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Resisting the Racist New McCarthyism

An Interview with Noura Erakat

May 1, 2024

ACROSS THE US, both the liberal establishment and the far right have launched a racist backlash against Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and solidarity activists. This is nothing less than a New McCarthyism, in which the powers that be have repressed and criminalized speaking up and organ-nizing for Palestinian liberation. Spectre’s Shireen Akram-Boshar here interviews Noura Erakat, Associate Professor at Rutgers University, New Brunswick, about both the racist attack and the resistance to it.

The last time they had spoken was on a Haymarket webinar, which was planned to include Refaat Alareer in Gaza, but he could not join it because Israel had bombed his home shortly before. He was later killed in a targeted strike on his sister’s home where he, his sister, and her family sheltered. This special issue of Spectre is dedicated to Alareer and his tireless work for Palestinian liberation.

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Could you speak about the breadth and nature of the assault on Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims, and solidarity activists in the university, on the job, and in politics since October 2023?

First, we have to begin with the war, which is the cause of the racist wave we’ve witnessed. Israel has launched a multiscalar attack on the Palestinians in Gaza and throughout historic Palestine. It exceeds Israel’s stated goals in Gaza. Its military operations, which are genocidal in intent, are designed to ethnically cleanse Palestinians and establish Zionist settler sovereignty from the river to the sea.

To justify this largescale attack, Israel and its Western allies have demonized Palestinians, using all the racist tropes of the War on Terror, and have deployed their repressive infrastructure to suppress and punish opposition. Any challenge to the racist framing of Palestinians, any argument that history didn’t begin on October 7, 2023, any advocacy of the Palestinian struggle for liberation, any critique of Zionism as a settler colonial project, and any position that depicts Israel’s war for what it is—genocidal, criminal, and illegal—have all been cast as antisemitic.

Israel and the Western powers are determined to conflate antisemitism and anti-Zionism. Even worse, they have framed any, and all, criticism of Israel as material support for Hamas and terrorism. They have deemed as criminal not only statements that might be interpreted as supporting Hamas but also broad support of Palestinian resistance. Israel, the US, and other Western powers are using the framework of the War on Terror to give cover for the genocidal war and to justify repression of opposition to it and solidarity with Palestine.

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What does the repression look like in higher education and secondary schools outside Palestine?

Universities and schools have used two primary tactics. One of them is occlusion, whereby Palestinian students, and by extension, Muslim and Arab students who are directly affected by this genocide, are completely erased. Palestinians are not named in statements by universities. Their pain has not been recognized. Even those who have lost family members in Gaza have not been recognized.

By excluding Palestinians and their pain, these institutions obscure the reasons and natural inclination to protest this genocide. As a result, student opposition to the United States and Israel gets framed as inexplicable, irrational, and, therefore, a dangerous threat.

This exclusion is tied to the second tactic of refusing to draw on Palestinian expertise. University administrations have issued statements without consulting their Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim scholars. They have not even drawn on legal scholars in genocide studies to come to their conclusions. These methods of exclusions are obviously political and are discriminatory decisions.

Administrations have instead uncritically framed the war as primarily affecting Jewish students. This is problematic on so many levels, including the fact that many, if not most, Jewish students don’t even identify with Israel. So, administrators have assumed that all Jewish students are Zionists, de facto excluding anti-Zionist Jews from official recognition.

This perpetuates Israel’s narrative that October 7 was the most significant attack on Jewish people since the Nazi Holocaust. But the October attack was not on Jews but specifically on Israelis within Israel, and more narrowly, on military targets. Not that I’m excusing indiscriminate tactics, but analytically, it is important to see the difference between an attack on Jews anywhere and an attack on Israelis along a militarized perimeter enforcing a siege.

