As the Mideast war escalates, the party’s politicians and activists are casting antisemitic incidents and progressive protests as part of a larger cultural battle over education.
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A pro-Palestinian demonstration last week at the University of California, Los Angeles. Republicans have called for campus crackdowns on such protests.
The newest front in America’s cultural battles is a war taking place thousands of miles away.
As the conflict between Israel and Hamas escalates, Republican officials, candidates and activists have expressed staunch support for Israel, offering military aid, diplomatic support and financial assistance. Yet they are also focused on combating what they portray as enemies at home: elite universities and the liberal culture they help produce.
Debates over Israel and the fate of the Palestinians have divided college campuses for decades, though never quite on this scale: violent threats against Jewish students, huge pro-Palestinian protests, doxxing campaigns sponsored by outside conservative groups and Jewish donors pulling major contributions.
Whether in the halls of Congress or the nation’s high schools, Republicans have cast these episodes as part of a larger cultural battle over education that has energized the party since the pandemic, as angst over school closures and mask policies gave way to warnings of liberal indoctrination in schools.
Conservative organizations that have spent years focused on combating critical race theory, limiting support for transgender students and policing books have waded into the domestic political unrest over the Mideast conflict. And Republican candidates have called for campus crackdowns, urging the removal of federal funding from schools that fail to investigate threats and the expulsion of foreign students who share antisemitic messages.
The message has unified broad parts of the party, including socially conservative grass-roots activists who are focused on issues like school curriculums and so-called parents’ rights, evangelical voters driven by their faith to support Israel, and the highest-ranking members of the party establishment.
At an event last Saturday in Las Vegas hosted by the Republican Jewish Coalition, a conservative political group, Republican presidential candidates described universities as incubators of a dangerous, far-left ideology.
Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida devoted a large portion of his address on Saturday to what he called the “appalling environment” at American universities, saying that diversity, equity and inclusion programs had fueled discrimination. “That’s anti-Israel, it’s anti-Jewish 100 percent if you take that to the logical conclusion,” he said.
“What it raises is how sick these universities have become because they’ve been captured by ideology,” he told nearly 1,000 conservative Jewish donors, officials and activists at the gathering. “They’ve been captured and corrupted by a woke agenda.”
ImageAt a gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition last weekend in Las Vegas, Gov. Ron DeSantis spoke about what he called an “appalling environment” at American universities. Credit…Frederic J. Brown/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Antisemitic incidents have risen for years in the United States, reaching a new high in 2022, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish advocacy group.
At times, leading Republicans have been reluctant to disown antisemitic elements within their own base. Mr. DeSantis has refused to join other Republicans in condemning a series of neo-Nazi demonstrations that have taken place in his state over the last two years.
And after the racist, antisemitic “Unite the Right” march in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017, President Donald J. Trump said there had been “very fine people on both sides.”
Last year, Mr. Trump dined with the performer Kanye West, who had already been denounced for making antisemitic statements, and with Nick Fuentes, an outspoken antisemite and Holocaust denier. The incidents outraged some of Mr. Trump’s most prominent Jewish supporters, who said they contributed to the growing tide of hate crimes against Jews.
Then the Hamas attack on Oct. 7 set off an extraordinary surge of harassment, threats and bigotry on college campuses, with high-profile incidents at universities like Cornell and Cooper Union in New York leading to waves of fear among American Jews and prompting painful and public rifts among donors, alumni, students, administrators and faculty members.
In remarks to the Senate on Tuesday, Christopher A. Wray, the F.B.I. director, said antisemitism in the United States was reaching “historic levels” and warned of increased risk of extremist attacks against both Jews and Muslims.
Threats against Jews have become a potent political issue for both parties, but they have exposed divisions among Democrats.
In one incident criticized by members of both parties, Karine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, responded to a question about the administration’s level of concern regarding increased antisemitism by saying the White House had not seen “any credible threats,” then speaking about “hate-fueled attacks” against Muslim and Arab Americans. Ms. Jean-Pierre said later that she had misheard the question.
“There is no place for antisemitism, full stop, period,” she said in remarks the next day. “We must all do our part and forcefully, forcefully speak out against antisemitism.”
ImageKarine Jean-Pierre, the White House press secretary, received criticism from members of both parties over her response to a question about the Biden administration’s level of concern regarding antisemitism.Credit…Erin Schaff/The New York Times
This week, the Biden administration said it would amplify efforts to fight antisemitism on college campuses, directing the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security to connect campus security with state and local law enforcement and expedite the processing of discrimination complaints under a statute that is intended to specifically prohibit certain forms of antisemitism and Islamophobia.
