Edward Said Warned of Anti-Palestine McCarthyism on Campus

As students rise up across the U.S., Said’s words resonate as a scathing condemnation of the hypocrisy and corruption of liberal institutions, writes Seraj Assi.

By Seraj Assi
Common Dreams

Students across the United States are rising up against Israel’s genocide in Gaza, bringing to memory the student movements of the 1960s.

From Columbia to Brown, from Yale to Harvard, students are staging sit-ins, hunger strikes, class walkouts, and interfaith prayers, demanding an end to U.S. support for Israel and the complicity of their academic institutions in the ongoing genocide.

While some U.S. institutions are treading a delicate path, the Columbia University administration, led by President Minouche Shafik, has violently cracked down on its own students, summoning the NYPD to mass arrest over 100 students, and suspending others with a 15-minute notice.

Police destroyed solidarity encampments and student belongings, while charging arrested students with “trespassing” on the campus that they pay a whopping tuition of more than $60,000 a year to attend.

The Guardian reported that “hundreds of members of the teaching cohort at Columbia walked out in solidarity with the students who were arrested” while “students put protest tents back up in the middle of campus on Monday after they were torn down last week when more than 100 arrests were made.”

Yonah Lieberman, co-founder of IfNotNow, a Jewish-led U.S. group that organizes against Israel’s apartheid, declared: “Solidarity with these faculty members. Shame on establishment politicians and agitators who are smearing the anti-war protest at Columbia as anything other than what it is: a courageous stand for freedom and peace.”

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) whose 21-year-old daughter, Isra Hirsi, was suspended from Columbia’s Barnard College last week also noted the faculty walkout and “nationwide Gaza solidarity movement.”

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, whose daughter Isra Hirsi was suspended from Barnard College. (Wikimedia Commons)

In its attempt to appease far-right extremists in Congress, and to save Columbia from “being cursed by God,” as a Republican Congressman warned Shafik, Columbia has sided with genocide, thus undermining its own legacy of safeguarding free speech and peaceful protest on campus.

Beyond Columbia, there are ongoing demonstrations at institutions including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T), New York University, the University of Michigan, and Yale University, another Ivy League school, where at least 47 peaceful student protesters were arrested on Monday.

Weaponizing Antisemitism to Suppress Criticism

The violence has backfired, as hundreds of students continue to protest at Columbia, sparking a ripple effect across U.S. campuses, and defying what they see as a growing McCarthyism in U.S. academia.

Perceptively, Edward Said, the prominent Palestinian-American intellectual and distinguished Columbia professor, warned of weaponizing antisemitism and the plight of Jews in Europe as a means to suppress and vilify Palestinians, and to justify Israel’s oppression of its victims.

An early target of this academic McCarthyism was Said, whose writings on post-colonialism, humanism, and literary criticism are required reading at Columbia and across the humanities.

Said was a victim of anti-Palestinian intimidation. His office at Columbia was occasionally raided and vandalized. He received several death threats and was smeared with terrorism accusations and spied on by students and AIPAC agents.

Shortly before his death, Said became the target of a vicious academic persecution, which he survived only because Columbia still had a shred of academic and moral integrity at the time.

In July 2000, Said went to South Lebanon on a solidarity tour, where he hurled a rock toward an Israeli guardhouse from the Lebanese border, which he described as “a symbolic gesture of joy” to mark the end of Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon.

Columbia Then Refused to be Intimidated 

A photographer caught the action, featuring Said with his arm reached far behind him, ready to throw. The Israel lobby, led by the Anti-Defamation League, called on Columbia to punish Said. Columbia refused to be intimidated, though it took the administration two months of eerie silence to respond.

In its five-page letter response, the university said that Said’s action was protected under the principles of academic freedom. Citing John Stuart Mill, as well as the Columbia Faculty Handbook, the letter asserted:

“There is nothing more fundamental to a university than the protection of the free discourse of individuals who should feel free to express their views without fear of the chilling effect of a politically dominant ideology. … This matter cuts to the heart of what are fundamental values at a great university.”

