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Opinion: Red herring distracts from Gaza’s death toll

How the Department of Education’s antisemitism investigation is harming pro-Palestinian advocacy.
Image by Dean Tan
The front of the Northrop Mall on Nov. 1, 2022.

University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter and former University Regent Michael Hsu encouraged in December the Department of Education to investigate antisemitism at the University following a statement made by the Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies Department (GWSS).

The GWSS statement condemned all forms of state-sponsored terrorism by the Israeli government in Gaza. The department focused on addressing the University directly, emphasizing the urgent need for economic divestment from the settler state, and supporting student and faculty advocates amid potential backlash. 

Even after explicitly stating that opposition to the illegal settlement was in no way antisemitic, the statement still drew criticism. 

Painter said through condemnation of Israel’s war crimes by faculty members, Jewish students would feel intimidated in their academic institutions. 

“This has to do with the abuse of power and the potential future of abuse if this is not addressed,” Painter said.

The pending investigation isn’t a shock. Similar attacks are occurring at 98 other college campuses across the United States, where an outpouring of support for the Free Palestine movement has been met with allegations of antisemitism. These allegations are not only harmful to pro-Palestinian advocacy — they’re simply not true. 

Supporters of the Israeli government have falsely compared antisemitism to anti-Zionism. Zionism operates on the belief that Israel is solely a Jewish state, viewing the occupation as necessary. This ideology has been used to justify the deaths of 25,000 Palestinians since Oct. 7, not even including those who have died during prior decades of violence. 

However, Zionism and Judaism cannot be compared. The belief that these ideologies are interchangeable characterizes Jewish people as a monolith. As many as one in 10 Jewish people support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement — an important percentage to note when falsely equating the religion with the ideology. Equating the actions of a historically oppressive government with a religious group is even more problematic in the context of a violent occupation.  

Emily Chu, a member of the University’s Students for a Democratic Society, said Painter and Hsu’s claims are weak. Especially given the prevalence of groups such as Jewish Voices for Peace protesting for a free Palestine, it becomes clear that claims of antisemitism are intended to demonize the movement. 

“I see the conflation [of pro-Palestinian advocacy] with antisemitism as a way to create a legal, legitimate basis for the repression of pro-Palestinian voices,” Chu said.

Relentless false accusations of antisemitism intended to discredit pro-Palestinian advocacy force activist groups to defend themselves constantly. Students for Justice in Palestine, a multi-chapter group at the University, released a statement with other Big Ten Schools to reject the mischaracterization of their mission as antisemitic. 

These allegations are stalling the progress these organizations work tirelessly for.

“The pro-Palestinian movement has done so much work to heavily regulate and police their image to appear palatable to the media,” Chu said. “There is a double standard in how our activism is treated compared to pro-Israeli voices when they speak their rhetoric.”

Accusations of antisemitism have fostered a culture of silence and fear for Palestinian activist groups. 

These claims are made to paint advocates negatively, forcing them to backtrack on their activism in self-defense, said Ali Abu-Atieh, board member of Students for Justice in Palestine. The rhetoric used by pro-Palestinian groups isn’t antisemitic. The intention is to villainize these movements through false claims. 

According to Painter, the complaint isn’t intended to target student-led advocacy groups but instead to discourage faculty members from making statements he believes violate Title VI. Title VI prohibits discrimination of individuals on the basis of race, color and origin in programs that receive public funding, such as schools. 

Criticisms of the Israeli government are in no way discriminatory towards Jewish students. False claims of antisemitism on every level have become a means of mass gaslighting to curb Palestinian liberation movements. His complaint only reiterates the harmful, baseless rhetoric that defenders of Israel use to wrongfully justify attacks on both Palestinians and the people who fight for them. 

The belief that antisemitism and the Free Palestine movement are synonymous is a dangerous false equivalence. The Department of Education’s investigation is an example of advocacy being silenced under the guise of curbing hate. 

It goes without saying that violence is unacceptable. But focusing on false claims of antisemitism and mislabeling pro-Palestinian activists as endorsers of violence is disingenuous. 

Although the GWSS department was explicit in its intention to solely criticize the actions of the Israeli government, using antisemitism as a red herring to distract from the unfolding genocide in Gaza is becoming increasingly common. 