Remember, the Holocaust was a crime against humanity carried out by a powerful empire against Jews for being Jewish in Germany and beyond its borders. Hamas has never attacked Jews outside of historic Palestine. It has only attacked Israelis. So, in framing October 7 as an attack on Jews, university administrations parroted Israel’s conflation of Jewish religion with Jewish nationality.

The administrations’ occlusion of Palestinians and the conflation of Jews with Israel has justified their repression of Palestinians and Palestine solidarity formations, including Jewish Voice for Peace (JVP) chapters. They have suspended student organizations like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) and JVP at Columbia, Brown, University of Michigan, and Brandeis, to name a few.

The worst case of such violations of students’ freedom of speech and the right to organize has been in Florida, where the government has suspended all SJP chapters on public universities. Rutgers, where I teach, was the first public university to suspend SJP. All of this is an absolute abrogation of our first amendment rights.

Now, these suspensions reflect a policy of selective enforcement of what gets punished. Of course, it is the prerogative of the university to enforce its rules and norms. But when it chooses to only enforce those against pro-Palestinian activists, that’s a form of selective enforcement.

In almost all cases it has taken the form of excessive punishment designed to deter students from future activism and deter other students from participating. All of this has been done without adequate respect for students’ rights to due process, in which they should be given the opportunity to hear the charges and challenge them.

I’m not as familiar with attacks on student organizing at the secondary school level. The one case I’m most familiar with is a Palestinian teacher and student at a private high school in Florida. His mother, who was a teacher at the school, made posts on social media that questioned the veracity of Israeli claims, including the rape allegations, something well within her first amendment rights and justified by increasing exposure of Israel’s lies about October 7.

Nonetheless, the school fired her. And, because her son was enrolled in the school as part of her contract at the school, when she was fired, he was expelled. This is horrible but not exceptional. Palestinian youth and students who have been the most at risk are those facing this level of discrimination, violation of their rights, and physical attack.

Remember, it was a Palestinian six-year-old who was killed, stabbed seventy-two times in Chicago. It was three Palestinian students who were shot in Burlington, Vermont, by an assailant for speaking in Arabic and wearing keffiyehs. It was a woman in a hijab who was stabbed at a picnic table in Texas. It was a Muslim woman student at Stanford University who was run over by a driver.

Instead of protecting the rights and physical safety of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, universities are punishing them for speaking out and organizing.

Instead of protecting the rights and physical safety of Palestinian, Arab, and Muslim students, universities are punishing them for speaking out and organizing. They are occluding them from recognition, suspending their organizations, and compounding the harm against them.

It’s really unfortunate that all this is happening at universities. Universities should be places where our society can learn from experts that can educate people about the history of Palestine and its struggle for liberation. They should encourage hearing alternatives to all the US and Israeli warmongering.

They should be institutions where our future leaders learn how to debate with one another, how to engage in disagreement and conflict, how to resolve those, how to exercise their right to speak and organize, and how to use tactics of nonviolent protest and boycotts to achieve their goals. The university should be the place that models and teaches this behavior.

Instead, it has become a site of discrimination and repression.

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Why do you think administrations are turning to repression rather than just putting forward debate?

Well, I think that administrations have adopted neoliberal policies in running state universities. They, along with their peers in private universities, have changed these institutions from places of academic freedom that encourage students to study what they would like to learn. Now the administrators restrict education to the logic of profit, narrowing fields of study to what makes money for the school and corporations. The administrators see their schools as a business and students as a source of revenue. They pressure professors to become more popular on social media to drive up book sales, lure students to apply, drive up enrollment, and increase their bottom line.

Everything has been reduced to the logic of the balance sheet. As part of this economic model, administration bureaucrats are paid several times more than their faculty and especially their staff. Because they are so concerned with revenue above anything else, they want to appease establishment opinion and the mainstream status quo.

The last thing they want to do is ruffle any feathers of their elite donors. Instead, the top administrators want to cultivate positive relationships with them both to secure funding for their schools and advance their own personal careers. Many use their positions to launch campaigns for political office or to secure administrative appointments in state and federal government. Some of their behavior is thus driven by naked self-interest.