In defense of Said, the letter added:

“If we are to deny Professor Said the protection to write and speak freely, whose speech will next be suppressed and who will be the inquisitor who determines who should have a right to speak his or her mind without fear of retribution?”

The era of moral clarity and intellectual integrity in academia is now unraveling amid Israel’s genocide in Gaza.

The tragic irony is that the current atmosphere of anti-Palestinian McCarthyism on U.S. campuses — led by an unlikely coalition of far-right Republicans, mainstream media, and liberal academic institutions — was foreseen by none other than Said himself. In his 1979 seminal essay, “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims,” Said warned:

“The special, one might even call it the privileged, place in this discussion of the United States is impressive, for all sorts of reasons. In no other country, except Israel, is Zionism enshrined as an unquestioned good, and in no other country is there so strong a conjuncture of powerful institutions and interests—the press, the liberal intelligentsia, the military-industrial complex, the academic community, labor unions—for whom […] uncritical support of Israel and Zionism enhances their domestic as well as international standing.”

Presaging the rise of anti-Palestinian McCarthyism in academia, Said detected a state of academic repression and campus policing in which Palestinians “have no permission to narrative” and are increasingly demonized and silenced in the name of fighting antisemitism — a loaded concept that has become a shield for Israel’s genocide and ethnic cleansing of Palestinians.

Attack on Constitutional Rights

An image of the late Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said, who lectured at Columbia University. (Creative Commons: CC BY SA 3.0)

Perceptively, Said warned of weaponizing antisemitism and the plight of Jews in Europe as a means to suppress and vilify Palestinians, and to justify Israel’s oppression of its victims. He understood that systematically inflating antisemitism with the critique of Zionism was feeding anti-Palestinian sentiments in U.S. academic and media discourse. He further warned:

“One must admit, however, that all liberals and even most ‘radicals’ have been unable to overcome the Zionist habit of equating anti-Zionism with antisemitism. Any well-meaning person can thus oppose South African or American racism and at the same time tacitly support Zionist racial discrimination against non-Jews in Palestine.

The almost total absence of any handily available historical knowledge from non-Zionist sources, the dissemination by the media of malicious simplifications (e.g., Jews vs. Arabs), the cynical opportunism of various Zionist pressure groups, the tendency endemic to university intellectuals uncritically to repeat cant phrases and political clichés (this is the role Gramsci assigned to traditional intellectuals, that of being ‘experts in legitimation’), the fear of treading upon the highly sensitive terrain of what Jews did to their victims, in an age of genocidal extermination of Jews—all this contributes to the dulling, regulated enforcement of almost unanimous support for Israel.”

The assault on Columbia students is an attack on constitutional rights and the basic tenets of democracy. It’s deplorable that one of the most violent crackdowns on student protests in U.S. history is coinciding with one of the worst genocides in recent memory, which has killed over 34,000 Palestinians in Gaza, most of them children, and displaced nearly two million others.

One day after the mass arrests at Columbia, Palestinians in Gaza unearthed large mass graves at Nasser Hospital in Khan Younis, containing hundreds of civilians and patients who were massacred or buried alive by Israel.

More deplorable, from the young generation’s standpoint, is that this genocide is being backed and sustained by U.S. weapons and tax money, diplomatic support, and media and academic complicity.

The Biden administration is preparing to send its largest military aid package to Israel in U.S. history, with bipartisan blessing.

Despite massive protests, U.S. colleges have refused to divest from Israel over its genocidal war in Gaza, with few notable exceptions such as Rutgers. Several universities, including Columbia, have suspended the chapters of Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace.

Said’s legacy reads today as a scathing condemnation of the hypocrisy of U.S. liberal institutions, their moral corruption, and the hollowness of the very values that they profess to teach. This irony is best illustrated by a Columbia student’s protest sign, which read:

“Columbia, why require me to read Prof. Edward Said, if you don’t want me to use it?”

– Additional reporting by Common Dream’s Jessica Corbett

Seraj Assi is a Palestinian writer living in Washington D.C.

The views expressed are solely those of the author and may or may not reflect those of Consortium News.