Two Edina High School students were suspended for three days after using a pro-Palestinian chant. Columbia University suspended two pro-Palestine student groups for “threatening rhetoric and intimidation” during peaceful demonstrations. A Palestinian student was expelled from a Florida high school after his mother posted pro-Palestine content on social media on the grounds of “hateful and incendiary” speech. These false claims suppress students from exercising their freedom of speech and protest. 

Injustice under a different name is still injustice. Using false accusations of antisemitism to silence pro-Palestinian activists isn’t just problematic — it actively puts their lives at risk. In October, a man attempted to attack peaceful protestors with a box cutter outside the Walker Art Center. He then attempted to get in his car and drive straight through the crowd. Other violent attacks on protestors have occurred throughout the nation.

I applaud the GWSS department for using their platform to condemn the violence unfolding in Gaza. Our educators have one unwavering duty: to educate. 

In a world where condemning the gross human rights violations orchestrated by the Israeli government has somehow become controversial, the department demonstrated courage and integrity. It is imperative the University follows suit and meets the department’s demands to protect its students and faculty.

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  • SLW
    Feb 1, 2024 at 10:04 pm

    And this is why Jewish people feel unsafe on campus: Gaslighting. Numerous polls have shown a huge spike in antisemitic behavior (300%+) in the US since Oct 7th, but not at UMN? UMN is somehow immune to this spike? It’s a “Red Herring” to even consider how Jewish faculty, staff and students are feeling? What happened to the entire idea of intent vs. impact? Antisemitism is systematic, but many Jewish people grin and bare it because it remains below the surface, simmering… it peaks its ugly head out just enough, now and again, to remind Jews of their vulnerabilities..… but only just enough to be dismissed as “harmless” by the larger populace.
    After Oct 7, however, it seems like many don’t feel like it’s worth even hiding their prejudices anymore. And that is what many of these departmental statements are… This war has given agency for people to freely spread Jew hatred without consequence, and campus resources are being used to promulgate this hatred.

    Regardless of your beliefs about what’s happening on the other side of the world, anyone who considers themselves a socially conscious individual should care how the Jews on campus are feeling: alienated, threatened, disenfranchised….
    Do we need to have horrific incidents, such as the Jewish students who had to be locked into the library at Cooper Union last fall, on campus for anyone to validate antisemitism as a problem on this campus? Or will it just be dismissed as a “red herring” because “Jews don’t count?”

    Antisemitism needs to be taken as seriously as any other “ism,” which means that just because you proclaim, “I don’t have any antisemitic biases” doesn’t automatically make it true, and just because you have a “Jewish friend” that seems cool with certain controversial discourses, doesn’t mean they speak for the entire Jewish population.

    The fact that any charge of prejudice, including antisemitism, can be so apathetically dismissed as a “red herring,” a means to pull your attention away from something more important, is problematic within itself. Regardless of the departmental statements, the volatile rallies, the never ending offensive signage… little of what happens on this campus is going to impact what happens overseas… What all of those things definitely will impact is the small Jewish population we have on campus, and the fact this can be so easily disregarded (as a red herring) is an undeniable entangled manifestation of convenient ignorance and hypocritical bigotry.

  • Charles R
    Feb 1, 2024 at 8:45 am

    Why is it that the Jewish liberation movement is the only minority liberation movement that can be defined and shaped by those who disagree with it? Your misrepresentation of the statistics is also appalling. What you leave out is that 9 in 10 Jews do *not* support BDS, and the vast majority of American Jews have friends and relatives in Israel. We will not give up on a state that is home to nearly 40% of our people. When Jewish businesses are attacked by the same people attending anti-Zionist rallies, that is antisemitism. When images of a Star of David dripping in blood are shared, that is antisemitism.

  • D. C.
    Jan 31, 2024 at 7:47 pm

    I’m troubled by Professor Serra Hakyemez’s comments. Evidently, for particular professors, on certain topics, it is acceptable to publically make broad generalizations and wild accusations against colleagues, such as that they are slandering a student, without support.

    This is different from the University of Minnesota I know or wish to know. Instead of a place of learning, accountability, and scholarship, it appears Professor Hakyemez is advocating for the administration to allow the University of Minnesota to become a center of ideological tribalism where some ideas are more equal than others. I have no interest in the University of Minnesota becoming the University of Florida of the North.

