Protesters hold placards as they sit outside of a campus...

Protesters hold placards as they sit outside of a campus building during the "Shut it Down for Palestine" demonstration at Bucknell University. The demonstrators called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, cutting aid to Israel, and lifting the siege on Gaza.

(Photo by Paul Weaver/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Averting Historical Amnesia: How to Respond to the Anti-Genocide Protests

When do we recognize that violence destroys those who perpetrate it as much as those on the receiving end of violence?

Most Americans do not suffer from historical amnesia. The violent and repressive responses we are witnessing to antiwar college protesters are reminiscent of previous chapters of violence in America’s history. The American establishment has a long history of responding to calls for political change with violence and repression.

If our U.S. elected officials think we have forgotten what their predecessors did to Blacks, Jews, Japanese and other minorities in the country, we have not forgotten. We have not forgotten how people spat on a six-year-old black girl, Ruby Bridges, unleashing their rage, permanently withdrawing their kids from William Frantz Elementary or refusing to allow their kids to sit in a classroom with her for an entire year, simply because of her God-gifted darker skin color.

We have not forgotten how the American establishment treated black Americans when they simply asked to be treated like human beings in their own country. We have not forgotten how the American establishment unleashed dogs, billy clubs, whips, and tear gas on peaceful black protesters and their allies in Selma, Alabama in 1965, when they simply demanded their legal right to vote.

We have not forgotten how the University of Alabama suspended its first black student, Autherine Lucy, when a mob of white students physically assaulted her with rotten eggs, gravel, and pellets, while shouting “Lynch the ni**er!” and “Keep Bama white!” Citing safety concerns, the university first suspended her and then expelled her when she attempted to legally contest the suspension.

Irrespective of their party affiliations, the response of many elected officials to antiwar college protesters today is characteristic of a historical pattern of bending to the political will of those with power and wealth, even if it means brutally repressing American citizens for demanding that black and brown bodies be treated like human beings. These brutal responses conform to historical precedent; they are a manifestation of the way people of privilege behave when they are asked to share their privilege with others.

Words carry power, the power of inciting violence against innocent American citizens. The passing of time does not diminish the gravity and racism of the words of Alabama’s Governor, George Wallace, who infamously stated in his 1963 inaugural address, "In the name of the greatest people that have ever trod this earth, I draw a line in the dust and toss the gauntlet before the feet of tyranny, and I say, segregation now, segregation tomorrow and segregation forever." In the days following Wallace’s speech, which was broadcast on all major news networks that day, the police began to beat down on black protesters and people began to night-ride and burn crosses.

The rhetoric of dehumanization and othering to justify domestic and foreign policies is endemic to U.S. history. During the height of the Holocaust, U.S. government officials played on anti-Jewish stereotypes to deny thousands of German Jews refuge into the United States. By hyper-focusing on one exceptional case, that of a German spy disguised as an asylum seeker to the U.S., government officials falsely characterized Jewish asylum seekers as a potential threat to national security. Although the case of 28-year Herbert Karl Friedrich Bahr was an exception, government officials, from the FBI and State Department to President Franklin Roosevelt, exploited this case to amplify existing fears and stereotypes of the Jewish people as a fifth column. At a press conference, President Roosevelt stated, “It is rather a horrible story, but in some of the other countries that refugees out of Germany have gone to, especially Jewish refugees, they found a number of definitely proven spies.”

The old-age tactic of playing on Americans’ fears and xenophobia continues today. Repeating an old playbook, U.S. officials are resorting to fear tactics to bypass Americans’ moral conscience on the Israel-Gaza war. On April 23, 2024, twenty-four male Republican Senators and three female Republican Senators released a letter that defamed and mischaracterized student protests as antisemitic and pro-Hamas. Instead of addressing antiwar protesters’ concerns about the use of American tax dollars to support a war that has resulted in the deaths of 34,000 people and undermined America’s standing in the world, elected officials have defamed and smeared antiwar college students as a dangerous fifth column, a security threat who warrant “deportation” for supporting terrorists. Despite the diverse religious and ethnic makeup of the antiwar protesters, which include Jewish students and professors, and despite the protesters’ repeated calls for an end to war and violence, the Senators’ provocations have incited real violence on the bodies of peaceful, American college students.

In the last few weeks, at Emory, UT, NYU, Columbia, OSU, USC, UNC, UCLA and other universities, we have seen state troopers and police savagely unleash violence on peaceful human beings simply for asking that Palestinians stop being murdered in the thousands. We have witnessed police officers body-slam professors, students and even journalists to the ground, using tear gas, and arresting students for “trespassing” on their own college campuses. At UCLA, police stood by and watched while pro-Israeli counter-protestors assaulted antiwar protesters, beating some with metal poles and launching fireworks, resulting in broken ribs, concussions, and other injuries. Worse, police fired rubber bullets at some UCLA students, injuring a few, and arresting more than 200 protesters.

In Texas, police and state troopers showed up in riot gear and on horseback and violently repressed a peaceful student demonstration at the University of Texas at Austin, arresting 57 individuals, including a Fox 7 News reporter. At Emory, police officers body slammed a female professor, flipped her upside down and shoved her head onto the cement ground, simply for standing up for students’ right to free speech. At Ohio State University, a sniper aimed a military-grade assault rifle at students from the rooftop of their own college campus. How are snipers on college campuses conducive to making students feel safe?

There is no room for antisemitism or any form of hatred or racism on college campuses. Yet, as one Jewish student at Yale wrote, framing the protests as “supposedly antisemitic pro-Palestine activists” against “Jewish pro-Israel activists” is misleading and inaccurate. These students and professors have repeatedly stated that they are sick and tired of seeing brown Arabs murdered on the screen, picking up their children’s body parts, losing body parts and starving to death. They reject that racist principle that the horrific deaths of 1,200 Israelis justify the deaths of 34,000 Palestinians. They stand for the patriotic and American value that every human being has an equal right to life, security, and freedom, irrespective of where they were born.

After Chicago police violently broke down a student encampment at the University of Chicago, one student protester summarized the purpose of their protests with the following statement, “There are limits to when we continue following orders. When you’re talking about a genocide visited upon a colonized population of 2 million people trapped in a ghetto that is long as a marathon and 6 miles wide, when that ghetto is being systemically starved, slaughtered, every hospital bombed, every university bombed, 70% of homes destroyed, 40,000 people murdered, 15,000 children murdered, the entire population at the brink of starvation, if our government and academic institutions are complicit in this, there comes at a point when we say we aren’t following orders…because there are principles and human lives that matter more than our careers and our futures.”

How can any genuine human being mischaracterize calls for an end to war as antisemitic? Those who frame American students’ call for a cessation of violence in Gaza as antisemites betray a racist logic. Their logic assumes that violence and war are endemic to Judaism or that Jewish people are safer as a collective by continuing the war on Gaza, which is farthest from the truth. Judaism has a long history of standing with the oppressed and marginalized, a reason why many Jews are leading the antiwar protests in the U.S. today.

A historically conscious discourse averts the scapegoating and fearmongering reflected in the GOP’s letter on April 23. Instead, we should ask ourselves as Americans, how do we avoid repeating the mistakes of our predecessors? How do we build upon the successes of those before us, who courageously dismantled structures of oppression and inequality? When do we recognize that violence destroys those who perpetrate it as much as those on the receiving end of violence? Because those who don’t lose their lives or body parts end up losing something even more valuable: their souls.

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