16 comments for “Edward Said Warned of Anti-Palestine McCarthyism on Campus

  1. Arch Stanton
    April 24, 2024 at 19:19

    The numbers quoted that have been killed has been stuck at 33/34k for over a month now, why?
    The slaughter continues unabated, where is this underestimated figure coming from exactly?

    We all know it’s far more than that.

  2. Joy
    April 24, 2024 at 10:19

    Time to get the Biden Administration to focus on the criminal charges they so rightly deserve. 18 U.S. Code § 1091 is the statute that incorporated the Genocide Convention in US criminal law. Members of this administration shouldn’t go a single day without having this statute in their faces, up front and center at every protest at every meeting, press conference, briefing, and trips home and abroad.

    They may feel they are immune now, but let’s get them considering what is possible when they leave office, given they have set the precedent of charging former presidents. They should have visions of prison all the days of their lives. Let us find the way.

    • Michael
      April 24, 2024 at 22:26

      nothing will happen to them. they are not of the class of people who are ever accountable. it’s not even remotely possible.

  3. Francis (Frank) Lee
    April 24, 2024 at 05:52

    Interesting to note the role which the student intelligentsia – particularly in the west – is playing in the current political situation. There seems to be an ideological/political struggle emerging which is coming into full fruition. As things stand, however: ”We live in a society that is democratic mainly in its legal forms and its formal expectations …To appeal to the powerful, on the basis of any knowledge we now have is utopian in the foolish sense of that term.” C. Wright Mills. Yes but … To what extent is this current emergence and what form will it take?

    These are early days. Doubtless the Western haute bourgeois classes feel smug and safe in their ideological fortifications (which are more fallible than they suppose). But the possible outcome of this confrontation have yet to become manifest. Moreover, this confrontation is beginning to take on global contours which subsume economic, political and ideological form. Europe in particular is in a very difficult position having hitched its Euro-horses to the US$ and a cart.

    So, we shall wait and we shall see.

  4. Drew Hunkins
    April 23, 2024 at 17:46

    The brilliant and absolutely marvelous student demonstrations that are currently taking place at several prestigious private colleges and major state universities are a clear indication that American support for Israel is slowly beginning to wither away. Over the past half-century pro-Israel zealots and Zionist partisans have wielded an extremely strong hand throughout the mass media. With the advent of the Internet, social media, TikTok, and Twitter to a certain extent, the fact that Israel has been a repugnant colonial power presently committing genocide has finally seeped into the consciousness of millions. This is one of the big reasons the powers-that-be are trying to ban TikTok and censor other independent online outlets.

    Israeli leaders and pro-Israel functionaries understand better than anyone via extensive polling and sociological and political research that soon a majority of the US population will no longer support the racist and sadistic land-grabbing Zionist state. This is precisely why the Israeli Defense [sic] Forces just committed one of the most odious war crimes of the past 50 years in bombing the Iranian consulate in Damascus, killing at least eight high-ranking Iranian military officials. This deplorable act was done to bait Iran into responding with massive force in order to force Washington’s hand to attack Iran. Israel’s dream virtually since its founding, is for a complete regime change to take place in Tehran or a splitting up of Iran as a nation. Israel doesn’t have the power to defeat Iran by conventional military means and has consistently desired that the US wage war on Iran.

    It’s noteworthy that the Zionist power configuration is so pervasive and powerful throughout the West that the UK, France and the United States all failed to condemn Israel’s unprecedented war crime against Iran!

    Also, Israeli leaders bombed the Iranian consulate in the hopes of precipitating a major Washington attack on Iran because Russia, China and the rest of the BRICS along with the New Silk Roads (BRI) are swiftly moving the world into a novel paradigm of multi-polarity in which Israel and the US will merely be regular nation-states; no longer will they unilaterally wage illegal sanctions and violent attacks and invasions across the Middle East and the world.

    Ergo we currently see an Israel desperate to speed things up to witness a quick and decisive American attack on Iran before it’ll be politically and economically impossible to carry out.

    Meanwhile, in the background of all this is the Samson Option. Arguably the most terrifying phenomenon today – Israel’s declared Samson Option is that if Israel ever perceives itself to be jeopardized to the point that Israel would no longer exist, it will murder the rest of the world by launching its 200 to 300 nuclear weapons.

