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Anatomy of a Moral Panic

by Adam Haber and Matylda Figlerowicz
The repressive machine currently arrayed against campus protests follows a familiar pattern

Ever since Columbia University sent in the New York Police Department to clear its student Gaza solidarity encampment on April 18th, pro-Palestine student encampments have proliferated around the country—and have frequently been met with violent force. State troopers were called to the University of Texas at Austin ; Atlanta police used tear gas and rubber bullets against the protesters at Emory . On Tuesday night, rows of New York City riot police stormed Columbia University and City College New York, arresting 300 people. Yet even as these scenes recall the violent police response to student antiwar protestors in 1968—and as students in Gaza, whose universities have all been destroyed, thank them for speaking up—the mainstream media has frequently justified these crackdowns as a necessary defense against lawless mobs who pose an antisemitic threat to the university.

These claims build on recent attempts to paint pro-Palestine activism as a source and expression of a novel form of antisemitism. An emblematic example is a February cover article in Time magazine by Harvard legal scholar Noah Feldman, which announced the arrival of “The New Antisemitism.” The article urged readers to pay attention to a recent surge in antisemitism and its supposed new source: the pro-Palestine left. According to Feldman, despite antisemitism historically being a right-wing phenomenon, “the most perniciously creative current in contemporary antisemitic thought is more likely to come from the left.”

Ironically, this article proclaiming its identification of a “new” phenomenon shares its exact title—and much of its argument—with a work from 50 years ago. In 1974, Arnold Forster and Benjamin Epstein of the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) published the book The New Anti-Semitism, warning of a novel form of anti-Jewish animus emerging from the left, and singling out particular groups, such as Arabs and Black Americans. Their argument conflated anti-Zionism and antisemitism. In the intervening years, over a dozen books and articles with “new antisemitism” in their title have been published. The main argument is consistent: there is a new increase in antisemitism, which has a new source—leftist social movements. Typically, the concept is revived each time Israel’s repression of Palestinians leads to another wave of international criticism: For instance, texts on the “new antisemitism” proliferated around the turn of the millennium after Israel’s reprisals following the Second Intifada prompted a global outcry and a fresh mobilization of diasporic Jewish dissent.

Despite this long history, each time, pieces like Feldman’s present the “new antisemitism” as though the term has just been coined. Indeed, they barely quote or acknowledge each other: Of pieces we reviewed on the “new antisemitism” by 40 different authors published since the turn of the 21st century, we found no references to the 1974 book. The result is a mystification of history and context—in this case, the “new antisemitism” conceals its own genealogy as a concept and thereby constructs a sense of urgency. It depends, as well, on other ahistorical accounts, such as the omission of the longstanding tradition of the anti-Zionist Jewish left. In this worldview, history is being constantly restarted, and leftist movements are posited as an ever-emerging threat.

This kind of attempt to ahistorically cast a dynamic as “new” is a common feature of a “moral panic,” a phenomenon long theorized by scholars. In fact, much of the “new antisemitism” conversation maps onto the classic features of a moral panic. The sociologist Stanley Cohen , who articulated the first theory of “moral panics” in the late 1960s, summarized their main elements in the introduction to the 2002 third edition of Folk Devils and Moral Panics:

They are new (lying dormant perhaps, but hard to recognize; deceptively ordinary and routine, but invisibly creeping up the moral horizon)—but also old(camouflaged versions of traditional and well-known evils). They are damaging in themselves—but also merely warning signsof the real, much deeper and more prevalent condition. They are transparent(anyone can see what’s happening)—but also opaque: accredited experts must explain the perils hidden behind the superficially harmless (decode a rock song’s lyrics to see how they led to a school massacre).

The discourse around the “new antisemitism” shares this three-part structure. First, the theory’s proponents acknowledge that antisemitism has a long history as a mode of hatred and discrimination. Yet there is an explicit attempt to present it as new , modifying its meaning so it can be specifically marshaled to support the Israeli state. Secondly, this “new antisemitism,” the argument goes, is bad in itself, but it is also a warning sign of other social ills—most of all, of the dangerous radicalization of the left, and of the impending rise of other forms of hate. And, finally, the rise of antisemitism is posited as self-evident, clear for anyone to understand; yet the source of antisemitism is presented as opaque, such that expert analysts of the “new antisemitism” are required to reveal the purported threats of left-wing movements.

This script recurs again and again in moments when Israel faces increased international criticism for its violence against Palestinian people. Like other moral panics, this one is a sign of a crisis—in this case, the crisis of Zionism, but also US imperialism more broadly. Now that an unprecedented number of people have joined the movement protesting US support for what many experts have classified as genocide in Gaza, it’s no surprise that the wheels of the “new antisemitism” narrative machine are furiously turning. The theory of moral panics can help us understand its mechanisms of repression.

