Israel, US campuses, and the fragility of the coloniser

No-one in their right mind turns to the United States for moral leadership.

Even so, the degradation of US public culture over recent weeks has been something to behold.

The Biden administration is fully participating in Israel’s genocide in Gaza, sending every weapon Israel asks for and deploying military force to deter other countries from coming to the aid of the Palestinians.

Instead of denouncing the genocide actually taking place against the Palestinians, America’s liberal establishment has instead focused its efforts on claiming that students speaking out against Israel’s brutality are calling for the genocide of Jews, and then denouncing this figment of its own imagination.

This deranged process came to a head recently with US news dominated by reports that antisemitism is surging in universities. The New York Times, supposedly the voice of liberal good sense and objectivity, reported that “antisemitic speech has skyrocketed on college campuses across the country.”

No serious evidence is given or needed; readers are expected to know that calling for Palestinian rights is essentially antisemitic.

In congress, the presidents of Harvard, UPenn and MIT were summonedto answer accusations that they have failed to restrain their students.

Elise Stefanik, a New York Republican, asked whether students would be disciplined for using the phrase “from the river to the sea” or saying “intifada,” which she characterised as a call “to commit genocide against the Jewish people in Israel and globally.”

The presidents answered that they found the phrases abhorrent but their use would only be a disciplinary matter in certain contexts.

The video of the exchange went viral and cited as proof that universityleaders were failing to protect Jewish students. Stefanik is a leading figure on the far-right and endorsed Donald Trump’s lie that the 2020 election was stolen.

But this week she was described by the New York Times as “the voice of reason in the hearing” and praised by leading lights of liberal America.

People who think they know all about the dangers of McCarthyism are promoting a new McCarthyism.

Facing universal condemnation, UPenn president Elizabeth Magill resigned a few days later. She had already been attacked before 7 October for allowing the Palestine Writes literature festival to take place on Penn’s campus.

For her detractors, it was not enough that she blocked musician Roger Waters from attending the festival in person or that after the event she declared: “I know how painful the presence of these speakers on Penn’s campus was for the Jewish community.”

Mainstays of liberal America are now even calling for the group Students for Justice in Palestine to be considered a material supporter of terrorism. If this proposal were taken up, young people engaging in peaceful protest activity could be prosecuted under a federal anti-terrorism statute.

The effect of all this is to produce not just outrage but a profound sense of mental disarray. Palestinians are being slaughtered on an industrial scale in a US-sponsored genocide, but the only person shamed into resigning is a university president who did not do enough to censor Palestinians.

So appallingly absurd are the convolutions of US public life that the mind cannot quite accept the reality of it. It is as if we are being gaslit by the news.

Can we make sense of this madness? To do so, we might begin by noting that the demands for censorship on campuses are a response to a cultural shift taking place among young Americans in their attitudes to Israel and Palestine.

Most under-35s in the US oppose Israel’s war on Gaza. And large numbers of students have become active in groups like Students for Justice for Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace. Recently, Redveil, a popular US rapper, led thousands of his fans in a chant of “Free Palestine” at a concert.

This is unprecedented. For the first time Israel has lost legitimacy among young people in the US. Zionists are losing the argument. With their usual propaganda no longer effective, they have turned to the blunt imposition of power, censoring and penalising any expression of support for Palestinian freedom.

But there is something more at play than conscious calculation by organised Zionists. To be a coloniser is to live in a state of terror in relation to the colonised. For all their talk of defending the virtues of Western civilization, on some level Zionists suspect that the Israel they have created is nothing but a garrison, its existence dependent on overwhelming force.

And their great fear is that the violence they inflict on the colonised will be directed back at them. This terror of retaliation runs through the history of European colonialism. The whites of apartheid South Africa, for example, always lived in fear of the genocide they were sure would be inflicted on them should white rule come to an end.

The coloniser cannot confront this terror directly, for to do so would mean acknowledging the barbarism of the colonial system. Instead, it is carefully repressed. But repressed fears have a habit of resurfacing in irrational ways.

This is why when the colonised speak out, colonisers only hear violent threats to their own lives. The merest assertion of opposition to the colonial project becomes, in the colonisers’ mind, a monstrous threat of annihilation.

To gather at a literature festival becomes an act of violence. To say the word “intifada” is genocidal. To wear a keffiyeh is to threaten the foundations of civilization. This is the fragility of the coloniser. 

To the extent that the US supports Israel’s colonialism, it partakes of this pathology of the colonising mind. And this is, in any case, familiar ground for the US to tread, with its own history of settler colonialism and genocidal wars – including the War on Terror in this century. We are also in the territory of the law enforcement officer who says they needed to use lethal force to “defend” themselves against an unarmed Black teenager.

We also know that the coloniser’s fragility expresses itself as racism. When every expression of Palestinian identity becomes seen as nothing but violence, even when the Palestinians themselves are being eliminated, it means that they are being turned into demons.

It is a demonization that leads to incidents like the shooting of three students in Vermont – apparently their wearing keffiyehs was what led the shooter to attack them – and the murder of a 6-year-old child in Plainfield, Illinois.

But far too many liberals and Leftists fail to see this. They think the core problem of racism is not a structural relationship of power but bad individuals who have failed to examine their unconscious biases.

When that is coupled with a superficial politics of diversity that implies accepting self-appointed representatives as the authentic voices of racial groups, it is enough for Zionists to say Jews have hurt feelings for the question of racism to be settled: antisemitism is the problem.

The fragility of the coloniser is not the product of a rational mind. But it does contain within it a truth: that people who treat others as less than human cannot be surprised when that treatment is returned in kind.

Colonialism is a violent process that always carries the risk of counter-violence. When resistance and retaliation turn ugly, as they did on 7 October, colonisers fill the airwaves with moral condemnation.

But it is colonialism that creates the conditions within which violence comes to be seen as the only answer. And if you have not been actively involved in working to dismantle the colonial system, you cannot condemn without hypocrisy acts of violence against the colonisers.

This article first appeared on the New Arab website.

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