McCarthyism then, McCarthyism now

Analysis: Understanding the backlash against pro-Palestinian advocacy and the high cost of our silence.
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This piece was originally published in Clarissa-Jan Lim’s newsletter, CLUBMOSS.

People throw around the word “McCarthyism” a lot, using it as a cudgel to make broad criticisms about a concept they don’t like or to demonize efforts to hold people accountable for their bad actions. But although it’s often misused, the term actually works to describe what’s happening right now. 

In the past two months, amid the enormous protests against Israel’s vicious military assault on Gaza, McCarthyism has been invoked to describe this swell of backlash against people who are advocating for Palestinian liberation. Andrew Feffer, a retired Union College professor of history who wrote “Bad Faith: Teachers, Liberalism, and the Origins of McCarthyism,” told me the comparison is fitting.

“There should always be a caution about using those comparisons, because McCarthyism is historically situated,” Feffer says. But, with the level of suppression of pro-Palestinian speech since Oct. 7, “it’s been especially concerning to me how old patterns are being revisited,” he says. 

Here’s a sampling of what’s happened so far: Pro-Palestinian student groups have been suspended, and students have been doxxed and harassed for protesting Israel’s siege. Hollywood actors have lost out on opportunities for supporting the rights of Palestinian civilians to not be indiscriminately bombed. Law firms have rescinded job offers, and a union representing public defenders was barred from releasing a statement supporting Gaza. The Harvard Law Review killed a piece framing Israel’s war on Gaza as a genocide. In Congress, Rep. Rashida Tlaib was subjected to racist comments by her peers, and then censured by her colleagues on both sides of the aisle because she — as the only Palestinian American member of Congress — dared to advocate for the liberation of her people.

“My office has received a tsunami of requests for legal help from people who have been fired, doxxed, canceled, censored and physically threatened for speaking out for Palestinian freedom. No profession is untouched.”

The same patterns are playing out in the media world. Journalists who don’t cover politics or foreign policy have been forced out of their jobs for expressing solidarity with Palestinians. Newsrooms have pulled op-eds calling for a ceasefire and articles about the censorship of Palestinian views. 

Even the most lukewarm of criticism against Israel’s actions or War as a concept has been met with disproportionate backlash and accusations of antisemitism. Palestine Legal, an organization providing legal support to people who face retaliation for advocating for Palestinian rights, said on Nov. 15 that it had fielded more than 600 requests for help since Oct. 7. “[M]y office has received a tsunami of requests for legal help from people who have been fired, doxxed, canceled, censored and physically threatened for speaking out for Palestinian freedom,” Radhika Sainath, a senior staff attorney at Palestine Legal, wrote in the Boston Review. “No profession is untouched.”

In the ’40s and ’50s, Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy launched a campaign of intimidation and persecution against people who identified as or were accused of being communists. There were congressional hearings, FBI investigations, and hundreds of criminal prosecutions. It cost thousands of people their jobs. Historians regard the McCarthy era as a period of anti-communist hysteria in which civil liberties were hugely compromised. 

Feffer pointed to three main similarities between McCarthyism then, and, well, McCarthyism now: 

Guilt by association

“If you were in the Communist Party of the United States, you were assumed to be a spy or a terrorist or a subversive, you were assumed to be disloyal, when in fact a lot of communists were not disloyal at all,” Feffer says. Although less precise, it’s similar to what’s happening today, he says: If you support Palestinians or have membership in an organization like Students for Justice in Palestine (SJP) or Jewish Voice for Peace, then you’re often automatically assumed to support Hamas, and therefore terrorism itself. 

Jinan Chehade, a Georgetown law graduate, had her job offer at a law firm rescinded the day before her October start date over her pro-Palestinian stance. She told Middle East Eye that she was called into a meeting and grilled about her involvement in SJP and her vocal support for Palestinians.

“They framed my advocacy for Palestine as supporting terrorism,” she said. “There are other attorneys at the law firm who advocated for Israeli violence and expressed support for Israel. And they were not targeted or fired or even called into a meeting to be interrogated about their comments. So, obviously the standard was not applied holistically among attorneys.”

Behavioral tests

In the McCarthyism era, people who espoused left-wing beliefs were presumed to be communists. “It roughly boils down to: If they act like communists, if they do the things that we’re obliged to think are communist or associated with the Communist Party, then they must be communists,” Feffer says. “And that was based on the assumption that certain kinds of actions or certain forms of speech are inherently communist.” 

Feffer says that during May Day parades that commemorated the struggle for labor rights, the police would send photographers to take photos so they could identify and investigate people who participated. People who talked about class struggle would also be singled out as a communist and targeted for retaliation, he says.

