I am a Jewish, Zionist student at Brown University. For being so, I have been called a pig, a genocide supporter, and filth. I am not alone.
Over the past three months, the topic of Israel has spurred a political realignment on college campuses. Progressives who market themselves as fighting oppression have taken on the anti-Zionist cause with renewed vigor. They have painted Zionism as an alt-right, white supremacist, settler-colonial ideology that spares no regard for Palestinian lives.
This explains why, just days after Oct. 7, Brown’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine publicly held “the Israeli regime and its allies unequivocally responsible for all suffering and loss of life, Palestinian or Israeli.” That statement has now been cosigned by 50 registered campus organizations. Among them are Brown’s Young Democratic Socialists of America, the Black Student Union, the Latinx Student Union, Natives at Brown, and Students for Educational Equity. In short, my campus’s progressive bloc. According to these groups, Oct. 7 was not a horrific terror attack: rather, it was a deserved consequence of Israel’s existence.
Why is this perversion of reality so infectious? The answer is intricately tied to race. At its founding, the United States declared it to be “self-evident that all men are created equal,” at the same time as it self-evidently oppressed all non-male, non-white inhabitants. Over the years, we reckoned with this history by outlawing legal discrimination. And yet, because disparate racial outcomes persisted, we correctly concluded that some level of prejudice remained. The problem is that we catastrophically overextended this analysis. According to modern progressivism, or identity politics, all racial disparities are attributable to racial prejudice.
Successful groups – often white people – are forever the purveyors of racial oppression, while unsuccessful groups – often people of color – are destined to remain its victims.
And so, a race-based oppressor/oppressed dichotomy has materialized.
This dichotomy is poisonous. When we view immutable characteristics as determinants of societal outcomes, we effectively reinstate racism itself. To make matters worse, many Americans are applying this insidious perspective to the rest of the world. Specifically, they are flattening the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into the rubric of the oppressor/oppressed system.
The rhetoric is as follows: Israel is incredibly successful. Israel is the Jewish state. Jews are incredibly successful. Jews are white Europeans (they’re not). Thus, Israel is a colonial oppressor. By contrast, Palestinians are indigenous people of color suffering under a colonial enterprise. Oct. 7 therefore becomes a justified act of resistance by an oppressed minority against an oppressive white regime.
This thought process has taken the progressive world by storm. The national chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine called the Oct. 7 attack “a historic win for the Palestinian resistance.” Chicago’s Black Lives Matter chapter tweeted a picture of a Hamas paraglider with the words: “I stand with Palestine.” A recent Harvard/Harris poll found that 60 percent of 18- to 24-year-old Americans believe that Oct. 7 “can be justified by the grievances of Palestinians.”
Other striking revelations from the poll are as follows: 79 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds support the ideology that “white people are oppressors.” When asked whether “Jews as a class are oppressors and should be treated as oppressors,” 67 percent of that same category said yes.
For young leftists, identity politics and radical anti-Zionism are prerequisites for progressivism. And so, unless Jews denounce their connection to Israel and prostrate themselves as privileged white oppressors, the progressive movement will leave them behind.
This approach has unnerved the Jewish world. For the first time in decades, many Jews are questioning their allegiance to the Democratic Party. Other more staunchly progressive Jews are attempting to force their way back into the leftist paradigm, in part by pressuring Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) departments at colleges and universities to include Jews amongst the oppressed.
This latter tactic is a mistake. DEI as a movement rests on the very same oppressor/oppressed dichotomy that sparked today’s antisemitism. Rather than treating individuals as individuals, it partitions the world into an amalgamation of group identities. Victim identities are worthy of protection, while successful identities are not. Never mind the fact that DEI historically has failed to respond to antisemitism in the way it responds to prejudice against other minority groups. No one, whether Republican or Democrat, Jew or non-Jew, should try to fit into a system built on discrediting individual effort and worth.
So, what do we do? It is true that antisemitism is rising at a terrifying rate. But to cite this reality in order to portray Jews as oppressed victims will fail. More importantly, it will further ingrain the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy by treating disadvantage as a precondition for DEI protection.
Instead, Jews must proceed with strength. When true instances of violence and directed harassment occur, we must demand discipline. But more often, our opponents’ preferred tools are hateful words and ideas. In these cases, we must turn not to censorship, but to more of our own speech. We must write articles, host teach-ins, and ask questions. We must not shut down anti-Zionist events, but rather attend them, and in doing so arm ourselves with the intellectual tools to fight back.
This is a turning point. Young people’s inexplicable justification of Oct. 7 tests the validity of DEI like never before. We must take advantage of this moment to dismantle DEI, and with it the oppressor/oppressed dichotomy. Success should be celebrated rather than maligned. Group identity should be a source of pride and comfort, not a crude determinant of whether one should receive hostility or pity. Individuals deserve equality not because of the color of their skin, but because they were “created equal.” This idea began in 1776 as an unfulfilled aspiration. Nearly 250 years later, it is well past time to fulfill it.
Jillian Lederman is a senior at Brown University studying political science and economics and a research assistant at Heterodox Academy, a nonprofit working to counteract what they see as a lack of viewpoint diversity on college campuses.