26 April 2024

Edward Said, the literary and social critic, faced the wrath of Zionist attacks as a professor at Columbia University. He managed to survive them but predicted that antisemitism would be further weaponised against supporters of Palestinian, and, as we are seeing today, he was right. Here is Said’s prediction along with an excellent survey of current developments from Consortium News.

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.