people that rejected more offers of self-determination than the Palestinian leadership.

The ease with which anti-Zionists have managed to portray the Jewish state as genocidal, a successor to Nazi Germany, marks a historic failure of Holocaust education in the West.

This moment requires a fundamental rethinking of the goals and methodology of Holocaust education. By over-emphasizing the necessary universal lessons of the Holocaust, many educators too easily equated antisemitism with generic racism. The intention was noble: to render the Holocaust relevant to a new generation. But in the process, the essential lesson of the Holocaust – the uniqueness not only of the event itself but of the hatred that made it possible – was often lost. 

Antisemitism is not merely the hatred of Jews as other but the symbolization of The Jew – that is, turning the Jews into the symbol for whatever a given civilization defines as its most loathsome qualities. For Christianity until the Holocaust, The Jew was Christ-killer; for Marxism, the ultimate capitalist; for Nazism, the defiler of race. And now, in the era of anti-racism, the Jewish state is the embodiment of racism. 

Holocaust education was intended, in large part, to protect the Jewish people from a recurrence of the antisemitism that reduces Jews to symbols. Yet the movement to turn Israel into the world’s criminal nation emerges from a generation that was raised with Holocaust consciousness, both in formal education and the arts. And this latest expression of the antisemitism of symbols is justified by some anti-Zionists as honoring “the lessons of the Holocaust.” 

Unlike the Iranian regime, which clumsily tries to deny the historicity of the Holocaust, anti-Zionists in the West intuitively understand that coopting and inverting the Holocaust is a far more effective way of neutralizing its impact.

Many, perhaps most, of the campus protesters are likely not antisemitic. They may have Jewish friends or be Jewish themselves. But that is irrelevant: They are enabling an antisemitic moment.

What is under assault is the integrity of the mid-20th century Jewish story, of a people rejecting the self-pity of victimhood and fulfilling its most improbable dream: renewing itself, in its broken old age, in the land of its youth. The shift from the lowest point Jews have known to the reclamation of power and self-confidence is one of the most astonishing feats of survival not only in Jewish but world history. It is that story that is being distorted and trivialized and demonized on liberal campuses. 

I recently completed a lecture tour of some of the most Jewishly problematic campuses, from Columbia to Berkeley. In meetings with Jewish students, I was repeatedly told about a pervasive atmosphere of hostility toward Israel, even among many otherwise apolitical students. While the protests are an immediate threat to Jewish well-being on campus, the far deeper problem is the impact of the anti-Zionist campaign, linking the name “Israel” with racism and genocide. The vulgar protesters are a small minority, but they are shaping the attitudes of a whole generation. 

By focusing only on the immediate threat of the protests, we risk repeating the mistake we’ve made over the last decades of failing to adequately confront the systematic assault on our story.

We are losing a generation, but we haven’t yet lost. Like other radical movements, anti-Zionism could go too far in its righteous rage, potentially alienating the majority. Perhaps that process has already begun. 

The challenge of our generation is to defend the story we inherited from the survivor generation. We need to tell that story with moral credibility, in all its complexity, frankly owning our flaws even as we celebrate our successes, acknowledging the Palestinian narrative even as we insist on the integrity of our own. 

We desperately need new strategies to counter the anti-Zionist assault. A good beginning would be the creation of a brain trust, composed of community activists, rabbis, journalists, historians, public relations experts, that would devise both immediate responses to the current crisis and a long-term strategy, emulating the decades-long patient work of the anti-Zionists. 

The Jews are a story we tell ourselves about who we think we are; without our story, there is no Judaism. It is long past time to mount a credible defense of our mid-20th century story, which continues to sustain us as a people. 

About the Author
Yossi Klein Halevi is a senior fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute, where he is co-director, together Imam Abdullah Antepli of Duke University and Maital Friedman, of the Muslim Leadership Initiative (MLI), and a member of the Institute's iEngage Project. His latest book, Letters to My Palestinian Neighbor, is a New York Times bestseller. His previous book, Like Dreamers, was named the 2013 National Jewish Book Council Book of the Year.