The Impact of Gaza at Home: A New Era of McCarthyism

May 14, 2024 White Papers

The present political landscape in the United States, with student protestors advocating for Palestinian human rights labeled as pro-Hamas, anti-Israel, and anti-Semitic undeniably mirrors the notorious era of McCarthyism that once gripped America. As the Israeli-Palestinian conflict continues to gain international attention, Americans who express concern over human rights violations of Palestinians in the occupied territories find themselves facing tactics of intimidation, silencing, police brutality, and incarceration, particularly on college campuses. 

During the era of McCarthyism, which lasted from the late 1940s to the late 1950s, the United States was entranced by a wave of anti-communist hysteria, otherwise known as the “red scare.” Senator Joseph McCarthy, a right-wing Republican, led an aggressive campaign of moral panic to root out alleged communists and their sympathizers from various sectors of society, including government agencies and academia, where attacks on academic freedom became a common trend similar to what we see in America after Israel declared war on Gaza October 7th, 2023. 

At the height of the McCarthyist Era, college students were a primary target of the accusations and investigations that characterized this dark period in American history. McCarthy and his allies believed that universities and colleges were hotbeds of communist indoctrination, where young minds were being corrupted and radicalized. As a result, many students and their teachers were scrutinized and faced severe consequences for their political beliefs or associations. Accusations against faculty often relied on flimsy evidence or even spurious accusations. Professors who expressed progressive or left-leaning views were targeted, and their students were presumed guilty by association. Many professors were called before congressional committees, where they were interrogated about their political beliefs, associations, and activities. For example, faculty from Sarah Lawrence College were accused of communist affiliations and called before the Senate Subcommittee.

We see chillingly similar patterns today on college campuses, particularly those with large Muslim and Arab student populations. In December 2023, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce held a hearing where the presidents of Harvard University, the University of Pennsylvania, and MIT faced barbed questions about how their institutions were combatting antisemitism, ensuring campus safety, and protecting free speech amidst pro-Palestinian student advocacy. The aftermath resulted in ​​the resignation of University of Pennsylvania President Liz Magill, followed shortly thereafter by Harvard President Claudine Gay. At the second House Education Committee hearing in April 2024, Columbia University President Nemat Shafik was in the committee’s crosshairs. While she seemed to peddle to Committee Members, criticism of how she responded at the hearing created turmoil on campus. Fear and paranoia permeate the academic environment, stifling free speech and critical thinking about the situation in Palestine and America’s role in supporting Israel amid their ongoing genocide in Gaza. 

In the realm of defending Palestinian human rights, accusations of anti-semitism and ties to terrorism are casting a long and foreboding shadow over those who seek to speak out against Israeli government actions. The very individuals and student groups at the forefront of organizing events, protests, or discussions criticizing the Israeli government’s violations of Palestinian human rights find themselves unfairly labeled as antisemitic or, shockingly, as terrorist sympathizers.

One of the most prominent accusers is the Anti-Defamation League (ADL), a well-funded non-governmental organization with a mission to combat global antisemitism. However, recent actions by the ADL raise concerns about their commitment to civil liberties. Pro-Palestine student groups have been accused of providing “material support for foreign terrorist organizations,” a charge that not only stifles free speech but also places these individuals under the ominous shadow of an investigation into potential links with terrorism.

MPAC recently held a panel discussion on the impact of the war on Gaza at home, particularly on college campuses where there have been threats to call the National Guard on pro-Palestinian student advocates are made to crack down on critical voices. Panelist Tariq Habash, a political appointee and policy advisor in the Department of Education’s Office of Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development who resigned from the administration due to its policy on Gaza and unrestricted support for Israel’s aggression against Palestinians stated, 

“When organizations like the ADL try and conflate student activism against a plausible genocide when you conflate solidarity with Palestinian civilians who are under an aggressive assault right now when you conflate a manufactured famine with real anti-semitism and hatred against the Jewish people. It doesn’t make people Jewish people more safe, it makes them less safe because now people doubt the legitimacy of anti-semitism.” 

