It’s commonplace nowadays to make the claim that young American Jews, especially on college campuses, are becoming steadily more alienated from Israel and Zionism, and steadily more sympathetic toward their enemies. If Israel and Zionism continue on their current path, it is claimed, we risk the creation of a new generation of Jews who are actively anti-Israel and anti-Zionist, with potentially grave consequences.
One cannot deny the existence of Jews who are anti-Zionist or even enablers of antisemitism. They have always existed and always will. Whether the wind is at their backs, however, is a different question. My suspicion is that it is not, though I may be biased by mostly having contact with a self-selecting group of young Jews who are either quite friendly to Israel or passionately attached to it. Nonetheless, the alienated group does exist, and it is worth asking why.
There are, of course, true believers among them, as there are in every group, and their outsize visibility is not a surprise. Jews who hate the Jews have always been enormously valuable to non-Jews who do the same, and their usefulness as both a weapon and a shield is invaluable. But there is something else at work, though it is not what their advocates would like to think it is.
It is an undeniable truth that to support Israel today in the institutions where young Jews come of age — mainly on college campuses — increasingly requires an element of risk. To be out of the closet as a Zionist, or even simply a Jew who happens to think the existence of Israel is, on the whole, a good thing, is to constantly face the danger of ostracization, intimidation and violence, not to mention having your freedoms of speech and assembly routinely violated. And for the most part, the adults who ought to know better — whether academics or administrators — do more or less nothing about it, or they blame the Jews for it.
Moreover, the idea that this is only an issue of anti-Zionism — which is illegitimate enough — but not antisemitism, is rendered absurd by the actions of the anti-Zionists themselves. One does not do things like compare Jews to Nazis, hold protests and divestment votes on Jewish holidays, organize anti-Israel events on Holocaust Memorial Day, and foment conspiracy theories about Jewish power over the American government if one is not antisemitic. To claim otherwise is to claim that antisemitism doesn’t exist.
The question this raises is how all of it happened. What has created a systemic antisemitism in institutions of higher education that targets any Jew who does not tow the anti-Zionist line?
The answer is a historical one, and it is the result of a very conscious movement. For decades, antisemitism has been on a Long March Through the Institutions.
The Long March Through the Institutions has been a fairly simple, even simple-minded, idea ever since the German communist thinker Rudi Dutschke coined the phrase in the late 1960s. Realizing that they had, at least for the most part, failed to spark a political and economic revolution through open street protests and activism, some of the New Left revolutionaries of the 1960s and ‘70s adopted a slower but in some ways more determined path. By entering the very institutions they wanted to smash, while retaining and disseminating their revolutionary ideology, they could lay the groundwork for a different kind of revolution — it wouldn’t require guns, bombs, and barricades, because the institutions of society would already have accepted its legitimacy. The institutions would fall because they had been persuaded that they deserved to fall, and that would be the revolution.
This was in no way a conspiracy, because a conspiracy, by definition, is secret. The Long Marchers have always been quite open about their intentions. They didn’t succeed everywhere they tried, however. In America, in fact, they mostly failed. They made inroads into state and federal government bureaucracy, and a bit more in the media, but had little effect on electoral politics and none on institutions like the military or law enforcement. But one place they definitely did succeed, perhaps because they worked the hardest at it, was the educational system, especially college and university campuses. There, the Long March is over, and the Long Marchers won. A radical pedagogy now rules the American university, and has become even more hegemonically powerful in recent years with the imposition of political correctness, cancel culture, and the silencing or purging of dissident voices.
The Long Marchers brought many bad things with them into the institutions they conquered, but one of them was unquestionably antisemitism. This was mostly due to their origins on the New Left, which tended to hate the Jews and Zionism almost from the beginning. The truth was that, despite the participation of a large number of Jews, some of them leaders of the movement, the New Left couldn’t have been philosemitic even if it had wanted too. Mainly because everyone it looked up to and admired hated the Jews. The Soviet Union hated the Jews and Zionism, the fetishized Third World hated the Jews and Zionism, and the Old Left factions that gave birth to the New mostly hated the Jews and Zionism as well. Antisemitism and anti-Zionism weren’t monolithic in the movement, to be sure, but they were hegemonic, and the Long Marchers acted accordingly.
In the American universities today, the results are clear. Jews and Zionism have been turned into a concept, an idea, a totem, something quite divorced from our real, lived experience. To the Long Marchers — and they teach their heirs accordingly — the Jews are unfathomably rich, painfully white, and wield immense political power. In other words, something like a reactionary force — manifested in its most egregious form by Zionism. In the Manichean worldview of the Long Marchers, wealth, whiteness, and political power — and certainly any reactionary force — are a manifestation of metaphysical evil. And to see the Jews as a metaphysical evil is something like the essence of antisemitism.
This antisemitism was once, perhaps, an annoyance that could be swept under the rug with claims of academic freedom and diversity. It can’t be anymore. It has become pervasive, institutionalized, and systemic. And it is enforced by brutal means — both physical and psychological. The violence is bold and public, as it is intended to be, and could not possibly be sustained without the open collaboration of students, faculty, and administration. It has become something like a pogrom in slow motion — a pogrom of the mind, perhaps, but a pogrom nonetheless.
Jews have reacted to this in ways that are hardly unprecedented: surrender, apathy or defiance. In other words, they internalize the institutional antisemitism and become activists on its behalf, as have groups like Jewish Voice for Peace. Or they keep their heads down and try to go on with their lives. Or they become activists on behalf of the Jewish people and Zionism, despite the high cost of doing so.
I do not want to demean any one of these groups. We should admire, encourage and support the defiant ones, and reach out to the apathetic ones, but we should not demonize those who surrender. Most of them are young, impressionable, unsure of themselves and their identity, and most importantly vastly outnumbered by forces far more powerful than they are. And those forces are happy to engage in the most debased and sadistic exploitation of that power.
In many ways, the fault is our own. For decades, the Jewish community and Jewish leadership allowed the poison to fester, accepted the excuses of academic freedom and diversity, and left Jewish students to their own devices, which were very few. Until recently, when several organizations have thankfully emerged to address the problem, little attention was being paid to the horrors committed by the Long Marchers or the suffering of their Jewish victims. It was we who abandoned those Jews, and it is we who must make amends for it. They were left to face the beast alone, and they can hardly be blamed for sometimes choosing to feed it rather than fight it.
Ironically, however, because of the very emotional and physical violence the Long Marchers have used, the mere fact that some Jews have surrendered to antisemitism and anti-Zionism says absolutely nothing about the Jews or Zionism. This is because we do not and cannot know what these Jews really think, or what they would think if they were not subjected to the Long Marchers’ oppression and violence. What a person says under torture cannot be trusted, and what a person thinks while being abused is equally malleable. Should we succeed in rolling back the Long March and providing young Jews the freedom to make up their own minds without psychological coercion or physical violence, we would likely be pleasantly surprised. The truth is, we shouldn’t be worrying about the alienation of young Jews. We should be worrying about how to help them fight for that freedom they so desperately need.
Benjamin Kerstein is a columnist and Israel correspondent for The Algemeiner.
Originally published at the Algemeiner.