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In some ways, Harvard University has become ground zero for the struggle over Palestine on campus. Students protested; Claudine Gay, Harvard’s Black female president, clamped down on them, but the right was not satisfied that she had repressed them enough. So, they launched a witch hunt against her. What do you make of the case of Claudine Gay?

Claudine Gay played a certain role in terms of representing the liberal establishment, which has been part of repressing activism in solidarity with Palestine. But the right didn’t think she was repressive enough, so they forced her to step down.

This is a really important case study of the intersections of race, class, and global politics in academic institutions. On the one hand, she was Harvard’s first Black woman president, which is no small feat at one of the most elite institutions in the country with a long history of marginalizing oppressed people.

At the same time, under Gay’s watch, this institution, as a result of donor and alumni pressure, failed to protect Palestinian students and Palestine solidarity activists, who along with their families have been subject to doxing campaigns. It exacerbated their situation by not providing them adequate counseling, advice, and representation. Even worse, it occluded their oppression by furthering discourse that the primary risk is antisemitism on campus and compounded their oppression by punishing them.

This whole situation was an imperfect storm. As an article in Mondoweiss put it, Claudine Gay was forced to resign because she was not Zionist enough. The way they removed her is similar to how such institutions always treat minority communities. They stooped to claiming that she plagiarized part of her dissertation from years ago. They had to dig that up in order to remove her from her office.

That kind of scrutiny is emblematic of the way that all of us, as faculty of color, as women, as marginalized communities, are treated in the private and the public sector. We are scrutinized and subject to a double standard compared to our white cisgender male, hetero counterparts, who are just assumed to be right until proven otherwise. That benefit of the doubt wasn’t afforded to Claudine Gay. She triggered the apparatus of white supremacy, in which Zionism is an essential component, to target for her failing to be Zionist enough.

This situation has generated a large conversation about race and higher education. But some only want to talk about the scrutiny of Claudine Gay as a Black woman. That reflects a very middle class Black politics, as opposed to a radical Black politics that understands she was both a victim as well as part of the problem. She was trapped and played a role in a victimizing structure.

The Black radical tradition has always understood Black oppression as a product of empire and therefore doesn’t see becoming equal citizens in the empire as the goal. Instead, it stands for dismantling the empire. That is very different from the liberal middle class position that just wants the US to afford elites from marginalized communities a position in the existing order.

The Black radical tradition would lead us to challenge not just the white supremacists who took her down, but the Zionists and donors. It would challenge the Right’s entire case against her and at the same time criticize her policies. We should have gone on the offensive against Elise Stefanik, the far right Trump supporter, who orchestrated the entire congressional hearing that led to Gay’s resignation.

Claudine Gay was a victim, but also she was part of the problem. We can defend her and others like her against racist attacks and at the same time criticize their role as part of the institutions that oppress Palestinians.

So, yes, Gay was a victim, but also she was part of the problem. We can defend her and others like her against racist attacks and at the same time criticize their role as part of the institutions that oppress Palestinians. As part of that criticism, we should call into question the whole strategy of taking on such roles in oppressive structures of power.

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I wanted to ask you more about the far right’s role in the attack on Palestinians. What you said about Stefanik grilling Gay really illustrates that. On the surface of it, the far right’s allegiance to Zionism and Israel seems strange, because the far right is so deeply antisemitic. What’s behind the alliance between the Right and Israel?

What’s being illuminated here is how Zionism is part and parcel of a structure of oppression, not just in Palestine, but in the United States and elsewhere. It represents a settler colonial movement that is seeking to remove an In`digenous population in order to establish settler sovereignty in Palestine.

Zionism was born in response to Nazism and European antisemitism, but it was forged in the very same geographic and historical crucible from which those reactionary political forces emerge. So, rather than opposing Europe’s racism that oppressed Jews and excluded them from full citizenship, it internalized European racism’s logic, accepting that Jews could not live in Europe, and instead must establish their own racist, ethno-state.

