Why the pro-Hamas demonstrations are different and more dangerous

These are not peaceful demonstrators, and stopping the hateful rallies isn’t about ignoring freedom of speech.

By Ben Cohen, JNS

Over the last eight months, Jewish communities around the world have been both intimidated and repulsed by the surge in pro-Hamas demonstrations.

We’ve all seen the signs and heard the slogans variously telling us to “return” to Poland, that Zionism is the root of all the evil and cruelty in the world, that Israel has no right to exist, that Jews cry “antisemitism” to divert public attention from Palestinian suffering and Israel’s alleged crimes.

We’ve pretty much gotten used to our schools, synagogues, restaurants and community centers being targeted by protesters, to seeing stickers and posters damning Israel’s so-called “genocide” as we walk to the subway or the grocery store, to hearing the endless drumbeat of media pundits rounding on the Jewish state and its leaders.

We hold up our hands resignedly at the indifference of these protesters to the real genocides that are taking place right now in Ukraine, Congo, Sudan, Burma/Myanmar, China’s Xinjiang province and so many other countries.

We feel, in short, that the world is against us.

Much as it might feel that way, we aren’t alone. The apologists for rape and murder who clog up our city streets every weekend or vandalize our university campuses with pro-Hamas encampments—and notice, by the way, how the plight of Palestinians in Gaza has been utterly overshadowed by the insistence of this mob in portraying itself as the victim of police brutality and “Zionist” influence!—have managed to alienate and irritate large swathes of the general public.

Imagine paying a six-figure sum to have your children educated at university, only to have that precious graduating ceremony wrecked by the boorish chanting of “Free Palestine,” “From the River to the Sea” and all the other anti-Jewish chants the protesters recycle endlessly.

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That’s been the experience of too many American parents over the last few weeks.

Since the Hamas atrocities in southern Israel on Oct. 7, each day has been akin to a wrestling match with the principle of free speech attributed (wrongly, by the way) to the French Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire: “I disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

Free speech essentially means giving bad speech a pass on the grounds of individual conscience.

That is not a principle that any democracy can compromise on because doing so sets us on the path to becoming Russia, China, Iran or any other authoritarian state where words are regulated and restricted.

Yet the challenge with the pro-Hamas protests is that they can’t be reduced to free speech or peaceful rallies alone.

The violence that lies at the heart of Hamas’s program has been duplicated by its followers in the West. And that should worry us, not least because there is a historical precedent as well.

In the wake of the global student uprisings of May 1968 and their consequent failure, many activists on the far left turned to political violence as a response.

Arguably, the most well-known example emerged in Germany, where the Red Army Faction (RAF)—more commonly known as the “Baader Meinhof Group” after its founders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof—threw in its lot with radical Palestinian groups like the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP).

The wannabe urban guerillas of the RAF traveled to Lebanon, where they were trained by Palestinians in the use of weapons, as well as the planning and execution of terrorist operations.

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In 1976, a joint RAF-PFLP operation resulted in the hijacking of an Air France flight from Tel Aviv, which was diverted to Entebbe Airport in Uganda, where the hostages enjoyed the dubious protection of the then-dictator of that country, the mass murderer Idi Amin.

During the ordeal, the terrorists—like good Nazis—separated the Israeli passengers from the non-Israeli ones.

Once again, the order “Jews to the left!” was heard, only three decades after the liberation of German Nazi concentration camps.

As is well known, the passengers were rescued in a daring operation mounted by the Israel Defense Forces; otherwise, there would likely have been a massacre described, much as Oct. 7 is now, as the worst act of violence targeting Jews since the end of World War II.

There is a justifiable fear that such violence, zeroing in upon defenseless Jews, could once again rear its head.

Last week, the British government’s adviser on political extremism, John Woodcock, issued a report that examined the prospects for the aggressive rhetoric found in the furthest corners of far-left and far-right movements to mushroom into actual violence.

The report observed that “activism around the Israeli-Palestinian conflict stands out as being a focus of incitement and intimidation, as well as the use of law breaking by some activists. There is a distinction here between mainstream campaigners who primarily focus on promoting the Palestinian cause through legal means and those that focus their activism on hostility towards Israel.” The latter group is riddled with antisemitism, which is “often presented in connection with anti-capitalist conspiracy theories, such as the antisemitic trope of Jewish bankers controlling the globe.”

“It is this movement,” the report continued, “that has proven most willing to use law breaking, intimidation, and at times, violence.”

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Much of Woodcock’s analysis focused on the activities of a group called Palestine Action—a collective of anti-capitalists and anarchists who have engaged in “direct action” targeting Israeli companies with interests in the United Kingdom.

As Woodcock noted, Palestine Action has devoted its efforts to Elbit Systems UK, a subsidiary of the Israeli defense technology firm Elbit Systems, vandalizing its offices, intimidating its employees, and preventing Elbit from fulfilling its contracts with the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defense.

The specific targeting of Elbit has now evolved into more general targeting of Israeli interests and the British Jewish community.

“Small groups of extreme activists sabotaging businesses with whom they disagree not only create a climate of intimidation for private companies and their staff, but they also have a detrimental effect on local economies and employment opportunities,” Woodcock’s report added.

In such circumstances, a ban on such groups—not because of their words but because of their actions—is entirely justified.

The pro-Hamas movement has, as Woodcock argues, adopted violence as a tactic, but then seeks to hide its use of violence behind the protections of free speech.

This is an approach, as the sneering social-media response to Woodcock’s report indicates, that carries a great deal of traction among progressives.

But whether it’s Europe or the United States, violence and the advocacy of violence are quite separate from free speech.

As the various pro-Hamas groups, like Within Our Lifetime in America, careen towards a Baader Meinhof-like outcome, our laws need to stay one step ahead.

And that begins with the acknowledgment of a basic truth: These are not peaceful demonstrators, and this isn’t about freedom of speech.