    Professor Hakyemez, your comments look like something a commentator on Fox News would make up to belittle higher education in general or illustrate the hypocrisy of the left.

    Perhaps your comments are not meant to be serious. Perhaps someone else is posting under the name of a professor. I can only hope.

  • M.K.
    Jan 31, 2024 at 4:23 pm

    To Professor Hakyamez: I am right. This was an opinion piece making an argument with which many people disagree. It is nonsensical to say that what would otherwise be an argument becomes slander merely because the argument is about Palestine. And it is not doing a student any favors to suggest that she can’t handle and respond to criticism, and that publishing a piece about a controversial issue is not bound to draw criticism.

  • Serra Hakyemez
    Jan 31, 2024 at 2:16 pm

    To M.K.: you would have been right if this topic was not about Palestine. Every pro-Palestine student knows very well that no institution or authority stands up for them if they speak up for Palestine. They can be stabbed as was the case in Vermont. They can be interrogated for speaking Arabic as was the case at MSP airport. They lose their relatives in Gaza, but the U does not make a public statement to acknowledge their loss. This is not about the weaknesses or strengths of an argument. This is about the mobilization of counter-terrorism discourse to disregard the death of more than 25 thousand Palestinians. The author’s article has nothing to do with Hamas, but she is questioned about her opinion on Hamas.

  • NM
    Jan 31, 2024 at 12:39 pm

    It is concerning to me that the implicit logic of the criticisms of this essay seems to be that Hamas atrocities committed against civilians in Israel in some way explicates, renders understandable, or justifies the deaths of some 30,000 civilians in Gaza. Framing the death of civilians as justifiable results of, or simply unavoidable collateral damage involved in, a martial objective is the inhumane logic of terrorist groups like Hamas.

  • M.K.
    Jan 31, 2024 at 7:35 am

    To Professor Hakyamez: It is not slander to point to holes in the argument of an opinion piece published in this paper. Students need to learn to support their positions in the face of people who disagree. Students are poorly served by condescension that consists in praising their courage for speaking and protecting them from any response of disagreement.

    Jan 30, 2024 at 9:51 pm

    Also it may be healthy to consider that burning people alive of their children and call home in Gaza to boast that one has killed ten Jews may trigger some painful memories among Jewish people.

  • A. S.
    Jan 30, 2024 at 8:52 pm

    there is no “both sides” to this. Palestinians are dying at the thousands per day. Israel is killing queer Palestinians and forcing women in Gaza and other Palestinian cities to use pieces of tent and other insanitary items as pads and tampons because Israel refuses to allow aid into Palestine. there is no both sides to a literal genocide with over 20,000 killed.

  • Serra Hakyemez
    Jan 30, 2024 at 7:51 pm

    I encourage Richard Painter to request the Department of Education to start another investigation. Obviously, Bruno Chaouat as a Professor at the U is abusing his power by publicly targeting a first-year undergraduate student of color. His rhetorical question turns the student into a Hamas supporter for writing a piece that was approved by the editorial board of the Daily for publication. Professor Chaouat must be aware of the potentially harmful consequences of his public slandering for this student. Furthermore, the risk of future abuse is pertinent to this case given that this is not the first time Professor Chaoutaut exercises public slandering.

  • Bob Mecum
    Jan 30, 2024 at 6:17 pm

    Why aren’t we discussing what triggered the “gross human rights violations orchestrated by the Israeli government?”
    Hamas triggered retaliation with a massacre of an entire Israeli village. How about educating readers with both perspectives?

  • Bruno Chaouat
    Jan 30, 2024 at 5:15 pm

    Does the author of this article know about the specifics of October 7? Or does the author deny Hamas violence, like so many campus radicals who play pink washing with the Palestinian cause by projecting onto Israel what Hamas does to women and LGBTQ folks, like those who also deny monstrous violence perpetrated against women in Israel on october 7 (I say “women in Israel” because there were people from many countries, and not all Jews, who were slaughtered and tortured)? The author should also be careful not to use “token” Jews to legitimize what the large majority of Jews in the world find antisemitic. This is not for the non Jewish to judge what is and what is not antisemitic, in the same way as this is not for the white folks to judge what is experienced as racism.