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Israeli Holocaust Scholar Omer Bartov on Campus Protests, Weaponizing Antisemitism & Silencing Dissent

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As Biden administration and U.S. college and university administrators increasingly accuse peaceful pro-Palestinian protesters on school campuses of antisemitism, we speak with Brown University professor of Holocaust and genocide studies Omer Bartov, who visited the student Gaza solidarity encampment at UPenn alongside fellow Israeli historian Raz Segal. “There was absolutely no sign of any violence, of any antisemitism at all,” says Bartov, who warns antisemitism is being used to silence speech about Israel. “There’s politics, and there’s prejudice. And if we don’t make a distinction between the two, then what we are actually doing is enforcing a kind of silence over the policies that have been conducted by the Israeli government for a long time that ultimately culminated now in the utter destruction of Gaza.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman.

As we continue to look at the crackdown on student-led Gaza solidarity encampments across U.S. campuses, we look now at how the Biden administration and several members of Congress have echoed intensifying accusations that the peaceful student-led pro-Palestinian protests are antisemitic.

We’re joined now by Omer Bartov. He’s a professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University. His recent piece is headlined “Weaponizing Language: Misuses of Holocaust Memory and the Never Again Syndrome.” The professor recently visited the student Gaza solidarity encampment at the University of Pennsylvania, sharing on social media a photograph with the Israeli historian Raz Segal and a message that said, quote, “With Raz Segal at the UPenn encampment on April 26. Warm and open conversation about the perils of antisemitism and of its current weaponization,” unquote. Omer Bartov is also author of numerous books, including Genocide, the Holocaust and Israel-Palestine: First-Person History in Times of Crisis. He’s an Israeli American scholar who’s been described by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as one of the world’s leading specialists on the subject of genocide. He’s joining us now from his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Professor Bartov, welcome back to Democracy Now! If you can talk about what’s happening on these college campuses, what your visit to the UPenn encampment was like, as your own university, Brown University, students have set up an encampment? And their chant is “From Columbia to Brown, we will not let Gaza down.” And talk about what authorities are charging are the charges of antisemitism, although so many of those involved in these encampments are Jewish, with groups like Jewish Voice for Peace.

OMER BARTOV: Good morning, Amy. Thank you for having me again.

Well, look, I mean, my visit to UPenn, I was there with Raz Segal. We first, actually, both gave a talk, both of us, about antisemitism and its current weaponization. And then we visited the encampment. It was a beautiful afternoon. There were very nice, good students there. We sat and chatted with them. We talked about antisemitism and about its current use. There was absolutely no sound of any — no sign of any violence, of any antisemitism at all. There were Jewish students there. There were Arab students there. There were all kinds of young people there. And the atmosphere was very good. The next day, I heard that the authorities of UPenn had decided to shut down the encampment.

A couple of days earlier, I was passing by the green at Brown University, and again there was an encampment there. Students were sitting there quietly, singing, playing the guitar. It was all very peaceful. And that same day, I heard from a faculty member who had visited that encampment that he had received an email from the dean of the faculty warning him that if he were to show up there again, measures would be taken. And now this issue is being debated at Brown. I believe today, this afternoon, there will be a meeting with the faculty, many of whom, of course, like me, very upset by this kind of arbitrary action, which was taken without any consultation with faculty. So, that’s the kind of context.

Look, I mean, obviously, antisemitism, as myself and many others have said, is a vile sentiment. It’s an old sentiment. It has been used for bloodshed, for violence and for genocide. And no one should condone it, and obviously none of us would ever condone it. But it has also become a tool to silence speech about Israel. And that, too, has quite a history. And the current Israeli government — or, rather, the numerous governments under Benjamin Netanyahu have been pushing this agenda of arguing that any criticism of Israeli policies, not least of Israeli occupation policies — this precedes, of course, events in Gaza — is antisemitic.