Today, it’s the conflation of anti-Zionism or support for Palestinians with antisemitism, he says. If someone wears a keffiyeh or marches in a pro-Palestine rally, they’re accused of being antisemitic. (A resolution introduced in the House of Representatives last week stated that “anti-Zionism is antisemitism,” a phrase that Rep. Jerry Nadler, the longest-serving Jewish member of Congress, called “either intellectually disingenuous or factually wrong.”)

“Also, this question of using certain turns of phrase, like ‘From the river to the sea’ — it means a lot of things to a lot of people. It doesn’t necessarily mean you support Hamas, it doesn’t necessarily mean you want to get rid of the state of Israel,” Feffer says. “And as Rashida Tlaib said very, very clearly, that’s not what she means. [But it] doesn’t matter how many times you deny it, they’ll still say that’s what you mean.”

The free speech exception

Advocates have long pointed to a carveout in free speech rights when it comes to advocating for Palestinians. Palestine Legal even coined the term “the Palestine exception” to describe a systematic suppression of pro-Palestinian speech:

Activists and their protected speech are routinely maligned as uncivil, divisive, antisemitic, or supportive of terrorism. Institutional actors—primarily in response to pressure from Israel advocacy groups—erect bureaucratic barriers that thwart efforts to discuss abuses of Palestinian rights and occasionally even cancel events or programs altogether.

“The assumption is that criticism of Israel is antisemitism, antisemitism is bad and should be banned, therefore criticism of Israel should be banned,” Feffer says. “During McCarthyism, it was much more broadly applied. More rights were stripped away from individuals, not just the First Amendment, but Fifth, Sixth and Fourth Amendment rights.”

This backlash against pro-Palestinian views is not new. The website Canary Mission, for example, identifies and doxxes people for criticizing Israel or voicing support for Palestinians, and it has been “blacklisting” people for years. Haaretz reported in 2018 that Americans traveling to Israel have been detained and questioned about their political activity based on their “profiles” on Canary Mission.

Ellen Schrecker, a retired Yeshiva University professor who is one of the leading historians on McCarthyism, says there have been professional repercussions for speaking up for Palestinian rights for decades, particularly in academia. “It predates Oct. 7,” she tells me, pointing to Norman Finkelstein being denied tenure by DePaul University in 2007 over his strident criticism of Israel and Steven Salaita’s job offer from the University of Illinois being rescinded because he condemned Israel’s bombing of Gaza in the 2014 war, among other examples.

No, there aren’t criminal prosecutions happening today, the FBI isn’t rounding people up, and there are no congressional hearings. But the level at which this is happening right now is extraordinary. While the anti-communist crusade unfolded over the course of two decades, Feffer says the attempt to suppress pro-Palestinian views is happening at “lightning speed.”

At the heart of it, the purpose of this McCarthyite-esque retaliation against pro-Palestinian advocacy is to coerce people into self-censorship. Its purpose is to instill fear, so that your fear becomes more powerful than your anger. It inflates the personal stakes in order to deflate the moral ones. It provides cover for the U.S. government to continue to fund and supply and endorse a genocide and for Israel to carry on with its campaign to eradicate Palestine. 

At the heart of it, the purpose of this McCarthyite-esque retaliation against pro-Palestinian advocacy is to coerce people into self-censorship. Its purpose is to instill fear, so that your fear becomes more powerful than your anger.

McCarthyism ruined livelihoods and reputations, and it had an intense chilling effect on U.S. society. Membership in labor unions and leftist organizations shrank, and political dissent was crushed. These efforts to suppress pro-Palestinian views have worked in the past, too. But what are the stakes we face here compared to the reality of terror and mass death in Gaza? Chehade, the woman who lost her job at the law firm, said in her interview with Middle East Eye that she does not regret speaking out. “How can I be silent,” she said, “when my silence — our collective silence — means life or death for the people in Gaza?”

Two days after the truce between Israel and Hamas ended on Friday, Israel killed more than 700 Palestinians in the span of 24 hours of bombing, the Gaza Health Ministry said. Israel has expanded its ground offensive and escalated airstrikes in the south, squeezing more than a million people into smaller and smaller areas. In two months, at least 40,000 people have been injured, many of them with horrific physical and psychological wounds that they will carry for the rest of their lives.

More than 15,000 people in Gaza have been killed so far — and that’s only those who officials could account for. Thousands more bodies are decomposing under the rubble right now. Thousands more will die for as long as this goes on. The cost of our silence, and our acquiescence, is too high. 

Clarissa-Jan Lim is a journalist from Malaysia, based in New York City. Subscribe to her newsletter, CLUBMOSS.