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Biden Just Criticized These Protests as Antisemitic. Were They?

It seems disinformation about recent pro-Palestine protests has made it all the way to the White House.

Joe Biden speaking
Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Editor’s Note (June 20, 2024): This article originally appeared on the Breaking News vertical. Though there remains considerable dispute over the role of antisemitism when discussed in the context of anti-Zionism, we understand that many fair-minded people believe that the incidents described in this article were antisemitic. The article does not address these issues with the sensitivity and nuance that this subject requires.

Biden on Friday issued a strong condemnation of a series of “horrific acts of antisemitism” that occurred in New York City over the past week. There’s just one problem: None of the instances Biden cited were antisemitic, despite the media outrage.

Tweet Screenshot President Biden: The horrific acts of Antisemitism this week – including a demonstration celebrating the 10/7 attack, vandalism targeting Jewish homes, attacks on Jewish faculty at college campuses, and harassment of subway riders – are abhorrent. Antisemitism doesn't just threaten Jewish Americans. It threatens all Americans, and our fundamental democratic values.

Biden’s post references three events that occurred in New York City. The first was a “Day of Rage” protest by Palestinian liberation group Within Our Lifetime, in response to the killing of an estimated 274 Palestinians during a deadly operation by Israel that retrieved four hostages. The protest Monday began at Union Square before traveling to Wall Street, where the organizers criticized an exhibit recreating the wreckage of the Nova Music Festival, where on October 7, 2023, Hamas militants attacked festival goers, leaving 350 people dead. Prior to this protest, a person who had attended the exhibit described it as “a wretched and perverse experiment in grotesquery” and published widely circulated photos of notes left by other attendees rife with Islamophobic rhetoric and support for Israel’s devastation of Gaza.

Twitter screenshot @souljagoytellem: Went to an exhibit here in NYC about the Nova Festival Massacre that occurred on October 7th. The responses I found to the exhibit struck me quite strongly. With four photos of index cards reading things like "Our Unity will let us heal The Gazans are all Amalek They should be wiped off the earth"

The protest organizers decried the exhibit as manufactured consent: a display intended to elicit support for Israel’s destruction of Gaza. As part of their condemnation, Within Our Lifetime described the festival itself as “like having a rave next to a concentration camp,” eliciting cheers of agreement, followed by some demonstrators lighting smoke bombs and flares. Soon after, Manhattan Borough President Mark Levine, who had previously attended the Nova exhibit and described it as “a moving, heart-wrenching remembrance of the Oct 7 massacre” condemned WOL’s protest, saying “viscous targeting of the exhibition is not pro-peace. It is repulsive and vile. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.” WOL followed up, explaining their protest against what they described as “one of the most egregious zionist propaganda projects in our city,” writing in part, “The Nova Exhibition serves only one purpose: to make this level of colonial violence acceptable to the US public.… A recent article in TimeOut states that ‘the Nova Music Festival Exhibition seems to urge viewers to focus on what happened on October 7 and not muse over the events that preceded or came after.’”

The second incident Biden condemned—“vandalism targeting Jewish homes”—stems from vandalism against leadership at the Brooklyn Museum. The origin of the claim appears to have come from New York City Comptroller Brad Lander, who in the early hours of the morning on Wednesday posted photos of one vandalized home, writing, “Last night vandals defaced the homes of the Jewish director & several Jewish board members of the @brooklynmuseum. The cowards who did this are way over the line into antisemitism.”

Media picked up Lander’s claim, and for roughly a day all reported that the vandalism intentionally targeted Jewish board members. As Arno Rosenfeld of The Forward noted, this was not true, and he pointed to a correction by The New York Times, which initially ran an article with the claim, only to later correct with a note that almost none of the targeted members were Jewish. The anonymous vandals released a statement explaining that their vandalism was in response to the museum calling the cops on protesters during a demonstration on May 31, and named four individuals in positions of leadership at the museum and on the museum’s board of trustees.

The third incident Biden describes, “attacks on Jewish faculty at college campuses,” appears to be tied to a recent congressional hearing where notoriously pro-Israel Columbia assistant professor Shai Davidai was invited by Republican representative Jason Smith to testify about “Antisemitism, Radical Faculty, and the Failure of University Leadership.” Davidai is well known at Columbia for falsely conflating criticism of Israel with antisemitism, collaborating with student agitators against pro-Palestine protests, and having his Columbia ID card briefly suspended to keep him off campus after expressing intent to send more pro-Israel agitators to the middle of the school’s Gaza Solidarity Encampment to antagonize student protesters.

The fourth incident Biden references is perhaps the most disingenuous: Protesters filled subway cars while commuting from Union Square to Wall Street during Within Our Lifetime’s protest. As the car filled with pro-Palestine demonstrators, one protester jokingly remarked to the car, “Raise your hand if you’re a Zionist. This is your chance to get out,” a nod to the density of pro-Palestine protesters on the subway train. This remark was reinterpreted by the mayor as a threat, with calls to identify the protester and a spokesperson for the mayor stating, “Threatening New Yorkers based on their beliefs is not only vile, it’s illegal and will not be tolerated.”

Claims of antisemitism where there is little to no evidence of that being the case actively hinder the fight against antisemitism and prejudicial hate more broadly. As Rosenfeld notes, “The hair trigger tendency to take a maximalist interpretation of what is antisemitic, including glossing over some material facts, means that you can easily lose your demand for sympathy on a technicality.”

That Biden has elevated these claims speaks to either a corrupted game of outrage telephone, or intentionally disingenuous misframing to denigrate protests that rightfully criticize his policies on Gaza. Regardless, we will likely see people with an incentive to neutralize protests for Palestine leap on this opportunity, issuing a new round of policies to crack down on constitutionally protected First Amendment activity.