Zionism never challenged antisemitism but adapted to it. Indeed, it replicated European racism’s logics of supremacy, purity, exclusivity, and ghettoization. Grotesquely, you have many Western states, settler colonies themselves, with long histories of antisemitism that support Israel. They do so in large part to absolve themselves of their role in antisemitism in the past and today. They retain their antisemitism and disguise it by backing Israel to the hilt.

This is done all the time by the far right including those in power, who truck and barter in antisemitic stereotypes like claims that Jews constitute a different racial class who are “globalists,” a cabal that runs and benefits from today’s international order. In this racist logic, Jews cannot be trusted, hoard disproportionate amounts of wealth and power, and are incapable of belonging except through setting up their own separate state.

That produces strange contradictions on the Right. For example, Donald Trump speaks in front of a group of Jewish American donors and talks about “their country Israel.” But they’re literally in the United States shaping US politics, and yet Trump still refers to them as an exogenous people. Zionism lets Trump posture as supporting Jews while he engages in classic antisemitic rhetoric.

The Right thus latches on to Zionism to magically absolve it of its anti-Jewish racism. Zionism also provides the Right, and indeed the whole establishment, justification to use Israel to advance US interests throughout the Middle East by controlling the region’s political order, regimes, and economics, especially the extraction of its oil and natural gas.

Finally, the Right also gravitates to Zionism because, as white nationalists, they see it as a model for their own racial supremacist project. They think Zionists have set a precedent of racial sovereignty they want to follow in establishing their own racist state. Today, it’s not acceptable for white nationalists to openly advocate such a project, but Zionists can. So, the far right uses Zionism as a shield to advance their white nationalist agenda.

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It’s scary just thinking of what the next few years will bring with Trump possibly in office. It’s already scary under Biden with all the liberal repression and far right attacks. What are groups like Palestine Legal doing to resist this “New McCarthyism?” What are the best strategies for activists and academics to resist it?

Palestine Legal is doing tremendous work. But it does not have the capacity or the infrastructure to meet the current demands of this McCarthyite moment. In a normal year, they receive around three hundred complaints. In just the last three months, they’ve received more than one thousand.

So, they’re overwhelmed with cases. They don’t have the ability to litigate all of these and defend people against employment discrimination, harassment at universities, let alone take on aggressive cases like suing organizations for defamation and discrimination. Instead, they are doing intakes of cases before distributing them to a network of pro bono attorneys who can take responsibility for them.

For many years, Palestine Legal has been studying attacks on Palestinians and solidarity organizations at universities. They have documented patterns and developed many resources to help challenge discrimination and repression. They have focused, in particular, on the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of antisemitism which equates anti-Zionism or any criticism of Israel with antisemitism.

They have created effective approaches to defeat the adoption of IHRA in universities as well as in state and city governments. They are also available to write letters to university administrations to warn them of potential lawsuits against discrimination and repression.

In some cases, they have sued universities. For instance, they sued George Washington University for anti-Palestinian racism. They’ve also defended SJP students against Title VI investigations. So, they’re doing what they can faced with an overwhelming number of cases and potential lawsuits. We need to build our defensive infrastructure and can do so now especially amidst the current surge in activism in support of Palestine.

What should activists and academics do? There are two key things, I think. First, do not hide or pretend that this doesn’t affect you or that it’s going to go away. Do not hesitate to speak out for Palestine. Any reluctance to take a stand only makes our opposition stronger and more confident.

Take heed from James Baldwin’s letter to Angela Davis when she was in prison. He wrote, “if they come for you in the night and we say nothing, they’ll come for us in the morning.” We can’t hide. They are coming for us, and our silence won’t make us safe. It will actually put us in greater danger.