“The political leadership has been rock solid on this,” Jonathan Greenblatt, the chief executive of the Anti-Defamation League, said of the Biden administration after attending closed-door White House meetings on Monday to deliver recommendations for improving safety at schools. “They are focused on this like a laser, and they should be.”
Still, Republicans see opportunities to exploit divisions within the liberal coalition, highlighting the views of an energized left that casts the Palestinian cause as an extension of other racial and social justice movements.
They have focused on a few largely Black and Latino progressive Democrats — a “Hamas caucus,” Republicans provocatively call them — who have vocally opposed the Israeli government and voted against a House resolution last week condemning “Hamas’ brutal war against Israel” and standing with the Jewish state.
Erwin Chemerinsky, the dean of the law school at the University of California, Berkeley, said Republicans were mischaracterizing a complex, emotionally fraught issue to score political points. He has urged school administrators to exercise their free-speech rights to denounce antisemitism, but he also argues that students should be allowed free speech, even if it is offensive or hateful.
“I think trying to exploit it as part of the culture wars is inappropriate, misleading, unhelpful,” said Mr. Chemerinsky, who has himself been the subject of antisemitic conspiracy theories in recent weeks. “For many, the existence of Israel, or opposition to it, is deeply personal. None of this tracks the traditional liberal, conservative lines.”
The specter of swastikas dotting college campuses known for their liberal values has been catnip for Fox News and other conservative news outlets. These outlets have delivered a drumbeat of coverage, casting antisemitic incidents — and the cautious responses many university leaders initially put out — as symbolic of views that have overtaken not just the Democratic Party but also the nation’s higher educational system.
Matt Brooks, the president of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said the issue exposed liberal hypocrisy, arguing that university administrators valued Jewish students less than other minority groups that have been targeted in recent years.
“If the roles were reversed, and it were African American students, if it were L.G.B.T.Q. students, the university no doubt would crack down and make sure that this was a safe space for them on the college campuses,” Mr. Brooks said. “They’re not doing that for the Jewish students. And it’s absolutely outrageous.”
In his speech to the R.J.C., Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina denounced what he called “poisonous antisemitism that has been allowed to fester on the radical left in American politics,” adding that universities “had no problem” speaking up about political controversies in the past. “But now? Now that their own institutions are being used as platforms to call for genocide? Now they offer pathetic equivocation or, worse, deafening silence.”
“They seem more offended by ‘microaggressions’ than by mass murder,” Mr. Scott said. “If this were any other minority group, hear me, the far left would be screaming from the rooftops.”
ImageIn his speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina denounced what he called “poisonous antisemitism that has been allowed to fester on the radical left in American politics.” Credit…Steve Marcus/Reuters
Organizations more typically focused on issues like attacking critical race theory and transgender policies at schools have waded into foreign policy. One group, Accuracy in Media, organized trucks with digital billboards to circulate near campuses flashing the names and photos of students who have blamed Israel for the violence and labeling them “Leading Antisemites.”
Groups that have led campaigns to oust school board members and remake state curriculums have also jumped into the fray. Parents Defending Education, a conservative nonprofit organization that says it “fights indoctrination in the classroom,” started tracking incidents in which school district leadership appeared to criticize Israel.
And Moms for Liberty, a national conservative group, has warned that “progressive school administrators” are being trained at the “same universities allowing antisemitic protests.”
“The concern being where is this being bred and what role are the K-through-12 spaces playing in this indoctrination of our kids,” said Tiffany Justice, a co-founder of the group. “The schools are not giving their children practical skills, but that they’re being used to awaken this idea of a critical consciousness in the child that is meant to make them politically active. But whose politics, whose ideology?”
Representative Jared Moskowitz, a Democrat from South Florida, said Republicans were intertwining liberal views about Palestinian rights with a dangerous trend of antisemitic messaging on campus.
“I don’t think ‘kill the Jews’ has anything to do with any woke agenda,” said Mr. Moskowitz, who has accused members of his own party of being “weak” on antisemitism. “‘Kill the Jews’ is something completely separate.”
Lisa Lerer is a national political correspondent, covering campaigns, elections and political power. More about Lisa Lerer
Rebecca Davis O’Brien covers campaign finance and money in U.S. elections. She previously covered federal law enforcement, courts and criminal justice. More about Rebecca Davis O’Brien
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