For an analysis of how moral panics serve political functions, we can look to the 1978 book Policing the Crisis: Mugging, the State, and Law and Order by the British cultural theorist Stuart Hall and several co-authors, which examines the rising fear of mugging in 1970s Britain. At the time of their writing, “mugging” was a new word—imported to the UK from the US—applied to an age-old phenomenon of a person being stopped in the street and robbed. Hall and co-authors argued that for the urban white middle classes, mugging was a concise concept that encompassed a series of fears caused by “the changing class and ethnic composition of the cities and a shift in the whole flavour and ambience of ‘urban living.’” These changes “precipitated not only a sense of panic but also the steady movement of whites out of the city . . . and the adoption of a whole series of protective and defensive moves.” The moral panic around mugging played on an underlying racist fear already embedded in British culture combined with a newly activated feeling of threat among the white people who fled to the suburbs. A similar structure underlies the moral panic of the “new antisemitism.” This panic draws its power from the existing lore of the “Red Scare,” as well as multiple racialized stereotypes that demonize Arabs and people of color. And it is re-activated each time the Zionist project experiences an international crisis of legitimacy, which ignites a fear that, in the short term, support for Israel may evaporate.

Since moral panics require framing an already existing phenomenon as a newly emergent danger, they depend on an infrastructure of data manipulation, which is mobilized to provide ironclad evidence of the disturbing new trend. As the authors of Policing the Crisis put it:

Statistics––whether crime rates or opinion polls––have an ideological function: they appear to ground free floating and controversial impressions in the hard, incontrovertible soil of numbers. Both the media and the public have enormous respect for “the facts”––hard facts. And there is no fact so “hard” as a number.

The ADL is chief among the producers of facts undergirding the “new antisemitism.” Beginning last October, the ADL released widely broadcast visualizations and maps that purported to show a “nearly 400-percent increase” in antisemitic incidents. Yet, these maps appeared to be comprised mostly of pro-Palestine marches . Indeed, the ADL had adopted an explicit ne w policy that all Palestine solidarity activism would be included in its tallies of antisemitic incidents, even if there were no signs of anti-Jewish sentiments at the rallies or they were organized by Jewish-led groups.Even some of the ADL’s own staffers rejected this conflation of anti-Zionist protestors with the white supremacist groups responsible for the vast majority of antisemitic violence—with a senior employee labeling the reports “dishonest,” according to Slack messages obtained by The Guardian . But the damage was done: The ADL’s reports were already ubiquitous, contributing to a public sense of an explosion of antisemitism spearheaded by left-wing, Arab, and Palestinian movements.

To give the impression of “hard facts,” traditional and social media sources have also used exaggeration and falsehood, often misconstruing or outright misstating the rhetoric that is deployed at pro-Palestine rallies. For example, in separate incidents at UCLA and the University of Pennsylvania in October, protestors were accused of calling for “Jewish genocide”; the chants in question were, actually, “We charge you with genocide,” directed at Israel. While media sources eventually concluded that the protests were peaceful and not antisemitic, the reports had already incited panic. This month, as campus protesters call on US universities to divest from Israel, the same pattern is already visible. Last week, a Jewish Zionist student at Yale—editor of the campus’s right-wing newspaper—claimed that she was “stabbed” in the eye by a Yale encampment protestor with a flagpole; video of the incident appeared to reveal that the protestor had walked by waving a Palestinian flag and bumped her as she pressed up against a line of marching demonstrators. Soon after, there were reports that protestors at the Northeastern University encampment had called to “Kill the Jews,” but the phrase was quickly revealed to have been chanted by pro-Israel counter-protestors . In addition to maligning the protestors, these distortions risk emptying the word antisemitism of any meaning , and seriously hinder opportunities to analyze and discuss genuine threats to diasporic Jewish communities.

The publication of these “hard facts” sets in motion what the authors of Policing the Crisis described as a “signification spiral”—a process that culminates in calls for the group demonized by the panic to be policed. The authors explain “signification” as a process by which events are given social meaning—for example, reporters labeling an event as a “mugging” signify that a street robbery in Britain is a continuation of a law-and-order crisis in the US. This process, which “both assumes and helps to construct society as a consensus,” can take the form of a “self-amplifying sequence,” in which each wave of news about a moral panic becomes news itself: The articles point to each other, gathering steam and amplifying each other’s alarming message. The authors defined the key stages of these “signification spirals”:

(1) the identification of a specific issue of concern;
(2) the identification of a subversive minority;
(3) “convergence,” or the linking, by labelling, of this specific issue to other problems;
(4) the notion of “thresholds” which, once crossed, can lead to an escalating threat;
(5) the prophecy of more troubling times to come if no action is taken;
(6) the call for “firm steps.”