Second, be vigilant. Speaking up doesn’t mean running your mouth and saying whatever you feel. Being vigilant means be strategic. Be smart, follow the rules, and if you break them, break them in a way that doesn’t make you an open target, unless becoming an open target is part of your strategy.

Otherwise, you’re being reckless. And being reckless means you’re going to force someone to spend more time trying to get you out of trouble, which misdirects all of the energy we could be using to build our movement and its infrastructure.

For example, at Rutgers, students are rightly very upset over being targeted and repressed for minor infractions, while Zionist students get away with making genocidal statements without being punished. They are rightly angry and want to respond by taking on the Zionist students on campus to hold them to account.

But, in my opinion, the Zionist students are not actually the right target or even their enemy. Their primary problem is the administration. And their primary audience is other students who they can invite into their movement in order to grow their base and to grow their power.

That’s what I think of when I think of anything that we do. To begin by asking, how is this helping us grow power? And by power, I mean, how does it help us grow our base? How does it strengthen the base? How does it empower other people to come forward? How does it create an environment that’s conducive to activism?

Some people are still afraid to speak. How do you make an environment more conducive to speech? How do you grow a broad enough base that it offers cover to others to join?  Ultimately, how do you increase your influence and authority to be able to make decisions that shape your life.

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What impact do you think the South Africa genocide case at the International Court of Justice (ICJ) has had on the overall atmosphere of Palestine solidarity organizing? Is it helping us in terms of giving us more of an opening than before?

On the one hand, it’s too soon to make a studied assessment. But in general, it is a breakthrough to have a state, and not just any state, but South Africa, which has triumphed over colonialism, racism, and apartheid, bring a charge of genocide and failure to prevent genocide against Israel.

The case has affirmed arguments Palestinians have made against Israel for decades. It reformulated the struggle as not just one of Palestine against Israel, but the Global South against the Global North. And it is putting the ICJ to a test. Can it be a vehicle for justice? Or will it be disciplined by the imperialist powers that created it to absolve Israel of its crimes?

We know that the ICJ, like other international institutions, is an embodiment of colonial and white supremacist power. South Africa’s case is exposing global fault lines right before our eyes. On one side stand those like Germany and the United States in defense of Israel. On the other, stand countries with a lived experience of colonial oppression.

And what authority do the United States and Germany have in this instance? The United States has never admitted that it committed genocide against Native Americans. Germany postures as an authority on genocide, but it has only recently admitted to genocide of the Herrera Nama people in Namibia and has yet to afford any kind of meaningful reparations. So, it was wonderful to see Namibia’s government tell Germany, you are unfit to tell us what is and what is not genocide, given that you have not adequately dealt with the genocide you’ve committed against us.

South Africa’s case will put the ICJ, other UN bodies, nongovernmental organizations, and the countries and peoples of the world to a test. Palestine is the crucible of our epoch.

We’re at a moment that’s making clear that this isn’t just about Palestinians versus Israel, but about the formerly colonized against imperial powers, and even more about the world against the whole unjust order Western imperialism created. That is opening up new space for us to talk about decolonization and liberation of people throughout the world.

South Africa also provided more than just optics and reframing of the world order. It submitted an eighty-four-page application that was thoroughly documented and presented an oral argument that lasted for three hours and was absolutely brilliant. That document, oral argument, and judicial intervention provide our movement for liberation an ethical, legal, and political basis to advance.

Along with our movement, this case will put the ICJ, other UN bodies, nongovernmental organizations, and the countries and peoples of the world to a test. Will they stand for justice and liberation or occupation, colonization, and genocide? Palestine is the crucible of our epoch. ×

 


 

Noura Erakat is a human rights attorney, Associate Professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University, and nonresident fellow of the Religious Literacy Project at Harvard Divinity School. She is the author of Justice for Some: Law and the Question of Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2019), cofounding editor of Jadaliyya, and an editorial board member of the Journal of Palestine Studies.

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