Last night, a small cluster of Jewish students barricaded themselves in the library of Cooper Union, while a crowd outside banged on the doors chanting: “Free Palestine.”
Scenes like this have become familiar on college campuses. Radical activists have spent years devising strategies to drown out and, in some cases, physically threaten undesirable voices. In March 2017, masked activists at Middlebury College mobbed the social scientist Charles Murray, chasing him and others into a car. They shoved and pulled the hair of the faculty moderator for the event (who said that she disagreed with Murray about many issues). These tactics of revolutionary exception are now being used to target Jewish people on campuses and in cities across the United States.
The ugly displays of anti-Semitism that have erupted across the United States over the past month are at once the extension of the racial “reckoning” of the summer of 2020 and a profound challenge to the legitimacy of this supposed reckoning. One of the reckoning’s premises was that the urgency of injustice demanded the suspension of civic order and the norms of a liberal society. Rioters were thus permitted to torch public buildings, loot businesses, and tear down statues of “problematic” figures from the past. When the New York Times ran an op-ed by Arkansas senator Tom Cotton calling for the military to help put down violent riots, the newsroom dissolved into a struggle session that ended in the departure of multiple staffers, including editorial page editor James Bennet. In workplaces across the United States at that time, an inopportune comment on Zoom could mean defenestration. For defenders of the reckoning, confronting the history of racism demanded such consequences.
Despite years of warnings about the importance of democratic norms and liberal democracy, the American establishment mostly blessed these efforts. Foundations poured hundreds of millions of dollars into identity-politics activist groups. Major public institutions adopted the creed of the reckoning. Even mild criticisms of ideological purges—such as the Harper’s “Letter on Justice and Open Debate”—were treated as reactionary screeds. Terrified of right-populism, part of the political establishment might have seen the reckoning as a weapon to be used against Donald Trump-supporting “deplorables”; or maybe anti-Trump coalitional politics simply demanded silence in the face of these excesses.
Now the promissory note of the reckoning has come due. In habituating people to the idea that righteousness justifies the abrogation of individual dignity and dismissal of political pluralism, the reckoning taught lessons deeply at odds with the functioning of American democracy.
It grows ever clearer that the hunt for “microaggressions” and the impulse to expunge America’s historical figures might not be simply the products of refined sensitivity or some naive excess of care. Instead, the yearning for extraordinary measures to confront “injustice” can speak to darker impulses—to dominate, to humiliate, and to hurt.
The true cost of these tactics has become more explicit. In cities across the world, activists rip down pictures of people, including children, taken hostage by Hamas. Such actions send clear message of animosity: the sufferings of Jewish hostages should be erased. No monuments for the wrong people has become a chic sentiment in elite American spaces. Now that logic is being chillingly applied to those slain, maimed, and abducted by Hamas.
Activists have used the totem of “settler colonialism” to try to delegitimize the founding of the United States, and that same rhetorical figure has been put into service to dismiss Israeli—and Jewish—life. A Cornell professor called the Hamas attacks “exhilarating.” A late-night Manhattan march of masked protesters proclaimed, “there is only one solution—intifada revolution” (a phrase eerily reminiscent of Hitler’s “final solution”). On American college campuses, activists project on the side of buildings slogans like “glory to our martyrs” and “free Palestine from the river to the sea” (calling for the elimination of Israel). Others hold signs asking to “keep the world clean” that show the Star of David in a trash can.
The 2020 racial reckoning made many fundamental errors. The project of prioritizing ethnic-identity categories falls short of the reality of American mixedness, as well as the demands of pluralist democracy. Attempts to discredit the founding of the United States erode the resources of a broader and more fluid civic belonging; it’s hard to appeal to some common ground as fellow citizens if the United States is seen as illegitimate from its inception. To excuse or celebrate mob violence (either because the mob’s cause is “just” or because it has the “right” opponents) can unleash atavistic sentiments. Mass alienation and civic polarization lead not to inclusion but to an environment in which minorities are easily targeted.
Confronting these challenges demands a new seriousness from policymakers and participants in the public square. Civic order and personal liberties should not be seen as mere constructs for the powerful or a system of benefits for the privileged. Instead, they help protect the vulnerable and provide a check on darker iterations of the will to power. That elite spaces in the United States have been particularly vulnerable to the claims of a revolutionary reckoning makes the task of institutional renewal even more essential. In recent years, policymakers have enshrined the principles of the reckoning—from identity politics to decolonization studies—in public schools across the United States. For many observers, the current unrest should prompt a fast rethinking of this agenda.
That the reckoning had some appeal in the summer of 2020 is perhaps understandable. The enforced isolation and strange atmosphere of the pandemic brought an edge to everything. Race is one of the most charged topics in American life, and the challenges of slavery’s legacy are real. But the reckoning did not meet the test of civic integration—in fact, it assailed the resources for social renewal and public trust. Having seen the fruits of that revolutionary labor—burnt buildings, a broken public square, and now Jewish students in hiding—the American people should recover a politics that affirms their broader civic heritage and defends inherited freedoms.
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