In the case of the “new antisemitism” discourse, once statistics conjure a specific threat coming from the “subversive minority” of leftists and people of color, we see a “convergence” where readers are warned that these groups threaten the current social order more generally. For example, Feldman’s piece links to an article by Jonathan Greenblatt of the ADL, which not only connects campus protests to support for terrorism, but also identifies them as a broader threat to society. To apply Hall’s framework, Greenblatt’s argument holds a “prophecy” (“We must act because . . . at some point the golden era [of Jewish safety] can end”) and calls for “firm steps” (“We need a ‘consequence culture.’ We must hold them accountable . . . America is different, and we must fight to make sure it continues to be.”) All in all, this spiral recasts social movements calling for liberation of Palestinians, together with other anti-racist and anti-colonial movements, as a threat to the current liberal democratic order.

The result is a turn to repressive law-and-order measures. We’ve seen the effects of these crackdowns: The spurious antisemitic chanting incident was explicitly invoked by Northeastern University administrators to justify calling in Boston police who then arrested 108 student protestors, and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker said the aforementioned dubious flagpole incident was part of Yale’s request to the city for police intervention on its campus, resulting in the arrest of 48 students.

In addition to producing calls for law and order, this panic serves to reinforce the dominant ideology in manifold ways. Most people, aware of the horrors of antisemitism, rightly dread contributing to anti-Jewish racism. If told they risk perpetuating antisemitism, they may opt out of engaging with the Palestinian cause altogether. For Jewish people, the “new antisemitism” panic creates a sense of imminent peril, and when people are afraid, they are more likely to endorse forms of violence and injustice that they would not otherwise support. A diasporic Jewish community afraid for its own safety may be one more likely to offer unconditional support for the genocide of Palestinian people in Gaza.

By demonizing a subversive racialized minority, moral panics offer comfort to a mainstream morality in crisis. Anyone who pays even minimal attention to the utter horror of Israel’s attack on Gaza, and keeps on supporting the state of Israel has good reason to worry about their complicity. Thus, it can be reassuring to hear that those who claim we need radical change are not only wrong, but also immoral, and that we need to stick to the established structures.

In the process, the recurring emergence of the “new antisemitism” mounts an active attack on Jewish history and memory, insisting that Jewish history happens on a timeline that constantly needs to be restarted. It is also detached from the rest of world history—the texts fomenting the “new antisemitism” panic attempt to suppress much of the shared, internationally developed language for describing injustice. For example, they consistently dismiss analyses of Israel as an apartheid and settler colonial state, or the current documentation of genocide in Gaza. The combination of the severed timeline and suppressed vocabulary creates an increasingly short and narrow perspective from which to understand the present.

Policing the Crisis reveals moral panics to be symptoms of a sudden fear that the state cannot properly rule—what Antonio Gramsci called “a crisis of hegemony,” caused either by the ruling class failing to achieve some critical aim, or the sudden emergence of a mass movement that resists the state’s actions. Hall and co-authors stressed that these panics are surface-level signs of this underlying crisis and at the same time illuminate how dissent is suppressed. In this case, the “new antisemitism” reveals a series of deepening crises faced by Israel and US imperialism, as well as the interplay between the ideological institutions of the state (the media or think tanks and advocacy organizations, such as the ADL), and its repressive institutions (campus security, police, and the threat of the National Guard). Yet as they are put into high gear, these systems reveal their violent nature, and so they risk igniting further resistance faster than they can quash it—a dynamic that has exploded in recent weeks, after the initial mass arrests of Columbia students inspired an ever-expanding wave of encampments across the US and around the world. They emerge from organizations painstakingly built over the last decades—Palestinian Youth Movement, Students for Justice in Palestine, Jewish Voice for Peace, graduate student worker unions, and so on.

It is increasingly clear that resistance to Israeli oppression, in Palestine and abroad, is too strong to be silenced. We may be seeing, as the Israeli historian Ilan Pappé has said , that “the Zionist project is entering . . . the beginning of the end.” Hall et al. emphasized that analyzing institutions of state power and how they produce popular consent is an essential starting point for fighting back—but, they warn, “we should not mistake a proto-political consciousness for organized political class struggle and practice.” In other words, the only way to challenge and overcome the ideological panic is to fight together as part of an organized political movement.

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