And I’ve been listening to some of the interviews with Jewish students who feel threatened. And often it appears to me — and, of course, we don’t have, you know, good research of that at the moment, but it appears to me that many of them feel threatened because they see a Palestinian flag, because they hear people calling for intifada. “Intifada” means “shaking off.” There’s a very similar word in Hebrew for it, ”lehitna’er.” It’s what a dog does when it shakes off water. It’s to shake off the occupation. And there are Jewish students, often who are influenced by their Israeli friends, who feel that that is threatening.

But there’s nothing threatening about opposing occupation and oppression. That is not antisemitism. You can agree with it or not. Even being anti-Zionist is not antisemitic. There are hundreds of thousands, if not more, of ultra-Orthodox Jews, including some who are in the Israeli government, who are anti-Zionist, but they’re not antisemitic. They see themselves as the epitome of Jewishness and Jewish tradition. So, there’s politics, and there’s prejudice. And if we don’t make a distinction between the two, then what we are actually doing is enforcing a kind of silence over the policies that have been conducted by the Israeli government for a long time and that ultimately culminated now in the utter destruction of Gaza.

AMY GOODMAN: You know, we were showing images of the Brown protest, where you’re a professor. And some of the signs read, “Brown, divest now.” Another said, “No others like Hisham,” of course, referring to the Brown University student Hisham Awartani, the Palestinian American student who was visiting his grandmother in Burlington, Vermont, with his two best friends, also Palestinian American, and they were shot by a white man from his porch. Hisham was the most wounded. He is paralyzed. And then you have at Columbia the students who were skunked, that kind of chemical that is used, where I think it sent eight Columbia students — they were pro-Palestinian activists protesting — to the hospital. And it turned out that at least one of the people who skunked them was a former IDF Israeli military soldier who was studying at Columbia University.

OMER BARTOV: Look, first of all, about Hisham, I mean, this is just a terrible tragedy, he and his two friends. This sort of combines both the politics and the rhetoric of hate that you find these days in Israel and, of course, American discourse, which have unfortunately converged. And that’s just horribly tragic.

This case of skunking, you know, over the last few months, there have been many demonstrations in Israel against this government’s policy. And the government has taken to using water cannon, often in a really brutal manner that is firing it directly at people’s faces, which is legally not allowed, and using this kind of stinking water, skunk, in central streets in Tel Aviv and in Jerusalem, again, to shut down any debate in Israel. It’s very sad to see that being also imported to American streets.

Let me say there is an interesting difference between what is happening in Israel regarding Gaza, what is happening in the United States. In Israel, heads of universities have come out just recently with a statement warning about antisemitism on American campuses, which, to my knowledge, does not exist in any significant form. That is, as I said before, not antisemitism, but protests against Israeli policies. These same heads of universities in Israel have been collaborating in shutting down criticism in Israel itself. And there was a very tragic case with a Palestinian professor of the Hebrew University, Nadera Shalhoub-Kevorkian, who was first sort of attacked by the university and later was arrested by the police and mistreated really badly, kept overnight in a jail, stripped, humiliated — this is a full professor in her sixties and a well-known scholar — because she had expressed empathy with what was happening in Gaza. And the main difference is that not only did university leaders not come out in support of their own faculty member, but there are many students at the universities that are actually supporting these kinds of policies.

And I think we should be proud that in American universities students actually are demonstrating in favor of those who are being oppressed and now who are being killed. And they’re doing it, first of all, because it’s the right thing to do. They’re doing it also because they are American citizens. It is American taxpayers’ money that is paying for the arms that the United States is shipping in vast amounts to Israel so as to destroy Gaza. And they have every right — and, in fact, they have a duty — to protest against these kinds of policies.

AMY GOODMAN: Omer Bartov, I want to thank you so much for being with us, professor of Holocaust and genocide studies at Brown University. He’s an Israeli American scholar, described by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum as one of the world’s leading specialists on the subject of genocide.

Next up, an Israeli airstrike on Gaza has killed the eldest daughter and baby grandson of the late Palestinian poet and academic Refaat Alareer, who himself was killed in an Israeli airstrike months ago. Back in 20 seconds.

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Months After Israel Killed Gaza Poet Refaat Alareer, His Daughter & Infant Grandson Die in Airstrike

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