On the night of November 2, several students at George Washington University and I taped dozens of posters depicting Israelis kidnapped by Hamas around campus. Almost every poster has since been torn down.
The posters, which were created to raise awareness for the 240 kidnapping victims of Hamas’ October 7 terrorist attack, read ‘KIDNAPPED’ in big red letters across the top of the page and include pictures of the victims along with their names and ages. The majority of the victims are civilians. They are old (over 80) and young (under one). Some have physical disabilities. At least 33 are children. They include people from more than 40 countries.
Such posters have been taped up all over the country, but many have been destroyed like the ones on our campus.
I have a few theories about why people feel compelled to tear the posters down.
First, the posters force Hamas supporters to contend with the reality of their position.
The taking of hostages is not an act of resistance against so-called colonial oppression, as those tearing down the posters argue. Israel is not a colonial oppressor, considering it completely withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, leaving Gazans to ‘elect’ Hamas in 2007, granting it civil and military control of the Strip (I use ‘elect’ here loosely because the Hamas military faction violently threatened their only political opponents, Fatah until Gazans had no choice but to accept Hamas as their governing body). Taking innocents into captivity cannot be a form of resistance against occupation if no occupation exists.
Hamas has yet to make any firm demands in exchange for releasing the hostages. For example, it has not stated it will return them if Israel lifts its border with Gaza, (which was built to prevent terrorist attacks like the First and Second Intifadas) or if it makes another concession that would improve Palestinian lives.
This is because, since its inception in 1988, Hamas has not been interested in Palestinian freedom, only in Jewish death. Nine separate peace plans have been proposed that would establish a sovereign Palestinian state, each of which was rejected by Hamas and the Palestinian Authority. Hamas’ charter states: “The Day of Judgement will not come about until Muslims fight the Jews (killing the Jews)…” and “[t]here is no solution for the Palestinian problem except by jihad,” a sentiment that has been repeated by Hamas leaders since the attacks. If Hamas’ goal was the creation of an independent Palestinian state free of Israeli ‘occupation,’ it could have attained it years ago. Instead, Hamas uses the Palestinian people as pawns, sacrificing innocent lives in service of Jewish annihilation. In doing so, Hamas makes Palestinian statehood less likely and acts in direct contradiction to genuine Muslim teachings.
Tearing down posters of kidnapped Israelis is figuratively and literally a way for people who support Hamas to ignore its intent to kill all Jews and destroy Israel at the expense of Palestinian lives and well-being.
In sum, my first theory assumes that those tearing down the posters are ignorant of or are perhaps choosing to ignore Hamas’ ideology and history of violence against Jews.
My second theory is more pessimistic: people know what Hamas believes, and they agree with it. This means Jewish life no longer matters to Americans.
Antisemitism is not a new phenomenon. The Jews have been persecuted in and expelled from every region they have resided in since their initial expulsion by the Romans from their indigenous homeland in Judea (modern-day Israel). Egypt was once home to 80,000 Jews who cultivated a unique Mizrahi culture, but in 1948 Jewish cities in Egypt were bombed and burned, and mass riots led almost every Jew to flee; less than ten Jews reside in Egypt today. Spain was a hub of Jewish life and culture until 1492 when the Alhambra Decree forced Jews to flee or convert to Christianity during the Spanish Inquisition; over 150,000 Jews were forced from their homes. Jews lived in Poland since the Middle Ages and Polish cities became the cultural, religious, and intellectual centers of world Jewry. But Pogroms and antisemitism plagued Jewish life in Poland, and from 1939 to 1943, three million Jews were murdered in Nazi concentration camps there, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka. Jews in Germany, Italy, Iraq, Syria, Morocco, the Soviet Union, and dozens of other countries met similar fates.
Antisemitism, both popular and institutional, has forced Jews from their homes throughout history, leading them on a constant quest for safer lands. America became such a refuge for Jews during the first half of the 19th century when many started immigrating here en masse to flee persecution. Though Jews faced discrimination here for decades, since the civil rights movement of the 1960s, they have enjoyed relative tolerance in American society, taking active roles in politics, culture, and the economy and freely practicing their religion. But the vandalism of the posters is proof that Americans and particularly American students–like those at GW–have been infected with antisemitism, though the vandalizers try to take cover under the guise that they are advocating for Palestinian lives.
To rip the face off a picture of kidnapped two-year-old Aviv Asher is not to assert that Gazan children deserve our sympathy–it is to assert that Aviv’s life is unimportant precisely because she is a Jew. To celebrate the imprisonment of 87-year-old Holocaust survivor Ruth Haran is not to show that the Palestinian plight is real and urgent, it is to say that you’re disappointed Hitler didn’t get the job done with Ruth when she was young.
Some posters around the country have been replaced with ones that read ‘OCCUPIER’ instead of ‘KIDNAPPED’. How can barely conscious babies like nine-month-old Kfir Bibas be complicit in occupation? Is 83-year-old grandmother Yocheved Lifshitz who helped shuttle sick Gazans to Israel for medical treatment an anti-Palestinian occupier? If you’re comfortable with these people being tortured and forgotten, it’s because you don’t care how old they are, who they are, or what they have done, you just care that they are Jewish and in Israel. Scapegoating Jews for the world’s ills and persecuting them on this basis is not a new phenomenon; Jews were blamed for killing Christ, the Bubonic plague, Germany’s economic ills in the 1900s, 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, the Middle East’s political instability, and more. Erasing the kidnapped victims’ identities by claiming they somehow deserved what happened to them is yet another antisemitic act of scapegoating.
Some posters at my school have been replaced with ones reading ‘MURDERED by Israel’ with pictures of Palestinian victims of the war. My heart aches for the innocent Palestinians whose lives have been lost in the crossfire, but their deaths do not invalidate the death or suffering of Jewish victims. We can mourn innocent Palestinian lives in the same way we mourn Jewish ones– that is if we’ve not accepted the premise that Jewish lives don’t matter.
One need not look far to see how pure antisemitism is being expressed by the same people who believe that those kidnapped do not deserve our concern. At a pro-Hamas rally in New Zealand, hundreds of people chanted “kill the Jews” and “gas the Jews.” Jewish students at Cornell University were forced to hide in their rooms following threats online to “rape the Jews” and “shoot up” the kosher dining hall. An Israeli student was beaten with a stick outside Columbia University’s main library. At Drexel University, an attacker attempted to light a Jewish student’s dorm on fire. If Americans feel comfortable abandoning innocent Jewish lives in Israel, they will soon feel comfortable doing the same to Jewish lives in the US.
If the threat to Jewish life is not compelling enough, which I suspect it won’t be for many, know that Jews are just the canary in the coal mine. History has repeatedly shown that a society consumed by antisemitism is on a path towards darkness. Nazi Germany, Europe before the Dark Ages, and the Soviet Union before its collapse are just a few of many examples.
My plea to everyone who has been tearing down posters is this: The next time you see a poster of a kidnapped Jew, consider why it makes you uncomfortable. It will be hard, but you must contend with the fact that you may have fallen prey to the same antisemitic ideology that motivates Hamas.
If students around the country are to uphold higher education’s commitment to critical thinking, deep historical analysis, and truth, we must all scrutinize the validity of our positions. And if America is to remain a safe and tolerant country for all people, we must reject antisemitism and recognize the value of Jewish life.