    The Zionist entity kills us all.

    • Arch Stanton
      April 24, 2024 at 19:22

      Great comments Drew, thank you

      • Drew Hunkins
        April 24, 2024 at 19:38

        Thank you.

        Stay strong.

  5. Susan Siens
    April 23, 2024 at 14:19

    NEOCONumbia University:

    From Edward Said — whom I was privileged to hear speak on the radio — to

    Hillary Clinton and Victoria Nuland, two disgusting war criminals who should be in prison.

    The trajectory was predicted by, among others, Edward Said.

  6. JonnyJames
    April 23, 2024 at 12:33

    Thank you for posting this, especially for the younger folks who don’t remember Edward Said. Anyone interested in the subject of discourse in the West about the East, the Arab world and Palestine should start by reading the now-classic Orientalism by Edward Said. As the article outlined: He recognized and predicted the smear campaigns, misinformation, lies and gross hypocrisy before almost anyone – ahead of his time.

  7. susan
    April 23, 2024 at 12:24

    Lest we forget: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

    • Lois Gagnon
      April 24, 2024 at 09:41

      All members of congress and the White House have violated their oath of office and should face the consequences.

  8. April 23, 2024 at 11:20

    Perhaps the evil incoherence criticized in this article can better help us understand how the world, for so long, tolerated antisemitism itself, where peer pressure and government sanctions discouraged those who opposed real antisemitism, not its horrible distortion, Zionism, and led good people to look the other way. Only the worst of the Nazis compare with today’s Israeli Zionists, as decent Jews everywhere are pointing out.

  9. Em
    April 23, 2024 at 10:15

    What is simply unfathomable is how some American Jews have become such rabid bigots that any form of protesting for non-Jewish Arab Palestinians ‘human rights’ in Palestine is seen as nothing more than antisemitism!
    How much more arrogantly self-centered, and blithely blind, can one class of the human family be to the suffering its members are putting their close relatives through?
    In their eyes, apparently, “never again” applies only to themselves!

    • Susan Siens
      April 24, 2024 at 15:39

      Em, you need to watch the video of the Jewish woman standing in the courtyard at Columbia wearing a T-shirt with JEW on the front and ISRAEL on the back. No one paid her the slightest attention, then she tried provoking people. Still no one paid her the slightest attention. Her partner videoed the [whatever you call what she was doing] and put it online, apparently being so stupid he did not realize it’s funny! Pathetic and monstrous, and utterly devoid of self-awareness. (You can find it on Due Dissidence.)

      • Em
        April 25, 2024 at 10:08

        There is NO bliss in ignorance of reality!
        This one-person demonstration is tragically pathetic; knowing there are too many more Americans, and others, as blindly bigoted.
        It offers not much encouragement for the preservation of our species. In such darkness, where the blind are leading the blind, what hope is there for a future, never mind a better future for all of humanity?
        This pathological emotional state of mindlessness, especially among those knowing first-hand, through factual interpretation, and honest academic historical investigation, that blind hatred certainly did not begin on October 7th 2023 with Gazas concentration camp inmates breakout.
        For how long have ‘Americans’ ignored the plea of Rodney King in 1992: “can’t we all just get along”?
        Apparently not?
        And this singular display of ignorance, from the so-called exceptionally high vantage point for reflecting on, and overseeing ‘Western Civilization’.

    • robert e williamson jr
      April 25, 2024 at 16:34

      Em, where have you been?

      They as with any spoiled twelve year old can only think of themselves.

      It is and always has been “My way or the highway”. If they don’t immediately get what ever they want when they want it they start whining about how they are being mistreated and why.

      I do agree that it is only some American Jews, many Jews American and otherwise do not feel this way. Their problem is the brutality the Israeli right wing government applies to them.

      More plainly said, “You must be the enemy of my enemies other wise you are my enemy!”

      I strongly suggest anyone with serious reservations about U.S. policy in Israel write every elected rep and senator they have serving them and ask one question.

      Mine was worded this way. ( politician belonging here) I have a request for advice. Just what is it you tell your grandchildren about the future they face?

      Thanks CN

Comments are closed.