The use of accusations related to anti-semitism and terrorism has become a powerful tool to suppress voices critical of Israel’s policies. Civil liberties, meant to protect individuals from unwarranted government intrusion, become more vulnerable when investigations are framed within the context of alleged support for foreign terrorist organizations. This sets a dangerous precedent where individuals advocating for Palestinian rights can find themselves targeted solely for their political beliefs, contributing to a climate of fear and self-censorship.

The glaring double standard in how domestic terrorism is addressed versus accusations of supporting foreign terrorist organizations is deeply troubling. While a white supremacist operating within the realm of domestic terrorism faces little interference from federal investigators due to policy nuances, those supporting Palestine, particularly students taking part in nationwide University encampments are often subjected to threatening academic consequences and violence merely for their political stance. We see this occurring with students and professors at Columbia University, the University of California, Los Angeles, the University of Southern California, Harvard University, and many more academic institutes across the nation. According to The Associated Press (AP), at least 2,000 people have been arrested at various pro-Palestinian protests since April 18. Pro- Pro-Palestinian student protestors have faced aggression from both their administration and local authorities with some at the Arizona State University (ASU) even having their hijabs pulled off by police. On the same note, outsider, pro-Israeli agitators violently attacked students at pro-Palestinian encampments at UCLA while the LAPD failed to protect them.  This asymmetry in approach not only infringes upon the right to dissent but also raises questions about the fairness and impartiality of our legal system.

Accusations of supporting terrorism should not be wielded as a blunt instrument to stifle legitimate criticism of government policies. In a democratic society, individuals and groups must be allowed to express their political views without the fear of being labeled as terrorists. Such accusations not only tarnish reputations but also contribute to a climate where activism for Palestinian human rights is unfairly equated with criminal activity.

It is essential to safeguard the principles of free speech and civil liberties, even when engaging in politically sensitive topics. Accusations of terrorism should be based on concrete evidence, not wielded as a tool to suppress dissent and discourage those who champion justice and an end to genocide for the Palestinian people. As a society, we must reflect on the implications of such accusations, ensuring that the pursuit of justice and human rights is not overshadowed by attempts to silence those who dare to speak out.

Furthermore, accusations against these college students advocating for Palestinian human rights often rely on misrepresentation of their views, the conflation of criticism of Israeli policies with antisemitism, or ties to terrorism. They are subjected to harassment, threats, and even disciplinary actions by university administrations, ultimately impacting their careers and prospects. The mere accusation of links to terrorism or foreign terrorist organizations has long-lasting and severe implications that are particularly damning for Muslim and Arab Americans who already bear the weight of suspicion in the post-9/11 era. 

These students face immense backlash and are often subjected to smear campaigns, doxxing, and character assassinations. However, despite the challenges and risks, many college and university students continue to advocate for Palestinian human rights. They have organized educational events, held peaceful protests, and sit-ins, and engaged in dialogue with their administrations to raise awareness about the plight of Palestinians, the urgency to divest from Israel, and the need for a just and peaceful resolution to the conflict. Their determination and resilience in the face of adversity are crucial in challenging the prevailing narrative and promoting a more nuanced understanding of Palestine.

Now more than ever, the legacy of McCarthyism and the accusations against college students serve as a reminder of the importance of safeguarding civil liberties, protecting freedom of speech, and resisting the temptation to scapegoat individuals based on their political and religious beliefs. It is a cautionary tale of the dangers of unchecked power and the need for constant vigilance to protect democratic values.

The legacy of McCarthyism and the accusations against college students advocating for Palestinian human rights underscores the ongoing struggle for justice, equality, and the protection of civil liberties. It serves as a reminder that fighting for human rights requires constant vigilance and a commitment to challenging oppressive systems and narratives.

MPAC Calls on the U.S. government to:

  • Uphold academic integrity and freedom in American educational institutions, particularly in times of war and conflict by university and college administrations as well as local police authorities accountable for their actions. 
  • Hold those in the Senate and Congress accountable for the mischaracterizations and vilification of those advocating for pro-Palestinian human rights. 
  • Thoroughly review and halt any bills used to target those that criticize the Israeli government and conflate criticism of the government of Israel with anti-semitism.

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